Land Deals From Beyond the Grave

Real estate agent Yosef Amram waited for his Jerusalem attorney A.T. in the lobby of the capital's Hilton Hotel. He slid the key to a room on one of the top floors into A.T.'s hand and promised him an enjoyable experience. A few days later - this was in November 2000 - Amram contacted A.T.'s office. He informed him that "someone" had filmed him in the arms of a call girl at the hotel, but was quick to promise he had nothing to worry about.

A.T.'s life continued to proceed smoothly until June 2001, when Amram invited him on a business trip to Cyprus. This time a man of about 70 was waiting in a hotel room; the man was introduced as Sharif Zeid, a Jordanian citizen who wanted to sell land he owned near Jericho. Amram took out a power of attorney transferring land ownership to Awad et Daoud Economic Projects Ltd., which he owns with his brother Yaakov. Zeid said he had received only $150,000 of the promised $1 million, and refused to sign the document until he received the full amount.

Amram threatened the old man that if he didn't sign, he would be harmed. Zeid gave in, but A.T. declared that under the circumstances he was not willing to confirm the power of attorney. Yosef asked the attorney to join him on the balcony. After softening him up with his fists, he reminded him about the call girl at the Hilton, and gave him a few minutes to choose between signing and having the videotape publicized. A.T. chose the first option.

Using the same recipe, Amram recruited A.T. to a series of land deals. Many of them were conducted fraudulently with the help of Palestinian straw men, and even more serious, with the cooperation of two Israel Defense Forces officers. These stories were exposed by a special investigation team examining the "burning ground" file.

The police have recommended an indictment, which ostensibly will be presented once the State Prosecutor's Office finishes its hearings. The "burning ground" file reveals a small portion of the methods that put thousands of dunams of private Palestinian lands into the hands of Israeli construction firms. The ideological fervor of the Israeli government and the settlers to "redeem" the lands of Israel attracts criminals, Arab collaborators and Jewish con men.

Guilty of investigating

When these stories are exposed in court in the near future, the settlement leaders, who claim the land was acquired legally, will not fall off their chairs. Most of them are familiar with these methods, and benefit from them. They closed the settlement gates to Brigadier General Ilan Paz, who up until two years ago was the director of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, because he dared to enforce the law. Paz is "guilty" of the police beginning surveillance of Lieutenant Colonel Yair Blumenthal, who for years was head of the infrastructure division in the Civil Administration, and Major Ehud Brosh, who headed the lands department in the Judea and Samaria Division legal office.

Paz says he has no doubt that if the police continue burrowing through Civil Administration files, they will discover the Amram brothers are not the only members of the large "family" that lives off the theft of Palestinian lands. As I revealed this year, the state prosecutor allowed the Civil Administration to "convert" private lands by turning them into "state lands" and returning them to the purchasers. It turns out that in many cases the purchasers are thieves under the aegis of the Torah, the state and the army.

This is how it worked: Yosef Amram came to the Civil Administration offices and became friendly with Blumenthal. After a few visits, he invited the officer to spend time at his expense at the Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem. A short time later - this was on March 10, 2003 - Amram withdrew NIS 100,000 from his Bank Hapoalim account. That same day Mrs. Blumenthal deposited NIS 54,900 into her mortgage account. Three days later she deposited another NIS 33,600 into the same account.

Blumenthal did his job. He provided the Amram brothers with a large number of orthophoto maps, aerial maps with a topographic marking classified as secret - after removing the Civil Administration's identifying marks, as well as land registration lists. These documents helped the Amram brothers locate land whose owners were abroad, mainly in Jordan.

Twice a week Blumenthal would visit the Amram brothers' offices in central Jerusalem, providing them with data about West Bank land and even with internal Civil Administration correspondences. By October 2004, Blumenthal was deeply involved. He met with a well-known contractor at the King David Hotel and convinced him to purchase a large tract of land from the brothers, near the settlement of Givat Ze'ev.

Major Brosh also received perks. In October 2003 Yosef Amram invited him to join him, at his expense of course, to spend a weekend in Bulgaria, and afterward paid for a room in a Jerusalem hotel. A few days later Brosh helped his new friend by checking details about Palestinian landowners, records of their stays in Israel, the date they applied for an ID card and whether they were still alive.

