Jewish National Fund's new land grab drives wedge between Israel and liberal diaspora Jews
Days before he made his long-awaited first call to Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden will have had to acquaint himself with the latest issue driving a wedge between Israel and his nascent Democratic administration – not to mention the American Jewish diaspora.
The Jewish National Fund, known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemet Le Israel (KKL), on 11 February had announced a dramatic policy change: officially authorising the purchase of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and accelerating illegal settlement building.
The move has outraged Jewish organisations affiliated with the KKL and forced the US State Department to address the issue much earlier than expected.
'We believe it is critical to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance negotiated two-state solution'
- Ned Price, State Department spokesperson
Asked about the policy change, the new State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in Washington: “We believe it is critical to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.”
Liberal Jewish organisations in the diaspora were more forthright in their anger: “The JNF plan to expand settlements endangers its existence,” warned Jewish groups.
Meanwhile questions have been asked of the KKL splinter group, the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA).
Across the Atlantic, the story has drawn little attention among the Israeli public, however. That is how it is when only five percent of respondents say in a poll recently conducted by Channel 12 that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has some relevance to their vote.
Under the table
Confused by the KKL/JNF terminology? Rightfully so. The confusion is not accidental and reflects decades of policy that might now complicate ties with Biden’s administration even before the nature of those ties has been clearly defined.
A short historic revision is required at this point.
The KKL is a non-profit organisation founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine for Jewish settlers. The goal was part of the bigger plan named “land redemption”. Jews in Israel and worldwide have for decades been encouraged to give what they could to the project, often in the form of donations collected in the KKL’s famous blue boxes.
Today KKL owns 13 percent of the land in Israel.
A twist in the story, known to only a few, came soon after the 1967 war.
“As soon as the war was over, then-prime minister Levi Eshkol gave the KKL written instruction to start acquiring land in the West Bank. That’s what we have been doing since then,” says Uri Ariel, a former construction and agriculture minister from Israel’s far right and a key player in settler circles.
“Most of these activities were conducted ‘under the table’ to avoid collision with donors or political friction.”
The buyers and the Palestinian sellers of the land had a mutual interest in preserving secrecy. Selling land to Israelis is considered a crime and betrayal by Palestinian law and society.
And so the KKL needed an Israeli government-backed smokescreen to obscure its activities, forming subsidiaries for land acquisition.
The first one, Himnuta (“trust” or “faith” in Aramaic), was founded in 1938, later giving birth to “Himnuta Judea and Samaria”, tasked with operating in the occupied territories.
But this did not wash with some international backers. The American branch established its separate subsidiary JNF-USA in a protest by different Jewish groups who ideologically oppose having their donations invested in the occupied territories.
In addition, donations diverted to illegal settler projects are not tax exempt according to US law.
Sources close to the operation tell Middle East Eye that compartmentalisation within the different subsidiaries was cautiously observed. So is the exact scope of the acquisitions.
Official data is non-existent. According to a study published by anti-occupation Israeli NGO Peace Now about two years ago, since 1967 KKL has acquired at least 16,000 acres of land all over the West Bank. The land is used for the construction of new settlements and expansion of older ones, dispossessing Palestinians in the process.
How much land was purchased over the years, no one really knows.
All those transactions are secretive, performed with the help of middlemen.
“It’s a very tedious process often based on forgeries hard to prove under the circumstances,” Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch team, tells MEE.
About two years ago, Ofran embarked upon the almost-impossible mission of uncovering how much Palestinian land was actually purchased by KKL - and not less important, where these plots are located.
Hers is the only existing report compiling relevant data quoted here. The report mentions about seven already completed transactions amounting to about 88 million shekels ($27m). About 70 acres in the Bethlehem area, 25 acres east of Ramallah, some territory in the Jordan Valley, and so on.
'All land transactions in the territories are dubious and tricky. All of them are conducted in the dark, often based on forgeries'
- Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch
“All land transactions in the territories are dubious and tricky. All of them are conducted in the dark, through speculators and often based on forgeries,” she tells MEE.
“Deals concerning land of tens or hundreds of acres are particularly suspicious since most of them have many Palestinian owners, sometimes even dozens or hundreds. It’s hard to believe that obtaining consent of so many people is even remotely possible.”
Ofran’s report mentions at least three deals in the Jericho area based on forged documents: almost $250,000 illegally wasted on about 250 acres of land between 2000-2003. All forgers have been indicted in a case brought by Palestinians. Other transactions are still under investigation.
The newest twist came just two weeks ago. Having recently staffed all key positions with supporters of the far right, the KKL swiftly adopted a dramatic change in its decades-long policy.
“Under the table” deals were to be no more. From now on, the KKL would officially welcome open and formal acquisition of private Palestinian land in Area C, the part of the West Bank fully controlled by Israel, and further development of existing illegal settlements.
Priority areas are specified as well, many of them secluded settlements deep in the West Bank. Land close to Jerusalem, Gush-Etzion, the Jordan Valley and the south Hebron hills are mentioned as areas of special interest for purchase and expansion of settlements.
Truth has to be told, it’s not as if before the authorisation KKL abstained from this kind of activity.
Land purchases flourished under Danny Atar, the previous CEO and a former Labor MP.
His successor, Avraham Duvdevani was affiliated with the National Religious Party, now the far-right Jewish Home. He simply made formal what his predecessor has been doing for years without legal scrutiny and certainly no documentation.
Reactions from both political sides were as expected: head of the far-right Religious Zionist party Betzalel Smotrich tweeted: “Great move; at last, the KKL is regaining its historic role – land redemption. Zionism 2021.”
Nitzan Horowitz, head of left-wing Meretz party, claimed in reply that the KKL had been taken over by a group of settlers who want to make it “the contractor of occupation”.
Peace Now posted an angry statement on Facebook calling the new version of KKL “a bank with billions of shekels, money that belongs to the Jewish people used to finance the activity of the Messianic right; whoever turns the KKL into a radical interest group endangers the future of Israel and risks future complications in the Hague.”
All key positions in KKL are now in the hands of the right and far-right. Though legally defined as a “private organisation”, the KKL is certainly in sync with Israeli government.
Shaul Arieli is a well-known expert on Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli Policy Forum advisor. When recently asked for advice by the Meretz party following the KKL policy change, he told them to keep opposing all future land purchases, but pay closer attention to any attempts to purchase land close to remote isolated settlements.
'Israel keeps playing stupid games in the occupied territories and will end up paying the price in Iran'
- Shaul Arieli, Israeli Policy Forum advisor
“The rest,” he said, is mainly KKL propaganda moves to show off to the public, like the Israeli government’s plans for annexation of the West Bank last year.
In conversation with MEE, Arieli spoke less about the KKL and more about what he refers to as the stupidity of the Israeli government.
"Israel keeps playing stupid games in the occupied territories and will end up paying the price in Iran. These kind of show-off steps put unnecessary pressure on the new American administration working now on a new nuclear deal with Iran.
"In the process, America will focus on what is important to them and Israeli voices will not be heard. This political camouflage of power and control will come with a high price tag,” he said.
The immediate ramifications of the KKL’s announcement is another crisis between Israel and the liberal diaspora.
The Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement (Mercaz USA), a group represented on the fund’s board of directors, said in a statement: “The move could irreversibly endanger KKL and our homeland.”
The question of how much longer diaspora Jews will see Israel as their homeland is often no less important to the Israeli government than the number of days it takes a new Democratic president to make a call to its prime minister.