Theft Under Cover of Ideology

According to the State Comptroller's Report, the authorities 'turn a blind eye' to land grab in the territories.

On page 220 of the latest State Comptroller's Report, in the chapter on "Managing property of absentee Palestinians," beneath the measured wording favored by comptrollers, there is, so those in the know claim, the tip of a scandalous iceberg, which lies hidden beneath a thick layer of ideology. Capital and the government of occupation have joined forces in a criminal-political case. The outgoing comptroller, retired Supreme Court justice Eliezer Goldberg, who signed off on this chapter, consented to hint that, "ideology occasionally serves as the opportunity that makes a thief." Among other things, he stated in the report that "improperly safeguarding [the property] constitutes a breach of the trusteeship's obligation and violates the rights of the absentees." To that he adds, with characteristic caution, that the decisions regarding the absentee status of the landowner are made with excessive ease.

Investigators from the central unit of the Judea and Samaria District Police share the comptroller's opinion that in many instances, such as the case of the head of the Civil Administration's infrastructure department, Yair Blumenthal, love of the land has become a fig leaf for greed, and the custodian, it is thought, has turned into a thief. A document summarizing the "burning land" case, which the police put together on March 12 of this year, tells of a gang that had for years conducted illegal land deals in the region of Hebron, Jericho, Gush Etzion, Givat Ze'ev and Samaria. The suspects allegedly raked in NIS 11 million through fraud and another NIS 18 million was in the pipeline.

The document describes their modus operandi: "Locating lands, in cooperation with the Civil Administration, through Lieutenant Colonel Yair Blumenthal, owned by absentee Palestinians, or owned by deceased Palestinians; the Amram brothers [Yosef and Yaakov - A.E.] counterfeit powers of attorney, which state that the absentee or the deceased is ostensibly selling the land he owns to a straw man in Jordan or the territories; the Amram brothers sell the lands to the Himnuta company, a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund - allegedly in return for exorbitant amounts [up to triple the value of the land; more than once the land turned out to be worthless rocky terrain - A.E.]; the land becomes the property of the Himnuta company and/or a private real estate company."

This is how 60 dunams in the Givat Ze'ev area belonging to a Muslim religious fund were sold to a large public construction company to build a new neighborhood in the settlement. The gang pocketed more than a million shekels. In order to keep things on a strictly need-to-know basis, the gang members had the phony powers of attorney signed by no fewer than 18 lawyers, most of them over 70 years old. One member of the special investigative team says Blumenthal's alleged role in the scam was to locate the lands of absentees (or so-called absentees) and provide the necessary paperwork, including maps and Israeli land registry forms. After interrogating several of Blumenthal's colleagues and really getting into the thick of the matter, he is convinced that at least one other senior Civil Administration official in the territories got his hands on absentees' property.

Unfortunately for the gang, among the thousands of dunams its members allegedly bought and sold fraudulently was land belonging to the heirs of a Jordanian minister. The minister's relatives discovered to their surprise that the land in the Jericho region is registered to other people, and retained a lawyer in May 2004. The lawyer approached the police, which began an undercover investigation, in conjunction with the income tax authority, the anti-laundering authority and the Military Police's central unit for special investigations.

The police believe that had the gang not set foot on the land of a VIP, the theft of absentees' land may have continued undisturbed. In fact, the investigators are not prepared to swear there isn't someone in the Civil Administration right now who is cooperating with the thieves - in practice or, as Goldberg puts it, "by winking at it or turning a blind eye." Another official, who keeps close tabs on life in the Wild West Bank, emphasizes that this is not a matter of the guard falling asleep on his watch; "he turns his eyes aside whole-heartedly and willingly."

