Der Spiegel | By Gregor Peter Schmitz and Christoph Schult | 23 July 2010
US Cash for Israeli Settlements
Making a Mockery of the Moratorium
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have declared a freeze on new settlements, but construction is continuing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Settlers are receiving contributions from American foundations that enjoy tax breaks, including Christian groups that see Biblical prophecies being fulfilled.
A gray pick-up truck speeds up to the metal gate at the entrance to Shilo, a Jewish settlement halfway between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus and which is home to 2,500 people.
Dror Etkes, 41, puts on sunglasses and a blue cap. He is hoping not to be recognized. Settlers in the West Bank consider Etkes, who has spent more than nine years making note of every new house built in the more than 120 Israeli settlements here, their number one enemy. A settlers’ newspaper once printed his picture with the caption “Dror Etkes, head of the peace movement’s intelligence service.”
So Etkes employs various tricks to gain admittance to the settlements. Nearly every one of them, for example, contains a minimarket. When the guard at the Shilo gate asks where he’s headed, Etkes replies, looking bored, “To the minimarket.” The guard believes him and opens the metal gate.
‘A Bad Joke’
Just a couple hundred meters on, Etkes finds what he’s looking for — a “For Sale” sign advertising “10 family homes.” From the top of a hill, Etkes watches Palestinian workers who are using wooden slats to prepare a framework for concrete. “The foundations are from December,” Etkes states knowledgeably and clicks his camera shutter button.
Now Etkes has further proof that there has not in fact been a “freeze” on settlement building since November, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have the world believe. In any case, the Israeli cabinet also made exceptions in the moratorium for public buildings such as synagogues and preschools, as well as allowing private homes already under construction to be completed.
The settlers’ administration of Samaria in the northern part of the West Bank thus issued permits for 1,600 housing units — nearly 10 times as many as in the previous year — before the moratorium began. Etkes’ latest research shows that settlers have also begun new construction projects since the moratorium took effect. At least 46 of the 120 official settlements are currently carrying out construction, the left-wing activist says. “Talking about a moratorium is just a bad joke.”
Praising Netanyahu’s Restraint
US President Barack Obama, on the other hand, praised Netanyahu for his “restraint” on the settlement question during the Israeli prime minister’s visit to Washington two weeks ago. That comment struck Palestinian leaders in Ramallah as mockery, especially as it emerged around the same time that many of the settlements have the American tax system to thank for their development.
According to research by the New York Times, pro-settler groups have raised over $200 million (€155 million) in the last 10 years. Such foundations in the United States can be exempted from taxes as long as they benefit “educational, religious or charitable” causes.
This raises some important questions. Do foundations deserve tax breaks even while pursuing clear foreign policy aims? And what happens when their aims run contrary to those of the US government?
Representatives of the foundations in question offer placating words. Sondra Baras from Christian Friends of Israel Communities (CFOIC), for example, says that her organization “does not have a political agenda.” The organization, which is based in Colorado Springs, is tax exempt. “CFOIC does not advocate any particular political solution to the problems in the Middle East,” she told SPIEGEL. “The support is ideological and Biblical in nature, not political.”
‘Humanitarian in Nature’
Steven Orlow, president of the One Israel Fund, another tax-exempted pro-settler group based in Hewlett, New York, makes similar comments.
“The activities of the One Israel Fund are exclusively limited to affecting ‘quality of life’ issues, the primary stress being on preventing the loss of Jewish life,” he says. “The perception from our side of the Atlantic is that Europeans may well find the effort to save Jewish lives as political. From the American perspective, this is generally considered humanitarian in nature.”
In reality, though, these foundations are unwilling to condone a separate state for Palestinians. “CFOIC does not have a political agenda, but it does support the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel,” Baras says. “For thousands of years, this land has been called the Land of Israel and the Jewish people are the only people on this earth who have prayed and yearned for centuries to return to this land.”
