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The Settlement Division Exposed!

In December 2015, the Knesset passed the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency for Israel Status Law. This was the first law passed upon the initiative of the young member of Knesset, at the time, Bezalel Smotrich. Despite its long cumbersome name, it was actually just intended to ensure one thing: that the Settlement Division would continue to manage the vast land bank that Israel expropriated for settlements in the West Bank. However, as with the case of the Regulation Law for which Smotrich was among its initiators - then, too, he forgot to tell the public that he had a personal interest in this law. Eleven years earlier, Smotrich and his wife received a corrupt mortgage from the Settlement Division to buy a house that had been built illegally on private Palestinian-owned land that the Division had taken over along with settlers from Kedumim. But the Smotrich family's private fraudulence is just the tip of the iceberg of a criminal management culture that flourishes in the Settlement Division, enabling many settlers to earn a living by blatantly breaking the law. The story repeats itself time and again: millions of shekels transferred to the Settlement Division from the state each year (100 percent of the Division's budget comes from the state) are passed on as loans (which in many cases are not returned) under particularly favorable conditions, often to settlers for whom violent legal transgressions are their bread and butter.  

 

The Settlement Division was established in 1968 to implement the settlement enterprise that was in its foundational years. In time, the division became the main contractor for the State of Israel in all matters pertaining to the administration of land expropriated from Palestinians and transferred to settlers through use of various tricks. In recent years it has become clear time and again that the Settlement Division is not satisfied with solely overseeing the hundreds of thousands of dunams that the State of Israel expropriated and transferred to its management. It also specializes in "managing" private Palestinian-owned territories that it took over, well aware of their status, in cooperation with settlers and the quiet consent of the army. For example, in Ofra, Amona, and Ulpana Hill north of Beit El - not to mention the outposts of Migron, Ma'aleh Rehav'am and Mitzpe Kramim - and undoubtedly in many other places that are yet to be discovered.

 

The criminal culture of lawlessness that prevails in the Settlement Division is not a new issue. As early as 2005, attorney Talia Sasson wrote in her report on illegal outposts: "The Settlement Division established unauthorized outposts disregarding the need for a valid detailed plan, and this is not by chance but rather as a work method." In the continuation of the report, Sasson recommended: "To cancel all land allotments made by the Settlement Division, if and to the extent that they have not yet been allocated to others, and to return them to the commissioner; to cancel all land allotments allocated to the Settlement Division, which were allocated to others in contravention of its authorization; to cancel all allotments allocated by the Division to others, which have not yet been used, and return the land to the commissioner; to cancel all allotments on which unauthorized outposts were established and return the land to the commissioner; to cease the Division's operations toward establishing settlements unless the Division is authorized by the Government to function as an ad hoc settling body for the purpose of establishing a settlement or expanding a concrete settlement..."

 

A decade has passed and the Settlement Division's rampage continues. In a summary of a discussion held at the Ministry of Justice on May 10, 2015, which addressed the Settlement Division's involvement in the transfer of land rights in the West Bank, Deputy Attorney General Dana Silber wrote: "There are cases in which land rights were transferred from the Settlement Division to third parties, though it was not permissible to transfer those same land rights for a variety of reasons..."

 

Zilber, of course, was right. But what she didn't know was that the Settlement Division not only transferred immovable property to the settlers, but also funds that were granted to promote the takeover of vast private territories and illegal construction on a larger scale —  like in Smotrich's case. The long list includes loans for purchasing houses, tractors, vehicles, and garage equipment; land preparation for sowing vineyards, olive groves and date palms; flocks of sheep and herds of cattle; and equipment for chicken coops, dairies, wineries, and presses. In other words, whatever all these people and organizations need to continue working in stubborn violation of the law, doing what they know best: taking over, oppressing, expelling, threatening, and dispossessing entire Palestinian communities of their land and property — all to establish prosperous businesses on the looted land In their hands. Whether the Settlement Division is fraudulently taking over land or granting loans, these patterns of action have been repeated in dozens of cases that we have examined over the course of many years. This conduct indicates a culture of stubborn ideological criminality, financed by a body that controls annual public budgets of hundreds of millions of shekels and land assets of unimaginable worth.

Kerem Navot is an Israeli NGO  established in 2012, which monitors and carries out research on  Israeli land policy in the West Bank. 

 

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