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Settlements a risky investment

WASHINGTON (JTA) – When West Bank settlers recently launched an ambitious campaign to sell homes in settlements to American Jews, Peace Now warned that investing in real estate across the Green Line was not only politically and morally wrong but also financially risky.

Little did we know that this real estate twilight zone would play a role in bringing Heftzibah Construction, one of Israel’s largest contractors and a chief builder of West Bank settlements, to the brink of bankruptcy.

Although the financial collapse of Heftzibah was due not only to its illegal building on privately owned Palestinian land, its story should serve as a red flag for anyone considering a real estate deal in a West Bank settlement. Ask the 430 fervently Orthodox families that paid Heftzibah $100,000 each for small apartments in the settlement of Modi’in-Illit. These homeowners are barred by court order from occupying their homes because Heftzibah built some of them on private Palestinian land.

The story of Heftzibah’s entanglement in Modi’in-Illit is a microcosm of how land has been grabbed and manipulated by settlers, dealers and contractors – with the generous helping hand of Israeli politicians and government bureaucrats.

It started with the dubious purchase by an Israeli land dealer of large plots around the village of Bil’in, west of Ramallah. The land dealer, Shmuel Enav, was later convicted of encouraging other land dealers to make financial contributions to the right-wing Likud Party in exchange for expected favors from Likud’s elected officials.

In and around the site of Modi’in-Illit, Enav bought large plots of land from Palestinians who apparently misrepresented themselves as the legal owners of the land. According to an investigation by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Israeli government officials declared the land “state land” and then leased it to the dealers in order to launder potentially illegal land deals.

Other portions of the land zoned for the large housing project in Modi’in Illit, now the largest settlement in the West Bank, were outside the municipal boundaries of the settlement and known to have been privately owned by Palestinians. Despite all that, building permits were issued – illegally – and Heftzibah went ahead with the construction project.

At that point Peace Now, with some of the landowners, appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered the work stopped. The court also ordered the government to open a criminal investigation to determine how the illegal building permits were issued and explain why it would not demolish the illegally constructed homes.

If anything is unique about this story, it is that Heftzibah and others are being held accountable by the Supreme Court for the kind of illegal conduct that has become common practice in the West Bank. Recent Peace Now reporting, based on official Israeli government data, shows that about one-third of land used by West Bank settlements is private Palestinian property. The data show that nearly a quarter of land on which the settlements are actually built is privately owned by Palestinians.

Furthermore, Peace Now reporting points out that despite the very generous allotment of land for settlements by the government – only 9 percent of the area under the jurisdiction of West Bank settlements has been built on – nearly all of the settlements, 90 percent, exceed their official boundaries. About one-third of the territory used by the settlements lays outside their jurisdiction.

Peace Now’s petition to the High Court of Justice was intended not only to protect the rights of Palestinian landowners. Foremost, it was done with Israel’s security in mind, with the strong conviction that a viable, stable Palestinian state in the West Bank is a necessary condition for long-term Israeli security. Settlements hinder the establishment of such a state.

The intensified litigation efforts by Peace Now obviously are not an alternative to political action by the Israeli government to freeze and then reverse the settlement enterprise. This litigation, rather, serves the function of deterrence. It is a way to remind Israelis – the government and the public – that settling the West Bank is not cost-free and that land across the Green Line is not a reserve of real estate for expansion. Court action is a tool to focus Israelis on the tremendous political value of the West Bank as the territory from which Israel will need to withdraw if it is to continue to exist as a democratic Jewish state.

Hopefully, by giving a second thought to the financial risks of investing in West Bank real estate, Israelis and American Jews will also ponder the damage done to Israel’s future by constructing settlements across the Green Line.

Ori Nir is the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist organization that promotes Israel’s security through peace and supports the Israeli Peace Now movement.

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