Murky Dealings Over Migron

The Police's National Fraud Investigation Unit has been conducting a multifaceted investigation over the past few months into how some of the lands of the Migron outpost were purchased. The investigation focuses on a company called Al Wattan, which bought from Palestinians some of the land on which the outpost was built. It is suspected that some of the company documents ostensibly attesting to land purchases were forged. A Haaretz inquiry, which revealed the police investigation into this matter, exposes some of the serpentine methods used to purchase land in the territories, and the settlement establishment's connections to these deals.

Even though the name of the company may be misleading, Al Wattan ("the homeland," in Arabic) is an Israeli company established in September 2002 by companies controlled by the Binyamin Regional Council, in order to purchase lands in Judea and Samaria.

Like other companies engaged in similar activities, Al Wattan was registered as a company with the Civil Administration and not with the Israeli registrar of companies.

The Binyamin Regional Council's Web site and the web page describing the Binyamin Development Corporation, a shareholder in the company, contain no mention of Al Wattan's activities.

Pinchas Wallerstein, former head of the Binyamin Regional Council, said in a conversation that to the best of his knowledge, in parallel with the abovementioned company, another company with the same name was registered in Ramallah and all the land acquisitions are conducted through it, because according to Palestinian law, lands may not be sold directly to Jews.

Dubi Weiner, CEO of the Binyamin Development Corporation, confirmed that it is a company owned by them that deals in land purchases, and said he is unaware of a parallel company registered in Ramallah or of a police investigation into this matter.

Haaretz found that in Ramallah there are numerous companies registered under the name Al Wattan, and it is unclear which of them is involved in land purchases.

Dozens of caravans, 40 families

The Migron outpost, today deemed one of the prominent symbols of illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank, was established in 2002 within the jurisdiction of the Binyamin Regional Council, not far from Kochav Yaakov. Currently the dozens of caravans there house over 40 families. In another month or so, the Supreme Court is to receive from the state an update on its efforts with regard to Migron, as part of ongoing legal proceedings involving a Peace Now petition seeking the outpost's evacuation.

In 2004-2005, two families living in Migron approached the Civil Administration with a request to obtain building permits for permanent housing on section 23, plot 26, which they claim was purchased by Al Wattan and then leased to them. The residents presented the Civil Administration with a document that supposedly proved the purchase of the land: A power of attorney signed in June 2004 thousands of kilometers from Israel, in Orange County, California, by a notary named D.K. Shah.

"I, the undersigned, Abd Allatif Hassan Sumarin," it stated, "formerly a resident of the village of Burka Ramallah and currently a resident of Orange County, California, received in advance the specified sums in this matter and I hereby appoint Al Wattan, Ltd., no. 562500496, as my legal and practical representative in order to negotiate, purchase, sell, hand over, transfer, mortgage, manage or handle the asset described below: section 26, plot 23, area of land 22,638 square meters, in the West Bank, Ramallah."

However, the police suspect that this power of attorney, a copy of which Haaretz has obtained, is forged. The suspicion is based, among other things, on a 1998 inheritance note signed in the Sharia Court in Ramallah that also reached the National Fraud Investigation Unit's investigators. In the note, the Sharia kadi of Ramallah writes that this Sumarin, who supposedly signed the power of attorney in 2004, died in 1961.

Another suspicion was raised by the fact that despite repeated requests by the Civil Administration, Al Wattan has not provided documents attesting to the fact that it indeed purchased the lands according to the law. This much was even stated in the state's response to the High Court of Justice in December 2006, when the state's representative reported, "with regard to all the purchase claims - the required documents were not presented - [the claims] are mere idle claims and they are certainly not equivalent to the fact that the lands in the outpost are lands owned by Palestinian residents."

'We arranged it with Wallerstein'

The rabbi of the outpost, Itai Halevy, who is building his home on the disputed plot, said, "We were told that the community was built in a formal manner with the knowledge of the authorities and settlement agencies, just like every community in the State of Israel - we built the permanent homes about three years ago. I was told that the plot was purchased legally."

Did you pay for it?

Halevy: "No. It was purchased publicly, I think through the [regional] council."

How did you proceed after you decided to build a permanent home?

"We looked at the documents here and were also in contact with Pinchas Wallerstein. I arranged everything with him. Who do we have who is more authorized than him? There is no justness in the whole legal complaint. The motives behind it are political, and they camouflaged it as something legal. Peace Now declares that it promotes political perceptions and any attempt to claim that there is a legal case here is absurd."

