Overstepping Authority, State Body Advances Illegal Israeli Settlement Construction in West Bank

Although it’s financed with public funds, the division is not a regular government agency; as a subordinate of the World Zionist Organization, it isn’t subject to government transparency rules.

Settlers watch as bulldozers demolish houses in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, March 1, 2017.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization illegally advanced the construction of settlements on land that it had no authority over, including private Palestinian land, without the knowledge of the Defense and Justice Ministries, according to documents obtained by Haaretz.

Despite recurring criticism of the division’s modus operandi, it continued to seize and distribute land illegally in recent years.

The Settlement Division has for years been the government’s executive arm for construction in the West Bank, as well as in the Negev and the Galilee, until its activities were restricted recently. Although it’s financed with public funds, the division is not a regular government agency; it is directly subordinate to the WZO and thus isn’t subject to government transparency rules. The government budgets tens of millions of shekels for the division every year, and then transfers additional tens of millions to it during the year's course. The division has also played a major role in setting settlement policy in the West Bank.

Illegal land allocations

In February 2015, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber wrote an opinion decrying the division’s policymaking, which she said should rest solely with the government, and recommended the government cease funding it. Three months later, in a document recently obtained by Haaretz, Zilber sharply criticized the way the division operates in the West Bank. This document was a summary of discussions with senior Treasury, Defense Ministry, Housing Ministry and Civil Administration officials, indicating that these government bodies were well aware of the problems.

The document describes a host of Settlement Division improprieties, but the most interesting one appears in Section 6. “There are instances in which land rights were transferred by the Settlement Division to third parties, even though from the start it wasn’t possible to transfer the land rights for a variety of reasons, such as: The rights were transferred for land that hadn’t been allocated to the division, or was private Palestinian land, or land the government didn’t own,” the document states.

She said that over the years, the division had transferred rights to between 400,000 and 500,000 dunams to third parties without anyone in the government knowing or checking how much was transferred, the nature of the transferred rights, whether there had been any payment for the transfers and the identity of those receiving the land. Zilber also demanded clarifications from the government and Civil Administration regarding who supervised the division and how its lands were registered, but those documents never reached her. In January, after she came under criticism from right-wing elements, among others, for her position on the Settlement Division, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit transferred some of Zilber’s responsibilities to other deputies.

Haaretz has found a number of instances where settlers built their homes on Settlement Division-allocated land that it had no right to allocate, making them illegal construction. At the end of last year Haaretz reported that 50 homes in the settlement of Beit Horon were built on land that had never been given to the division in the first place. The situation came to the attention of the Civil Administration after most of the apartments had already been sold and prepared for residents to move in, when a request to connect the structures to the electrical grid was submitted. Civil Administration officials were incensed, but were able to retroactively legalize the homes because they were built on state land. The administration says that it summoned division representatives to discuss Beit Horon, but they never came. Yuval Ponak, the division’s central district director, denied receiving such a summons.

In a recent Peace Now report that deals with how illegal outposts are built in the West Bank, there are a number of other cases in which the Settlement Division allocated land which was not under its jurisdiction. One such case was the nine houses in Ofra that were evacuated last week. Some residents of those homes told Haaretz that the land had been given to them by the Settlement Division, which misled them into believing their homes were legal – although they’d been built on private Palestinian land.

A source close to the Settlement Division categorically denied that it had allocated land for the nine homes in Ofra. But documents submitted by several residents to the court in their petition against the demolition of their homes show that the plots had in fact been allocated by the division.

Some of the residents expelled from Amona also claim that the Settlement Division allocated them lands in the outpost, even though it was actually under private Palestinian ownership. In a debate on the outpost legalization bill in the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee in November, the outpost’s rabbi, Yair Frank, said, “I bought a house in Amona and I got a mortgage on it from the Housing Ministry. During the home purchase and mortgage process I also got a usage permit form [from the Settlement Division].” Frank explained that he thought he was settling in the outpost legally, since the permit had been given to him by an agency directly connected to the government. Other sources connected to the outpost confirmed that such usage permits were issued for at least some of the Amona plots.

A source close to the Settlement Division told Haaretz that if the division had allocated land to settlers without authority, then it was a mistake. The reason, he said, is the way that state lands are defined. He noted that West Bank lands are being reexamined by the “Blue Line" team in the Civil Administration, which is updating the maps there and sometimes reclassifying tracts that had previously been listed as state land. “In the 1980s the maps weren’t digitized, they were drawn in pen,” the source said. “There are hundreds of homes in the territories that the Blue Line team subtracted after the fact.”

“This is no way to work,” said one Israeli who was allocated private land in this manner. “There’s some kind of confusion here by the state, which doesn’t make itself clear, and this results in confusion in the Settlement Division. No one gave me permission to build on the land, and building permits, and sold me a house believing it would be demolished. I have no complaints against the division, I only hope that they take responsibility. It can’t be that I should bear the financial burden.”

But claims of mistakes or confusion are weak given the actual maps. In Amona, for example, there’s a considerable distance between the state lands and the area where the demolished homes were illegally built. Zilber’s document distinguishes between unauthorized allocations and land that was delisted as state land by the Blue Line team.

Hagit Ofran of Peace Now certainly isn’t impressed by the claims. “For years the division does what it pleases with land in the territories. It misleads not just the public but the settlers themselves,” she said. “What’s serious is that the government knows this and instead of fighting the phenomenon and investigating those responsible, it strengthens the status and budget of the division.”

The Settlement Division did not respond to this report by press time.