Israeli Settlement Agency's Activity Still Shrouded in Mystery After Yearlong Probe

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The West Bank settlement of Efrat is seen on September 1, 2014. Credit: AFP

The Prime Minister’s Office committee responsible for regulating the work of the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division has yet to present its conclusions, even though they were due months ago.

Among the things this committee was to determine is which West Bank lands had been allotted to the division and which of those had been transferred to third parties. Sources involved in the committee’s work told Haaretz that even after months of deliberations, no one yet knows which lands have been allocated by the division to third parties. Earlier this month Haaretz revealed a Justice Ministry document indicating that the division had allocated lands to third parties that it was not authorized to transfer, including privately owned Palestinian lands.

In February 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a committee headed by his office’s director-general, Eli Groner, which was meant to make order in a number of areas involving the Settlement Division, an agency that manages lands for the state, including hundreds of thousands of dunams in the West Bank. The committee was formed following a scathing legal opinion about the division written by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, who froze its activities.

In May 2015, after the opinion was published, a different committee was set up, also headed by Groner, to formulate government policy with regard to the Settlement Division. That committee, however, never published its conclusions, after the Habayit Hayehudi party sponsored a bill and cabinet decision that enabled the Settlement Division to resume its work in a restricted fashion. The Prime Minister’s Office said at the time that the bill and the decision were based on that committee’s work. A source familiar with the details, however, told Haaretz that in fact, Habayit Hayehudi had promoted the bill and the decision in an effort to achieve things that the committee would have blocked.

After the bill was legislated and the cabinet decision passed that enabled the government to assign certain responsibilities to the Settlement Division, the second Groner Committee was established. This was because the law did not regulate all the problematic aspects of the Settlement Division’s work; among other things, it did nothing to counter the fact that no one knew how much land had been assigned to the Settlement Division and where, or which lands the Settlement Division had allocated further.

The Prime Minister’s Office said that the responsibility for those issues that were not cleared up by the first committee, the law, and the cabinet decision was given to the second committee to deal with. Netanyahu ordered the committee to make its recommendations within 180 days, and in September of last year it was given another 90 days. Three months after the second deadline, the recommendations have yet to be submitted.

A source involved in the committee’s work said that while the committee and its subcommittees had met several times, there was still no document clarifying which West Bank lands had been allocated to the Settlement Division over the years. The source added that beyond that, no one knows to this day which lands the Settlement Division has allocated to third parties.

This is especially serious because back in May 2015, before the first committee had been established and when the authority to deal with Settlement Division issues was still in her hands, Zilber had demanded a series of documents from various government ministries so she could probe the seemingly improper ties between the government and the Settlement Division. In a letter obtained by Haaretz that was sent to senior officials in various ministries, Zilber requested documents from the Civil Administration that would clarify which lands had been allocated to the Settlement Division and documents from the treasury that would clarify the budgetary consequences of transferring management of these lands back to the government.

A number of sources familiar with the committee’s work said that these documents were never drawn up and were never sent either to Zilber or to the committee that ostensibly was meant to follow through on her work. The Justice Ministry confirmed that the documents Zilber requested were never received.

The Prime Minister’s Office said that the committee had submitted “preliminary conclusions” to the Justice Ministry, and that it was working continuously to formulate orderly recommendations. The Justice Ministry, however, did not confirm that preliminary conclusions had been received.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in response, “The committee to examine land management in the rural sector in Judea and Samaria was appointed in February 2016 by the prime minister. The letter of appointment stated that the committee was to formulate recommendations within 180 days, and the recommendations would be brought to be examined by the attorney general, and subject to his approval would be brought to the cabinet for approval.

“On September 11, 2016 the prime minister extended the timetable for the committee to submit its recommendations by 90 days. The committee held numerous meetings, both as a full committee and as sub-teams, and presented the main points of its preliminary recommendations to the deputy attorney general. The matter is now being examined by the Justice Ministry, and when it finishes [the recommendations] will be brought, subject to the approval of the attorney general, to the cabinet to approve.”

The Justice Ministry said, “The director-generals’ committee on settlement issues that was appointed on May 19, 2015 was dissolved without submitted recommendations to either the attorney general or the cabinet. The second director-generals’ committee to examine land management in the rural sector in Judea and Samaria that was appointed on February 3, 2016 has yet to complete its work.”

Asked whether the second Groner committee had ever submitted “preliminary conclusions” as the Prime Minister’s Office said, the answer was, “There were internal consultations about various legal aspects of the team’s work, based on work papers that were prepared. Beyond that, the address for all inquiries is the Prime Minister’s Office.”

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