Israeli Lawmaker Legally Got Settlement Land for Home, but Built It Elsewhere, Illegally

Bezalel Smotrich won’t comment, neither will government.

Was MK Bezalel Smotrich's house in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim built on private Palestinian land?
Olivier Fitoussi

MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) legally received a plot to build his home in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim and took out a mortgage on that land, but then built his house illegally on a different piece of land in the settlement.  The original, mortgaged plot is still empty and has never been built on.

Smotrich, a deputy speaker of the Knesset, lives in a house that was built illegally and may be located on private Palestinian land. He and his wife Revital received the plot from the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization and took out a mortgage on it in 2004 from Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank. The Smotriches mortgaged plot No. 759 in Kedumim in order to build a house, but today the plot lies empty. Their house was built, as Haaretz revealed last week, at the other end of the settlement on land that is not state land and lies outside the boundaries of the town’s master plan. This land could never have been allocated by the WZO. The original plot is inside the borders of the master plan and has planning permission for construction of a house.

The mortgage was given based on the official documents provided the bank by “WZO, the Kedumim Economic Corporation and the relevant authorities,” an official aware of the details of the mortgage told Haaretz. The mortgage loan was a regular state-subsidized one based on the young couple’s government-funded mortgage rights, the official added. The official said that as far as was known, no oversight was conducted on where the house was built or whether the Smotriches had rights to build.

The settlement division confirmed they allocated plot 759 to the Smotriches. Planning officials confirmed that no building was ever built on the land approved in the master plan. Haaretz visited the site and also confirmed that the plot was empty.

The settlement division said Smotrich did not pay for the land he received legally, which is common in such settlements. “The settlement division does not charge money for allocating/registering contractual rights for land in the communities in which it manages the [land] rights registry,” said the WZO.

The settlement division said that on July 1, 2004, the Smotriches were registered as owners of the plot of land, which is located with the boundaries of the master plan dated September 18, 1996.

Keeping mum

As for Haaretz’s questions on whether the division had examined if the Smotriches had built a house on the land or if it knew that in practice they built elsewhere illegally, representatives of the settlement division declined to answer.

Aerial photographs from the 1970s, 1990s and early 2000s show that as opposed to non-arable, rocky land that was declared state land, the land on which the buildings in question were built was cultivated. Aerial photos in the possession of the Israeli left-wing NGO Kerem Navot, which researches national land policy, show cultivation in the area until 2002, which could indicate that the land was privately owned by Palestinians. In 2004, construction seems to have started there. Smotrich lives on Ish Yeminkha Street, in the Rashi Hill section of the veteran northern West Bank settlement, which is lined with pretty one-story stone houses. A number of houses on this street, including Smotriches, were built illegally.

“It’s not surprising to find the settlement division here again, a body that has been involved in endless small frauds under the aegis of the state, behind which is a harsh and stubborn criminal culture,” said Dror Etkes of Kerem Navot.

Smotrich’s bureau did not respond to Haaretz’s questions on this report. Among the questions was whether Smotrich knew that the land allocated to him was in a completely different place from where he built his house. Government ministries did not respond to queries as to how oversight of mortgages is carried out. The Construction and Housing Ministry referred Haaretz to the Finance Ministry, the Finance Ministry referred it to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Justice Ministry, and the latter referred it back to the Finance Ministry.