Jewish National Fund Pushes Forward Plan to Legalize West Bank Land Purchases

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Hagar Shezaf
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The West Bank settlement of Efrat, last month.
The West Bank settlement of Efrat, last month.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

The management of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund approved on Sunday a plan allowing it to buy land in the West Bank even for isolated settlements.

The decision of the organization, which is also known by its Hebrew name Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and which is separate from JNF-USA in the United States, still requires approval from the board of directors, which is set to convene April 22.

Two sources who attended the executive committee meeting said KKL-JNF World Chairman Avraham Duvdevani wants to vote next Sunday on a different proposal that would apply the new policy retroactively to several controversial land purchases that have already been made. These purchases were the focus of a report by attorney Yehoshua Lemberger about the way KKL-JNF bought West Bank lands behind the board’s back.

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The purchases were made by KKL-JNF subsidiary Himnuta Jerusalem. Since 2017, Himnuta has spent around 100 million shekels ($30 million) buying West Bank land.

The money was evidently diverted from the budget earmarked for buying land in “Jerusalem and the periphery,” without this fact being reported to the relevant KKL-JNF institutions. The purchases were first revealed by journalist Raviv Drucker.

The decision the executive committee approved in a six to five vote Sunday was described by one committee member as “worse than the previous version.” It calls for KKL-JNF to adopt a legal opinion by former Judge Joseph Elon stating that the organization may operate in the West Bank to promote forestation and community and educational projects.

The previous decision said the committee would hold another discussion of the issue, in part to decide which areas should be prioritized for buying land. Moreover, it explicitly ruled out purchases in the Nablus and Jenin districts, which have few settlements and are far outside any Israeli political consensus, whereas the latest decision includes no such prohibition.

At its next meeting, the committee is slated to discuss some amendments to the decision, but center-left members termed them “minor.”

A group of progressive American Jewish organizations said it was “deeply troubled” by the prospect that the JNF-KKL was moving toward making “Palestinian dispossession into its policy.”

The Progressive Israel Network said in a statement it was “hopeful that JNF-KKL’s general voting body will reject the decision to participate in settlement expansion when the decision comes to a final vote” April 22. 

The group, a coalition of seven organizations that includes J Street and the New Israel Fund, said in the statement that “buying land to expand West Bank settlements is antithetical to Israel’s future as a democracy, and only serves to entrench occupation and to make the lives of Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line less safe.”

Americans for Peace Now expressed outrage at the decision. President and CEO Hadar Susskind said: " JNF funds, collected in synagogues, schools, and Jewish homes worldwide, should not be used to further entrench the occupation and thereby undermine the founding values of the State of Israel, nor should they be used to betray the values of world Jewry."

Labor Party's Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who until recently served as head of Israel’s Reform Movement and on the board of the World Zionist Organization, accused rightist members of the executive committee of perpetrating a “dangerous maneuver on an issue with political, diplomatic and security implications” without a proper investigation of its legality or consultation with defense and foreign policy experts.

“The fact that this was done immediately after the election and before a government was formed merely strengthens the feeling that KKL’s current leadership seeks to turn the organization into another long arm of the settlement movement,” he added.

In his audit report from August, Lemberger criticized former KKL-JNF Chairman Danny Atar for not reporting the West Bank transactions to the executive committee even though he knew about them, because the issue “hadn’t penetrated his consciousness.” The report identified the people responsible for making and concealing the purchases as Arnan Felman, a member of the current executive committee; Nachi Eyal, who formerly served on the boards of both Himnuta and KKL-JNF; and Himnuta CEO Alex Hefeitz.

“Throughout the relevant period, which lasted more than a year,” Lemberger wrote, only two members of the board – Felman and Eyal – “knew the whole picture, while the others were kept blind, in darkness, and knew nothing about what was happening.”

Ben Samuels contributed to this report.

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