With this information, the Amram brothers discovered a 208-dunam plot of land in the Jericho area that belonged to Sid Ali Salah al-Din, a minister in the Jordanian government in the 1960s who passed away in 1985. The Amrams forged documents showing their Palestinian straw man had purchased the land from Salah al-Din and "sold" it to their company.

At the same time, they found a man in Jordan with the same first and last names as the minister. The man signed a power of attorney at the Israeli embassy in Amman, and A.T. arrived to confirm the document. With the power of attorney the brothers turned to the Civil Administration and received permission to sell the land to Himnuta, a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund that deals in land purchases. The price was a real bargain: $2,200 per dunam. The sum total was NIS 2 million for more than 200 dunams.

Unfortunately for the thieves and their friends, the Jordanian minister did not die without heirs. One fine spring day in 2004, a representative of his nieces and nephews arrived at the Civil Administration to ask about the family assets. He was surprised to discover his uncle had come back to life to sell the land to a Jewish company, and had hired the services of an Israeli attorney. From there the way to the police was short. The Income Tax Authority, the Money Laundering Prohibition Authority and the Military Police special investigations unit participated in the secret investigation. According to the investigators' calculations, the suspects fraudulently made NIS 11 million, with NIS 18 million waiting in the pipeline; because of the investigation, the money has remained there.

Plus a penthouse

Lieutenant Colonel Blumenthal of the Civil Administration managed to convince the contractor to purchase the 49-dunam plot near Givat Ze'ev. The Amram brothers pocketed NIS 1,110,000 as a down payment on the NIS 2.5 million deal, which was to include a four-room penthouse at its conclusion.

Another tract of stolen land belonged to the Muslim Waqf in Jerusalem, which leased it to the East Jerusalem electric company for 99 years in 1980. The Amram brothers discovered that the man who had sold the land to the Waqf, Suleiman Musa Abu-Hatr, passed away in September 1992. They forged his signature on a power of attorney stating he had sold the land to their Palestinian straw man. They placed the forged document on the desk of attorney A.T., who notarized a confirmation that the late Suleiman had come to him in June 1992 and signed the power of attorney (most of the attorneys the Amrams chose to involve are very elderly, and therefore the police will apparently not recommend that they stand trial). In May 2002 the Palestinian straw man from the Jericho deal signed over power of attorney to the Amram brothers through A.T.

The biggest transaction, involving a 700-dunam plot, was the Tubas deal. In the summer of 2002 Yosef Amram met with a Himnuta lands division supervisor and presented him with the land ownership registration for 20 plots in bloc 102, in Tubas. He obtained the documents, meant for internal Civil Administration use, through Blumenthal. Amram asked for $6,000-$7,000 per dunam, and after bargaining, they agreed on $4,150 per dunam. In March 2003 Himnuta signed a contract to purchase 17 plots.

The deal was enabled by several forged powers of attorney. In one case a Jordanian citizen who died in May 1979 "signed" a document transferring the land to a Spanish citizen named Salim Mustafa. Another Jordanian citizen who "signed" powers of attorney to that same Mustafa passed away in July 1986. A.T. notarized affirmations that everyone involved had reported to him in Amman in September 2003 to verify their signatures. Mustafa signed, in A.T.'s presence, powers of attorney that transferred all land rights to the Amram brothers.

This time the Himnuta representative became suspicious. After checking the documents, Himnuta decided to cancel the deal.

In order to add some interest to the story, the Amram brothers are suspected of not sharing the lands' fruits with the Jewish people, and forgetting to report a total of NIS 10.5 million earned from stolen land sales to the Income Tax Authority. After Blumenthal was released from detention in order to be interrogated, he allegedly ordered a Civil Administration subordinate to tell Major Brosh that he, Blumenthal, had retained the right to remain silent during interrogation, and that Brosh should do the same. After the employee rejected his request, he suggested she transfer the message via one of the administration's legal advisers.

In the wake of the High Court decision and the state prosecutor's instructions, the police national fraud unit is investigating serious suspicions that straw men, with the help of attorneys and civil servants, were used in the case of Modi'in Ilit. For years the enforcement authorities conveniently accepted the settlers' claim that this method is the only way of ensuring that Palestinian landowners do not pay with their lives for selling land to the Jews. In the case of Modi'in Ilit, the real estate agents and their attorneys - all of whom are associated with the settlement leadership - signed a transaction in the name of the mukhtar of Bil'in, using the false claim that since the intifada, Israelis have been forbidden from entering Area B.