Israeli Taxpayers Help Foot the Bill for Settlers’ Return to Amona Outpost

Yotam Berger
Yotam Berger
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Settlers at the illegal outpost of Amona, West Bank, December 16, 2018.
Settlers at the illegal outpost of Amona, West Bank, December 16, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman
Yotam Berger
Yotam Berger

A nonprofit group that is partly funded by public funds is behind last month’s construction of illegal structures at the Amona outpost, sources familiar with the group told Haaretz.

Also, a state comptroller’s report has stated that the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council tailored requests for bids so that it could funnel money to the nonprofit despite a serious conflict of interest.

The nonprofit group is called Ofek Lehityashvut, which means a horizon for settlement. One of its founders is MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi).

On the morning of December 14, dozens of settlers entered the area of Amona, which was evacuated two years ago, and put up new structures there. They said they had bought the land on which the structures had been built, but these claims have not yet been verified.

A map showing the location of Amona.Credit: Haaretz

A few days later they filed a petition with the Jerusalem District Court against their eviction. On Wednesday the court denied their petition and said there was nothing blocking the evacuation of the buildings.

Haaretz has found that the company that bought the structures was indirectly funded – through Ofek Lehityashvut – by funds from the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council. All told, Ofek Lehityashvut receives hundreds of thousands of shekels in public funds.

The company responsible for the structures is Ofek (A.T. Shaar Binyamin) Ltd., whose objective, according to its registration with Israel’s Civil Administration, is to “redeem lands” in the West Bank, a term that refers to the secret purchase of land from Palestinians and its transfer to Jews. The company is registered as a subsidiary and funded by Ofek Lehityashvut.

The attorney for Ofek Lehityashvut did not respond to a request for comment. The Civil Administration said that “he issue is known to administration officials and is undergoing a professional examination.”

Credit: Haaretz

A state comptroller’s report in 2017 was harshly critical of the way the regional council was funding Ofek Lehityashvut. The comptroller said the criteria for funding various projects were tailored so that only the nonprofit would qualify for the funding.

Indeed, in 2014 Ofek Lehityashvut was the only entity that bid on a project published by the regional council, as a result of which the council gave it hundreds of thousands of shekels – half its revenues from that year. Sources familiar with the nonprofit’s activities confirmed that the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council continued to funnel money to the nonprofit, at least until 2017.

The comptroller’s report noted that tailoring the criteria to the nonprofit constituted a gross conflict of interest because Ofek Lehityashvut’s governing body included Avi Roeh, a former Yesha Council chairman who at the time also headed the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, and Hananel Dorani, the current Yesha Council chairman. Ofek Lehityashvut’s address is an office in the Binyamin region that was registered in Smotrich’s name when he worked for the right-wing nonprofit group Regavim.

“The involvement of the regional council head and his assistant in both these nonprofits could increase concerns that the criteria set by the regional council were designed to ensure that these nonprofits would win the support in question,” the comptroller wrote.

Last month the company petitioned the Jerusalem District Court, sitting as an administrative court, asking it to issue an order to prevent the evacuation of the new structures put up at Amona.

The company made this request even though the structures were erected illegally, in a closed and delineated military zone, on agricultural land registered to Palestinian owners, and without coordination with anyone. Also, this construction contravened the High Court of Justice’s order for the evacuation of Amona, which was evacuated in February 2017.

The argument made by the settlers who put up the structures was that they had bought some 40 dunams (10 acres) from Palestinians. But a security source told Haaretz that the land in question belongs to a number of people who inherited the plot from their father, and that all the heirs would have had to agree for any part of the land to be sold.

Culture Minister Miri Regev (L) attends an inaugural ceremony of the illegal outpost at Amona, December 23, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Responding to the petition, state attorneys harshly criticized the settlers. “The structures that are the subject of this petition were built in a delineated area that it’s forbidden to enter and certainly forbidden to build on,” the state said.

“This petition should also be rejected out of hand because of the gross dishonesty,” because in their petition the settlers did not note that they had illegally put up the structures only a few days before submitting the petition. Judge Dana Cohen-Lekach rejected the settlers’ arguments and ordered that the petition be thrown out.

Also, the company submitted documents to the Civil Administration purporting to demonstrate the purchase of the land. Similar documents that were submitted in the past regarding land in Amona, as well as in other outposts, turned out to be forged. The settlers also submitted a request for a building permit that refers to Bloc 21, plot 83 in the village of Silwad. This is a 7-dunam plot, while the purchase documents refer to an area of 40 dunams.

The director of the Civil Administration’s planning bureau rejected the request immediately. She noted that the land is registered in the land registry as privately owned and that its Palestinian owner was not signed on to the building-permit request that was submitted. This is puzzling, she said, because the settlers claimed that he had signed the purchase documents.

Hagit Ofran, who heads the team that monitors settlement activity for Peace Now, said that “the new settlement in Amona, like its predecessor, is built on theft, lies and a lot of chutzpah. It exploits public resources and drags all the authorities, including the army, into having to constantly deal with the settlers’ whims.”

Last week there was even a ceremony inaugurating the new outpost attended by Culture Minister Miri Regev.

Regev, who stressed that she wasn’t entering a closed military zone, said at the event, “There’s no reason that people who bought land shouldn’t be able to use it. That’s crazy!”

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