Zionist Groups Facing Legal Problems

By Akiva Eldar

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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JERUSALEM — The Zionist movement, created a century ago, has come in for some rough treatment in the Jewish state lately.

The World Zionist Organization, Theodor Herzl’s original platform, was singled out as one of the main culprits in a devastating report, submitted to the government last week, on government ministries “and public agencies” whose officials colluded in what amounted to a criminal conspiracy to subvert Israeli law and policy on settlements.

The report, authored by former prosecutor Talia Sasson, was commissioned by Prime Minister Sharon a year ago, under pressure from the United States, to investigate the extent and legal status of unauthorized settlement outposts set up in the West Bank in the last decade. Sasson wrote that at least 105 such outposts have been established through a variety of subterfuges, with millions of dollars in funding, equipment, and even water and electricity hookups provided illegally by officials in various government ministries. More than half the outposts were built wholly or partly on private Palestinian land, a possible felony, Sasson wrote.

The WZO’s Settlement Division is depicted in the report as a key contractor in the operation. It is the only agency involved in the operation to acknowledge its role openly, the only one to attempt to argue that its activities were not subject to the law, and the only one that refused to provide any budgetary information on the proceeding. Sasson’s recommendations include barring the division from a future role in West Bank settlement, its main raison d’être.

The Settlement Division was created after the 1967 Six-Day War as part of the separation agreement between WZO and the Jewish Agency, celebrated for years as giving Diaspora donors a greater say in the programs they fund. The director-general of the division, Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu — son of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, spiritual mentor of the Israeli right — admitted in a Ha’aretz interview a year ago that the separation was in fact intended to sanitize the WZO’s role in West Bank settlements. Ben-Eliyahu went on to boast that the division is “among those establishing outposts in Judea and Samaria, and all with authorization and approval.”

The division’s glory days began with the rise of the Likud to government in 1977. Matityahu Drobles, the Likud functionary who then headed the division, drafted a series of master plans for massive settlement expansion that guided government policy through much of the 1980s.

In November 1993, right after the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, a secret plan was prepared within the Settlement Division — under the noses of the Rabin government — to create “settlement alignments between existing communities.” The purpose was to block territorial compromise by turning the settlements into contiguous blocs. Updated in 1997, under the Netanyahu government, the plan appears to provide the administrative framework for what would become the outpost movement.

In the 1997 document, some 35.6% of the land designated as “settlement alignments” was privately owned Arab property. Sasson confirmed that “part of the settlements that the WZO Settlement Division established were situated at least partly on privately owned lands.” In other words, the institution that purports to represent the Jewish people was for years using Jewish donations to help facilitate the theft of private land, in direct violation of Israeli law. For appearance’s sake, the division’s work was funded from the budget of the Ministry of Agriculture.

But WZO is only the latest Zionist body to face legal scrutiny lately. A week before the Sasson report was released, a subsidiary of Jewish National Fund, Himnuta, figured in an alleged criminal conspiracy to forge deeds to Arab properties in the West Bank and sell them, apparently to build Jewish settlements. Five people were arrested, including Himnuta’s former CEO.

Even more devastating was the decision two months ago by Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, requiring the Israel Lands Authority to open its land sales to all Israeli citizens regardless of ethnicity or religion. The decision effectively forced the lands authority to stop marketing properties owned by JNF, whose bylaws require it to lease its properties to Jews only. The attorney general’s ruling followed appeals to the Supreme Court by two Israeli civil-rights organizations, claiming that the exclusion of Arab Israelis from JNF properties — some 13% of Israel’s territory — was racist and violated the principle of equality before the law. In its reply, the lands authority noted that JNF properties are “intended for the development of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel,” and that “all the funds of the JNF are from Jewish donors.” Mazuz declined to defend the case, concluding that the authority’s claim would not hold up in court. The justices had ruled in an earlier case that “Jews-only” clauses were illegal.

The leadership of JNF decided to continue the struggle. In its own response to the court appeal, JNF invoked the memory of the Fifth World Zionist Congress, which decided in 1901 to create the fund “to serve as the land-acquisition arm of the World Zionist Organization — land that will become the property of the Jewish people.”

In those distant days, the leadership of world Jewry could not have imagined a day when the two institutions it had established would serve as long arms of the Jewish state in seizing lands that did not belong to it.

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