Israel Recruited the Jewish National Fund to Secretly Buy Palestinian Land for Settlers

Haaretz reveals details of a series of deals carried out by Himanuta, a Jewish National Fund subsidiary, in the West Bank, one of which involved the Defense Ministry. The Bakri house in Hebron, for example, was bought for settlers who had squatted there, and other deals too reflect behavior both problematic and questionable

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Gif:A Jewish National Fund donation box with lines extending to the West Bank
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

The Defense Ministry recruited the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) to purchase hundreds of dunams of private, Palestinian-owned land in the West Bank for settlers who worked the land while its owners were denied access to it, according to documents examined by Haaretz. In addition to that transaction, an investigative report by Haaretz reveals the details of other secret land purchases that were made by Himanuta, a JNF subsidiary, which concealed them from the JNF’s board of directors.

Documents seen by Haaretz reveal a series of such deals made by Himanuta in 2018-2019, including the purchase of properties for settlers who had squatted in them more than a decade earlier, various irregularities in the purchase procedures, and cases in which the reliability of documents involved in the acquisitions appears highly questionable. The details of these transactions had previously appeared only in internal reports.

One of the documents dealing with the land purchases, the Yahav Report, compiled by attorney Dina Yahav, is from January 2020. This detailed report was commissioned by the JNF after the controversial deals carried out by Himanuta in the West Bank became public knowledge, following publication by Channel 13 journalist Raviv Drucker. Another document is a report drawn up by former deputy state prosecutor Yehoshua Lamberger. Whereas the Yahav Report examines the transactions themselves, the Lamberger Report, which was also first reported by Drucker, is about the way Himanuta Judea-Samaria entered into deals behind the board’s back.

According to the Lamberger Report, two board members who are identified with the right, Arnan Felman and Nachi Eyal, exceeded their authority when they set policy for the purchase of land in the West Bank and allegedly issued instructions to divert a budget that was allocated for the Israel-based Himanuta. The report also asserts that a number of professional personnel in the JNF who took part in the land purchases had conflicts of interest. “It may be presumed that if the activity had been carried out with due and proper transparency vis-à-vis the institutions of the JNF and Himanuta,” the report states, “the purchases in Judea-Samaria – certainly on the scale and in the places where they were carried out – would not have been made.” The JNF maintained that this was a draft report and that those mentioned in it had not yet provided their responses.

JNF board member Arnan Felman.

Together, the Yahav and Lamberger reports complete a picture depicting the transactions in the West Bank, the way in which JNF board members and employees who are identified with the political right acted to purchase land in the territories, and the involvement of other right-wingers as service providers. A partial list includes Oved Arad, who was previously active in the right-wing organization Regavim and is currently Himanuta’s coordinator for Judea and Samaria; attorney Boaz Arazi, Regavim’s legal adviser and the notary in some of the transactions; and attorney Avi Segal, who often represents settler nonprofits but whose path has also intersected with Himanuta over the years – for example, he won an external bid, together with attorney Yahav herself, to represent the company in West Bank contractual agreements.

The JNF board has not yet discussed these reports. Recently, members of the opposition factions in the JNF demanded that another report – which they say was compiled by an accountancy firm and examined the economic aspect of the transactions – be made available to them. In a message to the board sent this past April, they wrote that the report had not yet been submitted to the board or to the executive committee.

Currently, Himanuta’s transactions in the West Bank are on hold, though the payments for some of them have already left the organization’s coffers. Exceptions to the suspended status are operations that are “essential to preserve the JNF’s interests,” according to the inspection by an external ombudsman, which was appointed in April at the request of members of opposition factions and recently submitted its recommendations. The committee also recommended that the six transactions already underway be completed.

The reason for the freeze lies with the JNF’s gatekeepers, who include the internal auditor Yoram Shviro, the former legal consultant Nadav Asael and the special legal consultant Yosef Alon. They learned about the cases, put a halt to the transactions and started to investigate. Recently, as reported in Haaretz, JNF Chairman Avraham Duvdevani planned to submit the purchases to the organization’s management for approval.

Haaretz is revealing the details of four such transactions – one of them, according to JNF documents, involving Defense Ministry personnel. As of now, the board vote on the deals and JNF’s policy on West Bank transactions in general, has been postponed owing to international and local pressure on the JNF.