Even when an Israeli government does halt a settlement project — which happens rarely enough — American foundations step in to make up the difference. When Jerusalem wanted to prevent the construction of permanent homes in Maskiot, a tiny settlement near the Jordanian border, CFOIC and One Israel Fund raised tens of thousands of dollars for temporary bungalows — until the official building freeze was lifted.
“Funding such activity is both irresponsible and provocative,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, a lobby group founded in Washington in 2008 to advocate a critical view of the Israeli government. “Ongoing settlement construction is diminishing the chances of a two-state solution.”
Still, it’s hardly likely the representatives of the pro-settler groups will change their tune. “American presidents come and go, but our communities have continued to grow,” says Sondra Baras of CFOIC. “It seems a bit silly that the president of one of the greatest nations on Earth would get so involved in a family’s personal decision to buy or build a new home somewhere in Israel.”
Steven Orlow at the One Israel Fund also claims settlement construction had never been an obstacle to peace talks, and that Obama himself “decided to throw that issue into the mix.” When it comes to diplomacy in the region, Orlow says that “the sheer level of incompetence demonstrated to date by the US administration has been, regrettably, breathtaking.”
The American president does in fact share some of the blame for the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process. At first he lent his full support to the call for a complete freeze on settlement building, including in East Jerusalem. Palestinians took that as a sign that Obama would expect extensive concessions from Israel before negotiations could begin. But Obama caved in last September, welcoming Israel’s half-hearted settlement moratorium and since then calling on the Palestinians to join in direct talks.
Obama has maneuvered himself into a dead end. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is demanding concessions before he returns to the negotiating table. At the same time, many ministers in the Israeli cabinet are so unhappy with the current moratorium that under no circumstances will they want to extend it beyond September.
Still, the largest problem isn’t the settlements in the West Bank — the majority of American donations go to the large settlement blocks that would in all likelihood be given to the Jewish state in the event of a peace accord. The main obstacle is instead settlements in annexed East Jerusalem. House by house, they form a ring around the old city and make the division of Jerusalem into an Israeli and a Palestinian capital virtually impossible.
Buying Up East Jerusalem
Arieh King, 35, stands on the roof of a four-story apartment building called Maale HaZeitim. Ras al-Amud is what Arab residents call this neighborhood, where the Dome of the Rock glows golden in the background.
King wears a crocheted kippah, something that has become a symbol of the settlers and those who sympathize with them. He is founder and head of the Israel Land Fund, an organization that uses front men to buy up houses and property from Palestinians in East Jerusalem, subsequently settling Jewish residents there. King is also the son-in-law of Irving Moskowitz, a Jewish multimillionaire from Miami Beach who is the primary sponsor of the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.
“Of course we receive donations from the US,” King confirms. “That’s perfectly legal.” Left-wing Israeli organizations such as B’Tselem and Peace Now also receive American money, he adds, and they too can benefit from American tax law.
King stresses that he abides by the law — Israeli law, of course. He doesn’t recognize the international law that views East Jerusalem as an occupied territory. Because there was never a Palestinian state in “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria,” the realtor says, there can be no talk of occupied territory.
A Jewish state, on the other hand, King asserts, certainly did once exist. He is referring to the biblical kingdom of King David. As evidence, he points to the large Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives across the way, where Jews have been buried for more than 2000 years.
King scoffs at talk of a “two-state solution.” He insists on referring to Obama as “King Hussein” — drawing on the president’s middle name — and calls him “a Muslim, an anti-Semite and a hater of Jews.” Netanyahu, King says, is only implementing the settlement moratorium to curry favor with the American president. “He’s weak and he’s harming the Jewish people,” King says of the prime minister.
Netanyahu also halted settlement projects in deference to the US government during his first term in office in the late 1990s, King points out. Then he smiles widely and points out 66 new apartments that will be ready for occupancy by November.
“You just have to have patience,” King says, “and all problems work themselves out over time.”
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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