The settlement division of the World Zionist Organization took 50 dunams (12.5 acres) of privately-owned Palestinian land that it had no rights to and in 2002 turned the land over to the illegal West Bank outpost of Ma’aleh Rehavam, south of Bethlehem, Haaretz has learned.
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The settlement division provided the land ostensibly for “planting orchards,” although the organization never had any authority over the land, according to documents obtained by Haaretz. A portion of the land, which has been used by residents of the outpost for farming, had been designated as a nature reserve.
The settlement division and representatives of the outpost declined to comment, but a source in the Israeli security forces confirmed these details.
The settlement division is considered a quasi-private entity. It operates as a branch of the WZO and is not under the direct authority of the Israeli government, but it is completely funded by the Israeli taxpayer. Its main role is to manage land in outlying areas of the country.
In reality, a large part of the settlement division’s work is focused beyond Israel’s sovereign borders, in the West Bank. The government and its agencies — and in the West Bank that means the Israeli army’s Civil Administration — allocate land to the settlement division, which is responsible for managing it. The settlement division in turn then provides it to various communities. Many West Bank settlements, in particular smaller communities, have been established in this way by the settlement division.
In 2002, Shalom Nasimi, a department head in the settlement division, sent a letter to the residents of Ma’aleh Rehavam entitled “Allocation of areas for planting.” The letter was addressed to the secretariat of the outpost, a community that has never received any official recognition from the government. The outpost regularly complains that even other settler organizations repudiate it because it was established without coordination with the Gush Etzion Regional Council or the Yesha Council of Settlements.
The letter was addressed to the secretariat of the outpost, though the settlement division knew of its illegal status. The letter informed the secretariat that the settlement division was providing the outpost 50 dunams of land for the planting of olive and almond groves and for vineyards. The letter stated the regional council had agreed to the allocation of land and that the settlement division would also request a water allocation for it. Until the additional water allocation was approved, the farmers would be responsible for securing their own water, Nasimi wrote.
Even though the letter included a map of the land in question, Haaretz consulted with a number of sources, including one in the Israeli Civil Administration, who verified that this was privately owned Palestinian land and could never have been transferred to the settlement division.
Some of the land is located in an area that, according to the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, requires the agreement of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to build on because of its designation as a nature reserve.
This is not the first time the settlement division has turned over land that it had no right to. The nine homes in the West Bank settlement of Ofra that were evacuated by court order at the beginning of the year were located on land owned by individual Palestinians. Nonetheless the homeowners had documents from the settlement division giving them control of the land and stating that the settlers had bought the land legally. Settlers said they had believed that the settlement division had authority over the land.
In November 2016, Haaretz reported that the settlement division had allocated land to the West Bank settlement of Beit Horon for 50 housing units. The land was state-owned, but it had not been turned over to the settlement division. The Israeli Civil Administration only discovered the discrepancy after the first three buildings on the site had been completed, when a request was received to connect the buildings to the electricity grid.
The practices of the settlement division were also noted in a Haaretz investigative report in March of this year that quoted a document from the office of Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber in which Zilber stated: “There are instances in which land rights have been transferred by the settlement division to third parties even though from the start it wasn’t possible to transfer the land rights."