Israel expropriated land from an East Jerusalem Palestinian family without a tender and against the rules, then handed it over to Amana, an organization that works to establish settlements and outposts, Haaretz has learned.
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Some months ago Amana began building a large office building on the land for its headquarters. Documents submitted for an administrative petition against the land transfer reveals that the state used strenuous bureaucratic acrobatics to deliver land that didn’t belong to it.
The plan was prepared and approved without the family knowing of the expropriation. The property map was redrawn to legitimize the expropriations, and related documents were hidden from the owners. The Jerusalem District Court rejected the Palestinian family’s petition, which is being appealed to the Supreme Court.
Amana, founded by the Gush Emunim religious settlement movement in 1979, is the most important private body for establishing and expanding West Bank settlements.
The company made headlines last month after two of its executives, secretary general Zeev Hever and treasurer Moshe Yogev, were investigated over alleged corruption. The company owns Al-Watan, which has been repeatedly involved in deals buying land from Palestinian owners that turned out to be forged.
The affair dates back to 1968, when the state expropriated 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) north of Jerusalem’s the Old City in Sheikh Jarrah “for public needs.” This land became French Hill, Ramat Eshkol and a government compound. Palestinian landowners vainly challenged expropriation moves for years. The expropriations were carried out according to a state plan.
These areas included much land belonging to the Abu Ta’ah family, a Palestinian family from Lifta that now resides throughout East Jerusalem. However, one triangular, three-dunam plot bordering Israel Police headquarters was never included in any plan through the 1990s. It was in the original area that was expropriated, but not in the plan the city prepared in agreement with the state. Thus, the land was never expropriated.
Over the years, the Abu Ta’ah family tended to the plot and occasionally rented it out. Meanwhile, steps were taken secretly that led to its expropriation for Amana’s benefit.
“When the Abu Ta’ah family came to me and told me they had received a letter ordering them to evacuate this plot, it seemed illogical to me,” says attorney Steven Berman, an expropriation expert representing the family. He served 16 years as the legal adviser of the Jerusalem municipality’s property branch, and often defended the city and state against Arab families suing over expropriations.
Berman said he recalled that “in 1991, in the files of Mohammed Zaki Nusseibeh and Samir Sharaf, the Israel Lands Administration declared that the master plan included all the expropriated lands. In other words, the state announced that it had already taken all it wanted and did not demand any other lands.”
Beyond the border
Anyone looking at a map of the region map can easily see how exceptional the Abu Ta’ah plot is. There is a clear border between lands expropriated for public use – north of Clermont-Ganneau Street, the location of police headquarters, the Public Security Ministry and the Housing Ministry – and areas south of the road left in private Palestinian hands or used by the Palestinian public. Two Palestinian hospitals, an HMO clinic and private family buildings are found here. The land given to Amana lies next to St. Joseph Hospital.
The process to seize the land for Amana began in 1992, weeks into the Rabin government. It seems that before the new government could halt the process, the ILA and Amana signed a deal to give the company permission to plan the area. Moreover, according to the deal kept from the Abu Ta’ah family, Amana would get the land without a tender on condition that it prepare a building plan by July 1993. But then the plan was put in deep freeze, probably because of the left-leaning government’s attitude toward settlement organizations. A Rabin government commission severely criticized the ILA’s improper assistance to settlers in East Jerusalem.
However, the first Netanyahu government in 1997 renewed cooperation and signed a new agreement, again without the owners’ knowledge. Meanwhile, a law obliging the ILA to publish land tenders had been enacted. This impediment was bypassed by adding a clause to the agreement exempting it from requiring a tender because the state had made a commitment before the law came into effect.
The original decision to give the land to Amana was based on its commitment to move its offices to Jerusalem to stimulate employment in the capital, but the documents Amana signed indicate that it was already in Jerusalem. Moreover, its website boasts of Amana being “the only settlement movement residing in Jerusalem.”
Either way, Amana got the exemption and submitted its plan for a four-story, 70-office building in 1997. The district architect at the time, Pascual Broid, said during a discussion of the plan in the district planning board that he would accept a neutral plan suitable to the residents, but that the Amana plan was “political.”