1. Date grove, Jordan Valley

Adjacent to the settlement of Hamra in the northern Jordan Valley there is a plot of land covering more than 1,000 dunams (250 acres), most of which is planted with groves of date palms, whose fruit is intended for export. The land’s Palestinian owners have been denied access to it for 50 years, as it was closed off by military order and lies east of the security fence along the Jordanian border. However, during these decades the area was not completely sealed. It was opened – unofficially – to settlers, who tilled the soil and cultivated the date groves.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition of some of the Palestinian heirs to the land against its closure to them and its transfer for the settlers’ use. A year later they petitioned the court again, this time against the original Israeli army order denying them access to their land. The court is currently considering this petition. According to a number of JNF documents, over the past few years, in the light of the second petition and at the request of the Defense Ministry, Himanuta has acted to assist the defense establishment to address the allegations made in the petition – and to purchase the land. “To extricate them from the mess,” as a source who was aware of the transaction in real time put it. The Defense Ministry stated in response to Haaretz’s query that it was not a party to any land transaction mentioned in the article.

According to the Yahav Report, Himanuta officials termed the transaction “land redemption in the Jordan Valley.” That approach – “redemption of the land” – also came up, they maintain, in correspondence with the former assistant to the defense minister for settlement affairs, Kobi Eliraz. This key post in the Defense Ministry, from the settlers’ perspective, has been held in recent years by their people.

In August 2018, even though the parties involved knew that a court petition had been submitted at the beginning of that year, Himanuta secretly signed an agreement to purchase the land in stages. According to the Lamberger Report, in this case, contrary to other transactions that were examined, the JNF world chairman at the time, Danny Atar, knew about it. Nevertheless, the report states, he chose not to update the board or the executive committee, some of whose members represent Meretz and other left-wing parties.

The Palestinian owners have been denied access to the land for 50 years, as it was closed off by military order. However, it was accessible – unofficially – to settlers.

There are many heirs to this Jordan Valley land. However, the attorney who represented them before the High Court of Justice did not know that Himanuta, according to the Yahav Report, had negotiated with a Palestinian seller on an agreement to purchase the entire area in stages. Nor did he know that an agreement had been signed, in which the seller had undertaken that he was the owner of the land or was in a position to obtain the rights to it. Further, the attorney also had no idea that by that time Himanuta had already purchased 311 dunams of the approximately 1,000 dunams for 21.8 million shekels (about $6.6 million), which was placed in escrow and then released to the seller.

The funding for the Himanuta transactions in the West Bank described here comes from a budget originally earmarked for purchases “in Jerusalem and the periphery.” The long arm of Himanuta, however, brought it to the West Bank and the Jordan Valley – and specifically, to the date groves.

A document seen by Haaretz recounts a meeting that took place in late 2019 with the participation of a number of senior officials from Himanuta, including the official responsible for Judea and Samaria, Oved Arad. According to the document, at the conclusion of the meeting, participants remarked on their concern that if the second stage of the date groves deal, encompassing 200 dunams, is not executed, “it will get to the media.”

Former JNF World Chairman Danny Atar.

In another meeting, held in September 2019 between representatives of Himanuta and of the Defense Ministry – as described in the Yahav Report – the JNF subsidiary reported having acquired 311 dunams of the groves. The defense minister at the time was Benjamin Netanyahu, and his assistant for settlement affairs was Avi Roeh, a former head of the Yesha Council of settlements. The ministry’s representatives, for their part, conveyed a clear message, which was cited in the Yahav Report, concerning the need to acquire as many dunams as possible in order to help deal with the petition: “The further the transaction progresses and includes higher percentages [of the land], it will also help in managing the procedure as it advances.” The goal, according to the report, was to purchase at least half the area, or about 500 dunams. Himanuta requested the cooperation of the land administration authorities in the registration procedure. This was in fact provided, as Yahav recounts.

As a rule, when a real estate transaction is executed in Israel or the West Bank, a “cautionary” remark is entered in the local land registration bureau, so the public will know that the property is in the process of being purchased. However, this procedure was not exactly followed in the date groves deal. Cautionary remarks were indeed entered in a “special procedure,” according to Yahav, but they were transmitted not to the local registration bureau – but to a safe. This procedure was termed “irregular” in the Yahav Report; the rationale, according to the JNF, was “fear of danger to life and safeguarding the sellers’ identity.” The landowners, some of whom have taken the case of being denied access to their land to the High Court of Justice, might also conjure up an additional rationale, which is mentioned by another source who was aware of the developments. “The settlers are not a party to the transaction,” he said, “but naturally the transaction is actually [being done] for them.”

