Israeli Defense Minister OKs Addition of West Bank Church Compound to Settlement Bloc

The property at Gush Etzion was purchased by U.S. businessman Irving Moskowitz, a high-profile supporter of the settlements.

A West Bank property once owned by a church that was later bought by a right-wing American Jew will become part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has decided.

If the compound is populated, settlers would help consolidate their hold on Gush Etzion’s south.

The property’s purchase by U.S. businessman Irving Moskowitz, a prominent supporter of the settlements, was first reported by Haaretz in May.

The property consists of eight buildings on a 40-dunam (10-acre) lot. It is located on Route 60 between Jerusalem and Hebron, opposite the Al-Aroub refugee camp. Originally built by an American missionary in the 1940s, it first served as a tuberculosis hospital and later as a hostel for pilgrims.

But a few years ago the Presbyterian church group that owned it fell into financial difficulties and decided to sell it. Gro Faye-Hansen Wenske, a Norwegian Christian who is a supporter of the settlements, then set up a company in Sweden that portrayed itself as a church group.

The company, Scandinavian Seamen Holy Land Enterprises, offered to buy the property from the American owners, saying it planned to restore the church and resume its operations. The sale was completed in 2010 and duly registered with Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank.

In 2012, the Swedish company announced that it was going out of business and sold the property to an American organization controlled by Moskowitz.

That organization, the American Friends of the Everest Foundation, is mainly active in East Jerusalem, where it specializes in buying property from Arabs and then encouraging Jews to move in. Its local partner in this activity is Aryeh King, a Jerusalem city councilman and long-time activist in right-wing causes.

Moskowitz’s organization posted guards at the church compound and, about a year ago, began renovating the buildings. But the new owner’s true identity was kept secret, including from the Israel Defense Forces.

Palestinian workers employed to do the renovations said they were told the owner was a Norwegian who sought to restore the church to its former condition. The same story was given to the army.

After Haaretz reported on these events, the Civil Administration briefly ordered the work stopped. But it soon decided it had no grounds for halting the renovations if no changes were made to the building’s exterior.

Haaretz’s report that the new owner planned to turn the compound into a settlement spurred politicians from both left and right to visit it, and Palestinians staged demonstrations against the project.

The property is located just outside the boundaries of the Gush Etzion region. The local council therefore asked Ya’alon to approve adding it to the municipality’s jurisdiction.

Ya’alon has agreed to this request, and the military commander in the territories signed off on the order. This means the property is now officially part of the settlement bloc.

It also suggests that families can move in immediately, since the eight buildings on the site were built decades ago and require no construction permits. In contrast, any plans for additional construction that might be submitted in the future would require permits.

Representatives of the new owner say there is no plan to let families move into the buildings, with the goal being to open a hostel that will serve Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

But information obtained by Haaretz indicates that the property is intended to become a settlement.