PHOTO: A Palestinian woman stands in front of her Silwan apartment while Israeli police officers secure an alleyway leading to the entrance of a home that Jewish settlers had moved into on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)
Last week, Jewish settlers working with an Israeli organization called Elad took over 25 apartments in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem. It was the largest such takeover of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem in decades, further inflaming already high tensions in the city. Elad and the Jewish National Fund, which often work together to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, are both registered charitable organizations in the US, despite the fact that their discriminatory policies and actions run contrary to US policy in the region and US laws concerning 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.
THE JEWISH NATIONAL FUND & ELAD
- Created in 1901, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a quasi-governmental Israeli agency whose website declares it is the “caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners - Jewish people everywhere.” Prior to Israel’s creation in 1948, the JNF played a central role in the efforts of the Zionist movement to colonize Palestine, purchasing land, often from large landowners living elsewhere in the region, and displacing the native, non-Jewish, Arab population in order to establish a Jewish-majority state. Following the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians and the systematic destruction of more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages that accompanied Israel’s creation (called the “Nakba, ” or catastrophe, by Palestinians), the JNF planted forests in many areas, covering the ruins and evidence of the Palestinian Arab society that much of modern Israel is built on top of.
- Today, the JNF continues to play an important role within the Israel Land Authority (ILA) in the distribution of state lands and the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians in Israel. Approximately 93% of the land in Israel is state-owned and controlled by the ILA and quasi-governmental agencies like the JNF (which owns 13% of the land of Israel), the latter of which systematically discriminates against non-Jewish citizens in its allocation. In 2004, following a Supreme Court petition challenging the discriminatory charter of the JNF, the ILA agreed to temporarily open JNF bids to any citizen of Israel, regardless of ethnicity, but if a non-Jewish citizen won the bid to the land, the ILA agreed to compensate the JNF with other equivalent state land. Together with Admissions Committees, the JNF and Israel's discriminatory land policies make it extremely difficult for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up approximately 20% of the population, to gain access state lands for residential, commercial, agricultural, or other uses. (See fact sheet here for more on the JNF’s involvement in the ongoing displacement of Bedouin citizens of Israel in the Negev, or Naqab, desert.)
- The JNF is also involved in displacing Palestinians in the occupied territories, often in cooperation with right-wing settler groups like Elad. Through subsidiary companies like Himnuta, which was established in 1938 to help get around institutional and legal restrictions on its activities, the JNF has acquired thousands of acres of land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and conducted numerous campaigns to evict Palestinians from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers. Israeli governments have also frequently used Himnuta directly to purchase property in the occupied territories, without going through the JNF, which owns 99% of its shares.
- Founded in 1986, the Ir David Foundation, known by its Hebrew acronym Elad, is a right-wing settler organization dedicated to colonizing occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem with Israeli Jews (“Judaizing” it) particularly in and around the Old City and the neighborhood of Silwan which abuts it. Through an agreement with the Israeli government, Elad also runs the controversial City of David archeological site, which is located in Silwan. Following the group’s takeover of 25 apartments in Silwan on September 30, a White House spokesman condemned Elad as an organization “whose agenda, by definition, stokes tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”
- Elad and the JNF are registered 501(c)(3) charitable organizations in the US, therefore donations they receive are tax deductible. This means that US taxpayers are subsidizing organizations that are systematically violating international law and official US policy on settlements going back to 1967 and the start of the occupation. Their discriminatory practices also violate US law governing 501(c)(3) charitable organizations. In 2012, the JNF took in more than $65 million (USD) in contributions and grants in the US, while Friends of Ir David received nearly $6 million in donations.
THE JNF, ELAD & THE "JUDAIZATION" OF SILWAN: A CASE STUDY
- Shortly after militarily occupying East Jerusalem in the June 1967 War and massively expanding its municipal boundaries, Israel began to colonize the city in an effort to cement sovereignty over it, which is not recognized by the international community, including the US. This process of “Judaization” continues today and is carried out through official state agencies as well as quasi-governmental organizations like the JNF and private groups such as Elad and the Israel Land Fund, whose work is supported by the government. In recent years, the neighborhood of Silwan, which sits just outside the walls of the Old City and the Noble Sanctuary mosque complex, or Temple Mount, has been the target of intense settlement efforts by Elad and a flashpoint for tensions in the city. (See here for more on Israeli government efforts to “Judaize” East Jerusalem.)
- In the 1980s and early 1990s, dozens of Palestinian-owned properties in Silwan were confiscated by the Israeli government using the controversial Absentee Property Law. Passed in 1950, the Absentee Property Law grants the government the power to confiscate property belonging to Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their homes during Israel’s creation in 1948, with no compensation for the owners who were prevented from returning. In the late 1970s, following its occupation of East Jerusalem in the June 1967 War, Israel began to apply the law there as well under the direction of then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, declaring many Palestinians who own property in the city but live elsewhere to be absentees. In the early 1990s, many of the properties confiscated in this manner were turned over to the JNF and Himnuta, which in turn handed them over to settlers.