During recent weeks, JNF board members received a document of conclusions formulated by an external audit committee, which was appointed at the request of board members who wished to prevent a vote being taken on a policy of purchasing land in the West Bank. This document states that, as of the present time, the registration procedures for the land that has already been purchased (the 311 dunams) will be completed but the purchase of additional land, as stipulated in the framework agreement for the purchase of the full 1,000 dunams, will not proceed. At the same time, the Palestinian who signed the framework agreement with Himanuta has filed a suit in the amount of 90 million shekels ($27.4 million) against the JNF subsidiary.

2. Land near Ramallah

In 2018, a transaction was signed in the Ramallah area that the Lamberger Report would describe as “high risk.” “To tell you that this transaction has an insurance policy – if only it did,” Himanuta CEO Alex Heifetz said in a meeting of the company’s contracts committee, which was quoted in the Lamberger Report. Even so, the transaction was approved by the committee, with an allocation of about 4.5 million shekels (approximately $1.3 million). The money was placed in escrow but has not yet been transferred to the seller.

Land deals in the West Bank between Palestinians and Israelis often consist of two stages. First, the original owner transfers the ownership to a third party, who then sells it to the Israelis. Quite frequently allegations are made that the first or second stage was fraudulent. In this case, in the first stage of the deal a power of attorney agreement was signed under which the landowner transferred all the property rights to one of his heirs. However, one of the other heirs filed suit alleging that the power of attorney on the basis of which the rights to the land were transferred, was forged. He also submitted an affidavit from the notary who had allegedly signed the power of attorney, declaring that he had never signed it.

The seller was arrested by the Palestinian Authority for selling land to Jews. Unconnected to that, the Jerusalem District Court issued an injunction against the transaction and Himanuta submitted an urgent request to join the procedure as a respondent. The result was that the suit was voided and refiled with Himanuta as respondent. Yahav’s report recommended that the deal be completed.

One of the heirs filed suit alleging that the power of attorney on the basis of which the rights to the land were transferred was forged.

Overall, the Yahav document deals much with the question of Himanuta’s “good faith” (bona fides) and with the payment received in the transactions – two basic conditions that must be met in the event that the story ends up in court. In a case like this, Himanuta might want to argue for “market overt,” a legal doctrine that protects a buyer who purchases a property in good faith from someone who turns out not to be the owner, or against an error in the registration. If this occurs in the West Bank, and not in territory under Israeli sovereignty, the rules regarding a market overt claim are particularly strict. This transaction is currently in a waiting mode, even though the money has already been withdrawn from Himanuta’s account. Nonetheless, it’s still possible that it will eventually end in court.

3. Bakri house in Hebron

Market overt is a term that recurs constantly in the Yahav Report. Thus it is in the case of the structure known as the “Bakri house,” located in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron, which is at the center of the most controversial transaction entered into by Himanuta in this period. It’s a transaction that without any doubt does not meet the legal standard for market overt, according to the Yahav Report.

The Bakri house affair is hardly new. It first hit the headlines in 2005, when settlers took over the building, which is owned by Palestinians, the Bakri family. The settlers claimed to have purchased the building from a Palestinian, but a police investigation revealed that the documents of the transaction were forged. The affair dragged on through the courts, until in March 2019, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled that the settlers must leave the building. It was later re-affirmed by the district court.

As in the case of the date-palm grove, here too there was behind-the-scenes maneuvering while the case was in court. Two months before the court judgment was handed down, the Yahav Report reveals, Himanuta got its hands on part of the building. At least prima facie: The JNF subsidiary signed an agreement with a Palestinian who presented himself as the owner of the property. He claimed, as the Yahav Report notes, that he had bought part of the structure from a member of the Bakri family. Under the agreement, the seller was to receive 2.8 million shekels for the ground floor of the building, which stood on a plot of 1.7 dunams. The deal’s second stage was supposed to encompass the first floor, the roof and another 980 square meters (some 10,500 sq. ft.), in return for another 2.8 million shekels.

