Jews are split over charity’s support for settlements

Friday, February 26, 2021

JERUSALEM (AP) — Generations of Jews have dropped spare change into the iconic blue boxes of the Jewish National Fund, a 120-year-old Zionist organization that acquires land, plants trees and carries out development projects in the Holy Land.

But the Israeli group, known by its Hebrew acronym KKL, is now considering formally expanding its activities into the occupied West Bank. That has sparked fierce opposition from left-leaning Jewish groups in the United States, deepening a rift with the increasingly right-wing Israeli government.

The debate has drawn attention to the fact that the KKL, which owns more than a tenth of all the land in Israel, has been quietly operating in the West Bank for decades, building and expanding settlements that most of the international community considers a violation of international law.

A separate New York-based organization, also known as the Jewish National Fund, does not take a position on the settlements and mostly operates within Israel.

The controversy erupted earlier this month when the Axios news website reported that the KKL was considering a proposal to openly fund land purchases from Palestinians in the West Bank. The move could potentially channel hundreds of millions of dollars into the expansion of settlements, some of them deep inside the occupied territory.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state. They view the settlements — which house nearly 500,000 Israelis — as the main obstacle to a two-state solution to the conflict.

Israel views the West Bank as the biblical heartland of the Jewish people and says any partition should be negotiated in peace talks, which have been largely moribund for more than a decade.

The proposal would need to be approved by the KKL’s board of directors, which includes representatives from several Jewish organizations and is not expected to decide before the country holds nationwide elections on March 23.

“Throughout the years and till this very day, KKL-JNF has been operating in all parts of the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria,” it said, using the biblical name of the West Bank. “At this stage, there is no intention of opening up a new area in Judea and Samaria.”

It added that all projects are confirmed with donors in advance, suggesting that funds intended for projects inside Israel would not be diverted to occupied territory.

But Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog, says the KKL has been quietly operating in the West Bank for decades, acquiring at least 65,000 dunams (16,000 acres) of land for settlements, mainly through a subsidiary.

“This has happened before and so this isn’t a sea change,” Peace Now spokesman Brian Reeves said. “But this would be the first time that they are officially endorsing this in the open, the idea of purchasing land in the West Bank, and essentially saying ‘we don’t agree with international law, or that there’s occupation, or that the two-state solution matters.’”

Palestinians view the sale of land to settlers as a betrayal of their national cause, so such transactions are usually carried out in secret or through middlemen, opening them up to allegations of fraud. In some cases, they result in the eviction of Palestinian families who say they never sold their property.