The plan was passed over these objections, but the plot still wasn’t in state hands. So the ILA avoided signing on the plans, which were submitted without an owner’s signature, as required by law. After two requests for the owner’s signature went unanswered, the district planning board received a letter from a senior ILA official Avraham Nawi stating the plot “is included in the area to be expropriated.”
Berman, the family’s attorney, wrote in the appeal that the letter’s formula made board workers assume they had in hand an approval about state ownership. The ploy worked, and the board approved the plan based on the letter. After approval, all adjacent landowners received notice, but absurdly the Abu Ta’ah family didn’t.
The state and Amana in 2005 signed a development agreement for Amana to pay 913,000 shekels ($241,000) in land usage fees. However, the land still officially belonged to the Abu Ta’ah family. Thus, when Amana tried to register the plot in the state’s name, the land registrar refused. At this point, Nawi was again called in to write a letter that the plot would soon finally be expropriated.
At this point the state was supposed to publish an announcement about expropriating three dunams in he heart of Sheikh Jarrah as well as the reason for expropriation: building offices for a settler organization. “They would have to explain to the finance minister (signing off the expropriation) why they were expropriating, and he was liable to ask why precisely there and why precisely Amana?” says Berman. “So they had a brilliant idea.”
The idea was to redraw the zoning map and include the plot in a larger one, hoping no one would notice. Thus a new plot 31337, including government buildings north of Clermont-Ganneau Street and, uncharacteristically, the three-dunam plot south of the road, was born. The state did not dispute Berman’s assertion that the new plot is fictional, but neither did it send a bureaucrat to approve the new map.
Expropriation of the entire bloc was submitted for the signature of Yuval Steinitz, the finance minister at the time, who approved it. Four years have passed since the signing, during which Berman has repeatedly tried to receive the explanation given to Steinitz at the time of the expropriation, which is a document required by law. However, ILA and treasury officials are hard pressed to find the document. A request to the state comptroller didn’t help.
“The finance minster has a consideration about expropriating for public needs,” explains Berman. “But Amana offices by definition are not public. I have no doubt the finance minister did not know he was expropriating for Amana. Otherwise why would they hide the explanation?”
Attorney Berman has spent most of his career on the other side of the barricade. “I have nothing against expropriating lands, which is a necessary process,” he says. “But in this case they deviated from all rules. What happened here is that ILA officials inappropriately used their power to help a close political body.”
Six months ago an Amana contractor began fencing off the place. Only then did Mohammed Abu Ta’ah discover the plot was no longer his. “We knew all my life that we had this land,” Abu Ta’ah told Haaretz. “When my mother was supposed to receive her National Insurance Institute stipend, they told her she would not receive it because we have land.”
The Jerusalem District Court two months ago rejected the petition Abu Ta’ah filed. Judge Arnon Darel ruled that there were flaws in approving the plan, “as indeed presenting the detail of ownership to the local board and regional board was incomplete at the time of filing the plan – before full ownership was awarded to the state, such that the expropriation process was incomplete.”
However, he decided that because of the doctrine of “relative non-validity,” which states that even if a snag was caused during the process, it does not justify invalidating it – because of the damage to be caused by this decision – he approved it and permitted Amana to continue building.
According to Abu Ta’ah, people for years offered him compensation to yield the land, but he refused. “Why is it forbidden for us to build while they are permitted?” he asks. “They are not the owners and I am. There’s no justice.”
Hagit Ofran of Peace is not surprised that "Amana, which is an organization specializing in illegal construction on stolen land, is building its newest settlement in East Jerusalem, on private land." The worst thing, she says, is that Amana has become like "an organization that owns a state – the government did the 'dirty work' for it in turning private Palestinian land into the main headquarters of the settler organization, inside a Palestinian neighborhood.
"First they exempted Amana from the duty to hold a tender. Then they approved its building plan without it having any real rights to the land. Later the finance minister signed an expropriation in order to retrospectively whitewash the transfer of the land to Amana, and finally, today too, the state continues to fiercely guard this illegal behavior in court, instead of righting the wrongs and returning the land to its owners."
The ILA offered no response, nor did Amana’s attorney Eitan Geva.