What about the charge that the power of attorney is forged?

"This claim is not clean-handed, and whoever makes it is not really interested in seeing justice come to light."

The other person leasing the land, Itai Harel, said that the Palestinian documents are the ones that are forgeries, and the matter should be clarified in a police investigation or in court, but not in the High Court of Justice. A few months ago, the Fraud Investigation Unit detectives went to the United States to gather testimony and among others, took Shaah's testimony. A person well versed in the details of the case related that the American notary denied any involvement in the matter and claimed that his notary's seal, which appears on the power of attorney, was stolen from him.

One of the addresses under which Al Wattan is registered is 17 Sheshet Hayamim Street, Jerusalem. The same address was used to register several real estate companies in recent years, as well as organizations involved in "redeeming" West Bank lands. This week there was no trace of any activity whatsoever there.

Some of the companies and organizations are affiliated with Attorney Eli Shmuelian, who occasionally represents right-wing organizations. Shmuelian explained that he was not active in Al Wattan and his sole task was to register it.

Secretive world of land transfers

Someone who was in fact questioned in the case is Yitzhak (Tzahi) Mamo, a resident of Ofra who is registered at the Civil Administration as a director of Al Wattan. Mamo is a familiar figure in the entangled and secretive world of land transfers to Jews in the territories and East Jerusalem.

He has at least one other company registered with the Civil Administration, Bnei Rachel, which deals primarily with lands in the vicinity of Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.

"My business is basically land purchases," he explains. "This company [Al Wattan] is a company belonging to the Binyamin Regional Council. It was created solely for the occupied territories. It is a Judea and Samaria company because the law states that only a Judea and Samaria company may purchase lands.

"I was its founder and was involved in a few purchases, not much more - because I deal with contacts with Arabs, they asked me to try to find lands in Migron. I think there were three or four purchases, and one of them is currently somehow connected to a police investigation, but I can't go into it. Not a single purchase was registered in practice for all kinds of reasons, some of them technical, others substantial."

When asked why an Arab name was chosen for a company affiliated with the Binyamin Regional Council and which deals with purchasing lands in the territories, Mamo responded cynically: "Why, isn't Arabic an official language of the State of Israel?"

The other registered director of the company, Jerry Saltzman, did not respond to Haaretz's queries.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Wallerstein offered another window into the connection between the company and the establishment.

"Al Wattan is a company authorized to conduct purchases and deals in the Palestinian Authority," he explains. "In order not to prevent the continuation of its activity, allow me not to say who the owners in Ramallah are. I acknowledge that if this company needs funds in order to complete deals that have an impact on the settlements, we help them raise them. I don't think the council has a legal tie to this body. Certainly the council doesn't invest money there."

The company's owners are financial bodies controlled by the Binyamin Regional Council. That is, the council has a connection to this company.

Wallerstein: "Certainly. I was referring to investments. It's very hard to conduct land deals in the Palestinian Authority. They are not permitted to arrange deals with Jews, and anyone who does is sentenced to death. The company is also registered in Ramallah under the name Al Wattan, and therefore I'm cautious. I can tell you about some who were indeed revealed and are no longer alive."

Where else is the company active?

"There are lots of places where we are trying to arrange deals. Some of them weren't finalized and we aren't completing them in order not to entangle the sellers."

Who funds the company? Contributions?

"If it is lands intended for employment, financial organizations agree to invest, because it yields them benefits. The same is true for construction and lands transferred to Himanuta (a subsidiary company of the Jewish National Fund) or to the Israel Lands Administration."

With regard to Migron, there are claims that the power of attorney supposedly signed by Sumarin is forged.

"It's possible. There were instances when there were stings, including in this company."

This refers to a person who signed a document in 2004, when there is a document indicating that he died years before then.

"We have the opposite proofs. We have a video recording of his voice long after his death certificate."

About six months ago the National Fraud Investigation Unit questioned you. Were you also questioned about this matter?

"I don't remember. If yes, it was not to a degree that bothered me. Al Wattan as a company operated completely legally."

The Israel Lands Administration and the Jewish National Fund said in response that they have never arranged deals with the Al Wattan company.

The police stated: "This is an investigation currently being conducted by the National Fraud Investigation Unit, and we do not usually comment on ongoing investigations."