- In addition to receiving properties from the government via the Absentee Property Law, the JNF/Himnuta and Elad purchase them at above-market prices, often through shady middlemen who don’t disclose to the Palestinian owners that Israeli settlers are the buyers, as well as other dubious means. In 1992, an official Israeli investigation found that Elad and other settler groups had made false affidavits, misused the Absentee Property Law, and received illegal transfers of public property and tens of millions of shekels in public funds.
- The center of Elad’s efforts in Silwan has been the neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh, which is located right next to the Old City and is the site of the controversial City of David archeological site, believed to be the spot where the Biblical King David’s palace once stood. The archeological dig and a “tourist center” are run by Elad on behalf of the Israeli government. Critics accuse Elad and the government of exploiting the site for political purposes, using it to support a Jewish-Israeli claim to the area and evicting Palestinians from adjacent buildings. According to a report from the heads of mission of European states in Israel leaked in the spring of 2014:
“Israeli authorities, in conjunction with settler organisations, are using archaeology to promote a one-sided historical narrative of Jerusalem, placing emphasis on its biblical and Jewish connotations while neglecting the Christian/Muslim historic-archaeological ties to the same places… Archaeology continues to be used as a political and ideological tool in Jerusalem's Historic Basin, where the Israeli Government has outsourced archaeology to private Israeli pro-settler organisations. A case in point is Silwan / Wadi Hilweh, where the Israeli authorities have entrusted the management of the various archaeological sites to the settler organisation El’Ad [Elad], which now operates the ‘City of David’ tourist centre.”The report concluded that Israel’s “apparent wider strategy [is] to consolidate Israeli control over the Historic Basin by creating an exclusively Jewish tourism trail along and around the Old City.”
- The JNF has conducted numerous legal campaigns resulting in the eviction of dozens of Palestinians from their homes in Silwan, often via Himnuta and in cooperation with Elad, which boasts of having settled hundreds of Israeli Jews in Silwan. In 1998, Avraham Hallelia, a senior JNF/Himnuta official, told a Jerusalem court:
"To the best of my knowledge, all of the JNF areas [in Silwan] were leased by the ILA to the ELAD Association...it is the lands policies of JNF... that [its lands] be leased to Jews for the purposes of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.”
- In 2011, a member of the JNF-USA’s board, Seth Morrison, resigned in protest over the JNF’s attempts to evict the Sumarin family from their home in Silwan. Explaining his decision, Morrison wrote:
“[This] is not an isolated case. JNF has gained ownership of other Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and, in many instances, then transferred these properties through its subsidiaries to Elad, a settler organization whose purpose is to ‘Judaize’ East Jerusalem.Morrison also noted that the JNF’s “initial response was to deny any involvement in the eviction,” only admitting the truth when legal documents naming a JNF subsidiary as the initiator of the eviction proceedings became public.
“In my eyes, the expulsion of the Sumarin family is a violation of human rights. But it is also part of the systematic transfer of Palestinian property to ideological settlers who wish to put facts on the ground that hinder a lasting peace agreement.”
- There are currently about 500 Jewish settlers living under armed guard in Silwan in violation of international law, in the midst of approximately 50,000 Palestinians. According to a 2012 UN report: “The continuous deployment of private security guards and police forces to protect the settlements, particularly in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, has also led to frequent clashes, which undermined the physical security of Palestinian residents.” In 2010 a settler security guard shot and killed 32-year-old Samer Sirhan, a father of five, and critically wounded another man.
- Elad’s recent takeover of 25 apartments in Silwan, the largest such takeover of Palestinian property in East Jerusalem in decades, is expected to increase the number of settlers living there to approximately 700. After Elad took control of the buildings, Naftali Bennett, leader of the extreme right-wing Jewish Home party and Minister of the Economy and Religious Services, hailed the move as “historic,” stating “the City of David will always remain part of Israel.”
LEGAL STATUS OF EAST JERUSALEM
- After occupying the city in the 1967 War, Israel unilaterally expanded East Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and annexed it. Neither move has been recognized by the international community, including the US. According to international law, East Jerusalem is under Israeli military occupation. Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the city is not recognized as legitimate by the international community, including the US, which is why no state has its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem.
- The illegality of Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem has been repeatedly affirmed by the international community, including through a series of UN Security Council resolutions, including Resolutions 252, 267, 471, 476 and 478. Resolution 252 (1968) states that the Security Council “[c]onsiders that all…actions taken by Israel…which tend to change the legal status of Jerusalem are invalid and cannot change that status.”
- Although Israel has attempted to make a distinction between them, according to international law, there is no legal difference between East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied territories. As such, Israel has no internationally recognized legal claim to any part of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, Silwan and the City of David.
Shady Dealings in Silwan (May 2009)
How the state helped right-wing groups settle East Jerusalem (November 2010)
JNF-owned company bought land in the territories (February 2005)
The World Post
The JNF: Planting Trees or Uprooting Families? (November 2011)
Rabbis for Human Rights-North America
The Jewish Daily Forward
JNF Board Member Quits Over Evictions (December 2011)
The Times of Israel
Fanning the Flames in Jerusalem (October 2014)
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions