The 'Money Mountain': Israel Holding Millions in Palestinian Deposits, Promises Now to Finally Pay It Back

$16 million have accumulated in the accounts of Israel’s Civil Administration since the 1990s, all of it guarantees collected from Palestinians

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Israeli border police arrest protesters and activists blocking Israeli army bulldozer operating at the West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, Sept. 14, 2018.
Israeli border police arrest protesters and activists blocking Israeli army bulldozer operating at the West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, Sept. 14, 2018. Credit: AP Photo/Nasser NasseR
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

“The money mountain” (jabal al-mal, in Arabic) is the tempting name of a website created by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. You get to it through the Arabic homepage of the Coordinator of Government Activities’ website, Al-Munasek. There is a hyperlink in the form of a box on the upper left side of the homepage, declaring “Your money is your right,” with an icon of an outstretched hand with a dollar sign above it.

Anyone clicking on the box gets to the “money mountain” page, whose main image looks at first glance as if it were drawn by a child. A bright-yellow sun is shining over three green mountains of different heights, covered by simplistic pictures of bills and coins; clouds sail across the light-blue sky and stars seem to be twinkling. A red helicopter flies in front of the middle mountain, towing a banner that reads, “What lies behind the money mountain.”

Haaretz Weekly - Episode 30

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Behind the money mountain, or to be more exact inside of it, are some 58 million shekels ($16 million) as of last week, an Israeli security source told Haaretz. These funds are guarantees that Palestinian residents of the West Bank paid the Israel Police, mainly deposits paid by people suspected of traffic violations, or bail paid to the military courts upon conditional release to ensure the suspects would show up in court if and when an indictment would be filed against them. An unknown amount of this mountain of money was supposed to be returned to those who paid up – for example, in cases where the traffic fine was lower than the deposit; where the person was arrested, released on bail and not charged within two years of the arrest; or where the fine was less than the amount of bail that was posted. The money mountain website invites people to find out whether they are due a refund and send their details to the Civil Administration.

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The security source told Haaretz that the 58 million shekels began accumulating in the early 1990s, according to the accounting department of the Civil Administration. In other words, some people have been waiting over 25 years for money that is rightfully theirs. What happened to the money paid before the 1990s? How much has accumulated since then? Why are these funds not accounted for in the Civil Administration’s current data? The source said he did not know.

What is known is that the amount of money has climbed consistently: There were 40 million shekels in guarantees in 2011, according to a state comptroller report on military court activities in the West Bank, which was released last month. That sum rose to 56.9 million shekels in 2016, a figure mentioned in November of that year by the Civil Administration in its response to attorney Gaby Lasky, following her request for clarification on the basis of the Freedom of Information Law.

Screenshot of the "Money Mountain" page from the website of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

Lasky was shocked to discover that even if anti-occupation activists were arrested and released on bail without ever being tried, or if they were tried and fined for a sum that was lower than their bail – they still didn’t get their money back. Such is the lot of many Israelis who have become acquainted with Palestinians, whether they are Machsom Watch activists, members of Combatants for Peace or journalists. Palestinians tell these Israelis, sometimes casually, that they have despaired of ever getting their money back because they have encountered a maze of bureaucracy that they cannot possibly navigate. Many didn’t even make an attempt. “For us it’s all the same: bail or a fine,” said a resident of the village of Nabi-Saleh, many of whose residents have experienced arrest.

In September 2010, Haggai Matar – then a journalist for Ha’Ir and now a writer and web manager for Sicha Mekomit, an online magazine (972 being the English version) – wrote a long article about that red-tape labyrinth. A friend from Bil’in, who was arrested in 2005 and whose case against him was closed in early 2008, sought to receive the bail that Israeli friends had posted for him, to the tune of 15,000 shekels. After the man and his friends failed to do so after a year, the friend turned to Matar for help.