In the case of the Bakri house, the ownership is not registered in the Land Registry Department, but only in the tax books of the municipality. This fact makes the question of ownership and transfer more complicated – and means, according to Lamberger, that the transaction is contrary to Himanuta’s standard acquisition policy. According to the report, in order to pave the way for the purchase, an amendment was made to Himanuta’s policy that would allow it to make a purchase in Zone H2, the part of Hebron under Israeli-military administration, without the amendment going through due process at JNF’s authorized institutions.

The Yahav Report notes that the agreement among the heirs to divide up the property’s ownership, presented as part of the deal, was riddled with legal flaws. Yahav points out that a will had not been presented; that many signatures were missing from the document dividing the property, including those of family members who allegedly took part in the meeting in which it was signed; that the document failed to identify the different parts of the property it was allegedly dividing up; and that the agreement had not been registered in the municipal property tax book. “There is a reasonable chance that legal problems will arise in regard to the validity of this document,” Yahav writes.

And there were more red flags, such as the fact that the person who sold Himanuta the property was not a party to the legal proceedings to restore possession of the building to the Bakri family. All in all, Yahav writes, the family’s continued battle “raises questions about the very existence of a sales transaction.”

The Yahav Report notes that the agreement among the heirs to divide up the Bakri property’s ownership was riddled with legal flaws and red flags. That didn't stop the transaction from going forward.

The problematic documents, however, did not stop the transaction from going forward. In June 2019, three months after the court ruled that the settlers must leave the building, Himanuta signed a contract with a settler organization called “Renewers of the Jewish Community in Hebron” for its use and maintenance. According to Yahav, the contract is for five years and the payment is 5,400 shekels (currently about $1,635) per annum.

The Defense Ministry was aware of this contract and, by implication, also of the contract for the use and upkeep of the structure – as shown by a September 2019 email message mentioned in Yahav’s legal opinion. The parties to the correspondence, according to the report, are the defense minister’s assistant for settlement affairs, Avi Roeh, and attorney Avi Segal, representing Himanuta. The correspondence indicates that the Defense Ministry didn’t think that residence in the building could be allowed. “The approval to go ahead with proceedings does not constitute an approval for residence in the property,” Roeh writes, as cited in the Yahav Report. Segal, for his part, maintained that Roeh’s letter was rife with errors and that an urgent meeting needed to be convened, because “the sword of evacuation is hovering over the Jews who are living in the property.”

In a meeting with Himanuta officials toward the end of 2019, a remark was entered in the document summing up the proceedings, stating, “In the wake of another evacuation order that was received at the beginning of 2019, we were called on to execute the purchase.”

Avi Roeh, who was the defense minister’s assistant for settlement affairs.Credit: Hillel Meir

None of this comes as a surprise to Hagit Ofran, from the settlement-watch team of Peace Now, who has been following the developments in the case of the Bakri house. “Over the years we have often encountered – including with the Bakri house – transactions that use straw men as part of the chain of purchase, which is not done directly with the owner,” Ofran tells Haaretz. “Often it is claimed that this is being done so that the original owners will not know that the buyers are actually Israelis; but in practice, use is often made of this to fake part of the transaction and simultaneously claim good faith on the purchasers’ part.”

In 2020, a legal procedure to evict the settlers from the Bakri house was set in motion. In April 2021 one of the settlers living on the ground floor (who is renting from the “Renewers” organization) requested an injunction halting the evacuation. His grounds: Himanuta had purchased the apartment in which he was living and had signed a contract with the settler nonprofit, which had rented the property to him. In the court hearing, Himanuta also presented evidence of initial procedures it had implemented ahead of registering the land. As of this writing, a temporary injunction had been issued against the evacuation of the settlers.

4. 218 dunams in the Jordan Rift Valley

Metaphorical red flags appear time after time in the Yahav Report with regard to different locations in the West Bank. One such flag could be said to flap in the wind above an area of 218 dunams in the Jordan Valley, not far from the Argaman settlement. In March 2019, the report states, Himanuta signed an agreement with a Palestinian seller for the purchase of the property. The price was 9.8 million shekels (about $2.8 million), a sum that was to be placed in escrow. According to the external ombudsman's report, the payment for this transaction has not been transferred to the seller to this day. He has filed an 11-million-shekel lawsuit against Himanuta.

The seller was not the original owner, and only about half the land was registered in his name at the time the deal was signed, according to the Yahav Report. He maintains, as quoted in the report, that he was entitled to register the other half too. The power of attorney he presented to that end was authenticated by attorney Arazi, the legal adviser to Regavim and a notary in some Himanuta transactions. However, according to the report, the seller registered himself as the owner less than a month before the transaction was carried out, and Himanuta does not know when he purchased the land from the original owners. Before his purchase of the land, the rights to it were held as musha, an Ottoman era term meaning that there were additional partners in the ownership, with the specific division of the land among them undefined.