Allocates land not his own

That is the background to the things Goldberg wrote in the chapter dealing with an officer of the Custodian Headquarters, which is in charge of governmental and abandoned property in the territories. The report quotes an opinion issued in September 1997 by the assistant legal adviser for Judea and Samaria: "From the essence of `abandoned property' as private property, the custodian's affiliation, which is temporary and solely for the purpose of safeguarding the property, there arises inherently a far more sweeping prohibition: in practice, the custodian must not conduct any deal regarding the property that would contradict the said safeguarding duty, and he especially has an obligation to restore the property to its owners upon their return to the area." A year had not gone by and the assistant adviser discovered the Civil Administration was continuing its habit of illegally allocating to settlements in the Jordan Valley land belonging to absentees that amounted to thousands of dunams. He warned against "a chain reaction that would jeopardize the overall land allocation of the relevant communities."

So what if he warned? In September 2003, the assistant was called upon to deal with another case of stealing absentees' land, this time for the purpose of building a new industrial zone in the West Bank. The plan went into effect, contracts were signed with entrepreneurs, and several factories were built on the site at an outlay of millions of shekels, some from public funds. The legal adviser discovered that all of these procedures were carried out without conducting another check of some sort into the status of the land.

The fact that it is private Palestinian land came to light almost by accident, in the course of checking land ownership as part of the project for the seam-line area destined to go up west of the industrial zone. "It is clear that future claims suits cannot be ruled out," the legal adviser warns.

He sums up his opinion with the statement that this is a "very serious case" and emphasizes that, "its severity does not attest to its extraordinariness."

One wonders what would have happened to those responsible for a "very serious case" of this sort had it involved "mistakenly" handing over to an Arab village private land belonging to a Jewish moshav. In the case before us, the adviser made do with a recommendation that the Administration adopt work procedures "that rule out relying on the establishment of inaccurate and unprofessional facts." So what if he recommended? The comptroller found that nothing had changed.

Had he not looked out for himself

Lieutenant Colonel Blumenthal is supposed to be tried because he allegedly "looked out for himself" while lending a hand to the theft of absentees' land. Had he given the theft to a local council of settlers, he might have been a colonel by now. Evidence to support this can be found in the report of the committee of inquiry headed by the commander of the Judea and Samaria Divisional Headquarters, which was presented to the GOC Central Command last December. The report deals with declaring a special military zone at a maximum radius of 400 meters from the fences of the settlements. In at least six cases, the route of the special military zone exceeded the allowable boundaries. In a few cases it was established on private Palestinian land.

The comptroller quotes select excerpts from the military document that refers to one of the communities: "The principal departures from the route of the special military zone were implemented by the local council, in the course of the headquarters work on planning and approving the special military zone for the community"; IDF monitoring of the work was faulty; implementation of the initial land clearing by the IDF, without an authorized apparatus bearing the precise route and without demarcation of the route by a professional surveyor, contributed to the connection of the route of the special military zone to the route carried out illegally by the local authority; "the silence of the army authorities regarding the infrastructure work executed by the local council gave the council a green light to continue the illegal work."

The previous GOC Central Command, Moshe Kaplinsky, ruled that the findings of the committee of inquiry raise "failings in the system of orders and instructions concerning setting up a special military zone," and that this permitted some "to do whatever they liked." The IDF informed the comptroller that all of the special military zones that exceeded the route would be corrected as part of amendments to the route, and that in places where the council built roads without authorization and coordination - they would be demolished. The comptroller reports that there has been no move so far to implement the GOC's directives from December 2004 about filing criminal charges against the civil bodies responsible for the excesses in establishing the special military zones. And what about the military bodies that cooperated by "winking at or closing a blind eye"?

The message the officers have received from the political echelon throughout the years is that in the occupied territories, every second lieutenant is king. IDF documents reveal that every regional brigade commander is authorized to decide by himself how to go about protecting outposts. The comptroller terms this dangerous phenomenon "opacity" and sounds a warning about "the operational difficulty laid at the door of the commanders in the field." Obviously he is not dealing with the difficulty laid at the door of many commanders, who are called upon to decide where their loyalties lie - with the absentee Palestinians, whose property they are charged with safeguarding, or with the present Jews, whom they meet on Shabbat at the synagogue.