The article summarizes the trials and tribulations Matar underwent to release the money, and why it was so difficult to get it. For starters, it turns out that you have to show the civil administration the original receipt of payment from the Postal Bank – but its receipts do not state the identity number of the person who pays. You also have to bring documents including the military court ruling which ordered the bail money, the verdict ordering that bail be returned, the details of the bank account into which the funds were deposited (if there is one), and a letter from the bank verifying the existence of the account.

If the original receipt was lost or destroyed, you have to supply a photocopy of it and a letter from the Postal Bank verifying the original payment. The Postal Bank is Israeli and it has a number of branches at the checkpoints, like Qalandiyah. In other words, you will have to endure a trip to the checkpoint and its long lines, and then another long line at the bank. And then you must sign an affidavit in the presence of a lawyer, attesting to the fact that no one else has any claims regarding the receipt in question.

When you bring all these documents to the accounting department of the Civil Administration, you must append an authorized copy of a new, third court ruling that confirms that the decision to return the money is related to the specific receipt for which you are asking to be paid back. This step is required because, as Matar heard from an official in the administration, “It is possible that there are a number of cases against this person at the same time, and that he was released on a similar amount of bail in them as well.”

And, Matar wrote somewhat sarcastically, “it could be as well that bail was paid for one case on the day a decision was handed down on another case [involving the same individual], and therefore, of course, as a precaution, it is impossible for the payment to be returned, and a signature is required by a judge affirming the fact that the ruling is indeed linked to the receipt.”

Human rights lawyer Gaby Lasky, February 2018.Credit: Meged Gozani

The thing is, you have to go to a military court to get the third legal ruling. Palestinians who tried doing this discovered that they can’t just waltz into the compound of the military court (although the Israel Defense Forces spokesman denied this and insisted the military courts are always open to the public). They sought any lawyer they could find, who could obtain the ruling for them. And we haven’t even begun talking about hours spent waiting for Civil Administration officials to answer their phones or the days spent waiting outside their offices.

Some people have no bank account or their account is at a bank that is not among those approved by the Civil Administration. While such individuals are entitled to be helped by a third party or a lawyer, they must also present a power-of-attorney document signed by a lawyer. And most people have no Israeli friends who will dedicate six months of their lives to run around, chasing after the money and getting it, finally, like Matar did.

Different systems

According to the state comptroller’s recent report, until 2011, the procedure of registering financial guarantees at the Civil Administration did not include a requirement to supply details about the date of the deposit, the name of the accused person and the sum deposited, When the administration’s accounting department launched a database with such details in 2011, it did so retroactively to 2003, the office of the legal adviser for Judea and Samaria wrote attorney Lasky, in a response in February 2017.

However, these lacunae were not the only reason for the delays. The state comptroller’s report says there is no interface between the two data bases for managing and for registering the deposits. One system belongs to the military courts unit, “in which various data appear including the date of the court decision, the date of the refund request, the amount of the refund and the number of the beneficiary’s account,” the report states. The other system is used by the Civil Administration accounting department for managing its activities, and in particular the deposits account. Because of the different levels of security clearance of these two systems, they cannot interface with one another. Thus, in order to authorize the return of a deposit, Civil Administration workers have to manually enter the data from the first system into the second one.

Student work

The amount accumulating in the Civil Administration’s bank account for such deposits peaked at 62 million shekels in January 2018. Last year was the first year in which the sum began to decrease, the security source told Haaretz, to its current total of 58 million shekels. The reason for this, he explained, is that for the first time the administration has begun to initiate refunds and to streamline the whole process. The source noted that from early 2018 through last week, the administration returned 5 million shekels to 3,000 Palestinians – compared to 2.4 million shekels in 2017 (according to the state comptroller’s new report) and just 400,000 shekels in 2016.

The previous finance officer of the Civil Administration tried to rectify the problem between the two databases already in 2013, the source told Haaretz. The project is still not finished, however: The official currently in charge of it took over two years ago and has a team of six students working with him, manually checking the status of every military court case – but there are tens of thousands of them. The status report includes how the case ended, if a financial guarantee or bail was posted at any point and whether any amount was appropriated as a fine.