According to Yahav, the seller is a Palestinian who worked in a nearby settlement, and for the purpose of the transaction he was assisted by unnamed Israeli middlemen who loaned him “millions of shekels,” so he could buy the land. The middlemen, the report says, were in practice more than lenders (as they were initially presented), and received a quid pro quo “above what was due” for their involvement in the transaction. Still, it is not clear from the document whether they received the quid pro quo from Himanuta or from the Palestinian seller.

In September 2019 the Palestinian completed the registration of his ownership. Yet the recent ombudsman’s report stated that to this day, no money has been paid in the transaction, even though the company had received possession of part of the property and even though it had already begun to be farmed. “If we don’t pay, it will be presented as though we are thieves,” it was remarked at the bottom of the 2019 document summing up the Himanuta officials' meeting.

Himanuta’s lack of knowledge as to who had possessed and used the land before the transaction, Yahav writes, was based on the position of those executing the transaction, to the effect that an examination of the facts before the deal was executed would affect the company’s “good faith.” Subsequently Yahav adds a general remark that suggests what was worrying the organization: “The defects and flaws that are common in transactions in Judea and Samaria are a flaw in the identification of the signatory and anticipated owner, i.e. forgery and imposture.”

However, despite the host of problems raised by the Yahav Report that also existed at the time of the transactions, they were all signed, and about 100 million shekels (about $28.5 million) was invested in them. Now the Jewish National Fund must decide whether to complete them, what the implications will be for those involved in them, and above all, whether to go on doing business in the West Bank.

Now the JNF must decide whether to complete the transactions, what the implications will be for those involved, and above all, whether to go on doing business in the West Bank.

Responses: 'Draft report of no value’

JNF: “This is the draft of a report on which the work has not yet been completed, and those mentioned in it have not yet commented on it, and accordingly to write about it at this stage is of no value. In any event, some of the transactions mentioned were completed and also underwent registration and others are in legal proceedings, and the JNF will of course act in accordance with every binding legal decision that is handed down.”

Defense minister’s bureau: “The Defense Ministry is not a party to any land transactions related to the lands mentioned in the article. Substantively, as the state noted within the framework of the deliberations in the petition mentioned in the article, the farmlands referred to in it are being worked by residents of moshavim in the Jordan Valley, based on authorization granted to them lawfully in the 1980s. To the degree that these lands will be purchased from their owners in a manner that could ensure the continued working of the land by the residents of the moshavim who are working it today, this could resolve the difficulties that arose in the petition, and the Defense Ministry will welcome that.”

Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories: “The registration extract, which includes the caution remark, is completely open to all those with rights to the land as defined in the relevant legislation in the region. Accordingly, the details of the registration extract, including the caution remark, are available for perusal of those who own the rights to the land, at their request. We do not comment on the procedures relating to the safeguarding and storage of the information in our unit, and in any event it does not affect the eligibility of those who own the rights to the land to peruse the land registrations.”

Nachi Eyal: “As a member of the board of the JNF and Himanuta, my duty was to act for the advancement of the companies according to their purpose and goals. I am proud of my part in getting these companies to make the purchases in Judea-Samaria. These transactions were recently authorized unanimously by the JNF’s external ombudsman, and as such they effectively come to their end. Drafts of reports that are commissioned by parties with vested interests, and which are distressed by the [JNF’s] activity in all parts of the Land of Israel, have not deterred me and will not deter me in the future, too, from acting with loyalty and according to the law and the rules of proper administration to realize the goals of the companies I serve in. This, of course, is in total contrast to the behavior of those who leaked the draft report to the media before it was made known to those who are the subject of the review and before their responses were given. That attests incontrovertibly to the purpose of the [Lamberger] report – to vilify its subjects and to justify to their colleagues and those who sent them the fact that these transactions were carried out on their watch. Similarly with the conflict of interest, prima facie, of the writer of the draft report – his office provides services to those representatives in the JNF who oppose these transactions, yet nevertheless he does not refrain from writing the draft in a manner that makes one wonder about the degree of his professionalism and his professional integrity.”

No response was received from Arnan Felman.

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