The World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division has provided dozens of loans over the past two decades to fund the establishment of unauthorized Jewish outposts and farms across the West Bank, an investigation by Haaretz has revealed. Documents obtained by Haaretz show a pattern in which settlers have established farms and unauthorized outposts over the past 20 years with loans from the Settlement Division — financed entirely through taxpayers' money and frequently secured by liens on agricultural equipment or livestock. The World Zionist Organization refused to respond for this article.
By cross-referencing maps at the offices of the Israeli Civil Administration for the West Bank with the names of individuals who have obtained mortgages, along with their places of residence and the year in which the loan was granted, it becomes apparent that the division repeatedly gave loans to people who were establishing unauthorized outpost, and did so during the period when the outposts were being set up. In most cases, the collateral for the loans were assets associated with the land on which the outposts were built, such as a flock of sheep, a chicken coop or agricultural equipment.
The Haaretz investigation was based on dozens of documents relating to mortgages pertaining to 26 outposts across the West Bank. These included large outposts such as Amona, which has since been evacuated. Mortgage financing was also provided for illegal structures in authorized settlements such as Yitzhar; and for the Havat Har Sinai, Einot Kedem and Shkedim farms.
The first of the loans that Haaretz identified were provided in the mid-1990s. The most prominent of them was to Avri Ran, a well-known right-wing activist who established a string of outposts at Gva'ot Olam on the hills adjacent to Itamar. In the first of the loan agreements with him, he provided a chicken coop as collateral. He also mortgaged what was described as Havat Itamar, the Itamar farm, for a loan from Bank Leumi in the mid-1990s.
There is a chicken coop and an agricultural plot at Gva'ot Olam, but the sites were never authorized for settlement. According to maps at the Civil Administration, at last 12 demolition orders have been issued against Gva'ot Olam. Some of the land on which these outposts were built is state land and some of it appears on the maps as not owned by the state.
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The granting of the loans continued beyond the 1990s to the present decade. In 2014, for example, the World Zionist Organization Settlement Division granted a loan to the Yitzhar settlement to establish a flour mill. According to aerial photos, the location in Yitzhar where the mill is located is subject to three demolition orders.
The Settlement Division is an anomaly. It is not under the government's direct authority. From an organizational standpoint, it is an arm of the World Zionist Organization, but all of its funding comes from the Israeli taxpayer. Officially, its role is to establish rural communities in Israel. It operates in the Galilee, the Negev and in the West Bank.
In 2015, its operations were suspended after Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber issued a legal opinion in which she stated that the division had been acting as a policy-setting entity and not only as an outside agency that carried out government policy.
“This situation has created a significant flaw in government's capabilities to govern in that it has hampered the effectiveness of the government to set its own policies in settling the land,” Zilber wrote. A year later the state signed an agreement with the division that was to have provided the necessary oversight. The division then resumed its operations.
Over the past 20 years, the division has provided dozens of loans to individuals who have established unauthorized outposts, according to documents obtained by Haaretz. At the Havat Shkedim outpost, the Settlement Division took 130 sheep as collateral for a loan. Dalia Har Sinai, a resident of Havat Har Sinai, received a loan from the division secured by a flour mill, a freezer, a packaging machine, a compressor and a piece of agricultural equipment. A portion of Havat Har Sinai, where the Civil Administration has issued three demolition orders, is on state-owned land and some is not. In the late 1990s, the Settlement Division granted the founder of the unauthorized outpost of Havat Talia a loan secured by sheep and lambs, a generator, a sunshade and a fence.
The founders of the unauthorized outpost of Havat Skali received a loan in 2001 secured by a livestock pen and 100 head of sheep. Havat Mor, which was also set up without government authorization, received loans in 1999 and 2002. The founder of the Givat Hatayas outpost at Itamar, Yedidya Meshulami, who operates a landing strip there, received a loan in the early part of the last decade, despite the fact that Givat Hatayas was established without official permission.
In 2003, a resident of Amona received a loan secured by a home mortgage, but the land on which the home was built was never owned by the loan recipient and the loan was given in violation of the law.
Dror Etkes of the left-wing group Kerem Navot, which fights the dispossession of Palestinians of their West Bank land, said the Settlement Division’s methods have provided a means of providing large-scale financing for illegal outposts. “It’s been obvious for years that the division has adopted unlawful patterns of operation after assuming the role of contractor carrying out the dirty work that state authorities have tried to distance themselves from having direct responsibility for. The documents show systematic and continuous unlawful conduct intended to support the most extremist and violent elements among the settlers, people who are responsible for the expulsion and expropriation of Palestinian communities from wide areas of the West Bank.”
The documents show that some illegal outposts received loans from private banks. In some cases, equipment or vehicles were provided as collateral, while for others flocks, a generator, a shed or a fence were the security interest for the loan. In some cases, the land itself was mortgaged, such as at Mitzpeh Kramim, even though the recipients of the loan had no legal ownership over the land they were mortgaging.
As a rule, banks do not provide mortgage financing to establish unauthorized outposts, which are considered illegal under Israeli law, but the founders of outposts have sometimes obtained bank loans. In at least one instance, a bank loan was provided after the World Zionist Organization Settlement Division provided the bank with documents stating that land belonged to individuals seeking the mortgage, even though that was not the case.
Sources at two different banks told Haaretz that their banks would receive a request for a loan and then approach the Settlement Division for approval. The division would confirm that the applicants were owners of the land or were legally working it. The loan was then approved by the bank. “The bank’s attitude to the division was as if it were the Israel Land Authority for the territories,” said one source.
The Israel Land Authority does not operate in the territories, but the Settlement Division is not its proxy there. Determining who owns the West Bank land requires consulting the land registry maintained by the Civil Administration — which is generally classified. The Settlement Division does not have such a registry and is not an official government entity.
This isn’t the first time Haaretz has revealed that the Settlement Division has funneled public funds to establish unauthorized outposts in the territories. Last month it was reported that the division purportedly transferred ownership to settlers at Mitzpeh Kramim even though the state had found that the land was privately owned Palestinian and had been mistakenly allocated to the division.
Last year it was reported that the division had taken control of 50 dunams of private Palestinian land and given it the outpost of Ma'aleh Rehavam, purportedly for tree planting, although the division had no rights to the land. In 2017 there were other instances in which the division handed out land to settlers — at Ofra, Amona and Beit Horon, among other locations — without having legal rights to it itself.