The security source could not say whether the change in the Civil Administration’s attitude has anything to do with the letter by attorney Lasky to Military Advocate General Sharon Afek, in which she hinted that she might file a petition in the High Court of Justice. Lasky herself described the impossible-to-solve bureaucratic maze in this letter in December 2016, demanding that the administration take the initiative and locate the names of all those who had deposited guarantees and were eligible for a refund – with interest and linkage to inflation.

A representative of the legal adviser’s office in the Judea and Samaria district responded to Lasky that security procedures do not allow for “guarantees to be immediately returned at the initiative of a public authority.” He added that there is no mention in military statutes of returning the money with interest (even though Matar was able to get the guarantee fee returned with interest to his friend from Bil’in).

Whether or not there is a connection, the criticism in the state comptroller’s report echoes that in Lasky’s letter, and states: “The rights of accused and investigated Palestinians were violated as a result of deficiencies … This situation severely violates the right of property of the individual, damaging public trust in the legal system and in the courts.”

Four months after Lasky’s letter to the military advocate general, in April 2017, the deputy coordinator of government activities in the territories conducted a discussion on the subject of returning guarantees to Palestinians. The officer in charge of the financial department promised in June of that year that the CA would establish a mechanism to initiate the return of funds, “and not only as the result of a request by any individual,” according to the state comptroller. Moreover, the deputy head of the Civil Administration announced that one of the proposed solutions was to establish a “website in which anyone can check whether he is eligible to receive a refund of the money he deposited.”

Thus was born the money mountain website. Some 7,000 people have visited it since it opened in November 2018. A few hundred, according to the security source, have filled out the online forms. Now, the relevant official at the Civil Administration has the details of about 1,000 West Bank residents who have money coming to them. An outsourcing office which works for the CA has managed to reach nearly 200 of them.

Among those people was one, who was hard to reach and was identified as someone who travels often to Jordan. “The officer in charge of the financial department informed the authorities at the Allenby Bridge, so they could ‘catch’ that person upon his return and tell him that he has money waiting for him,” the security source told Haaretz. “The man thought they were kidding.”

Another revolutionary change is that if one has no bank account or no account at a recognized bank, one can get the money in cash at the Postal Bank, through the auspices of the Civil Administration. Likewise, one of the students working on the administration project is now preparing a receipt form to be used for paying the deposit, upon which the payer’s identity card number will appear.

Where’s the money?

What has been done with the mountains of cash over the years? Attorney Eitay Mack made a Freedom of Information request on behalf of the Combatants for Peace NGO, and received a detailed list of guarantees and bonds posted in the military courts and police from 2014 through last August – totaling nearly 33.5 million shekels. (He also asked about the amount of fines levied by the military courts during those years, and there will soon be a report about that).

Mack also asked what was done with the mountain of funds. The Civil Administration responded that they are used for its own operational purposes, “for the benefit of the area.” Mack wrote Afek, the military advocate general, asking him to look into suspicions of illegal use by the Civil Administration of these funds, and also noted that the Israeli civil court system automatically returns such deposits to people’s bank accounts.

However, contrary to what was understood by the phrasing of the answer to Mack from the public inquiries officer in the Civil Administration, the security source asserted to Haaretz that the administration has actually not done anything with the huge sums of money that have accumulated there. He also said that complications weren’t created on purpose to avert returning the money.

Asked whether the money is indeed just sitting there, untouched, the security source said, “Yes, and no. It is a deposit that awaits a decision – either execution of the refund or forfeiture. From my perspective, it is sitting with the general accountant and waiting for me.”

When asked by Haaretz whether the implication isn’t that, if the Civil Administration isn’t using it, than the Finance Ministry is making use of Palestinian money, he responded: “I didn’t say that. I know that if I’ll say ‘give me a sum’ – the treasury gives it. If I deposited 1,000 shekels in the bank – can the bank use it? Yes. Does it? I don’t know.”