From straw men to cash-stuffed suitcases, new investigation reveals that 14 out 15 acquisitions by right wing firm of West Bank lands from Palestinians were forged.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016 at 11:04AM
by Chaim Levinson 1 February 2016 Haaretz
An archive image of the Amona outpost.Olivier Fitoussi
A fraud squad investigation has revealed that 14 of 15 supposed real estate acquisitions made by Al-Watan, a company run by pro-settlement activist Ze’ev Hever and owned by the right wing Amana, were forged.
Details of the West Bank forgery industry were broadcast on Tuesday in an investigative report on the Channel 10 program HaMakor with Raviv Drucker.
Ze’ev Hever, head of Amana, in the Knesset.Olivier Fitoussi
In recent years, whenever the state sought to evacuate illegal outposts in the Binyamin region, Al-Watan officials would announce that they had bought the local lands from their Palestinian owners. The documents often turned out to be forged.
A police investigation that was opened in the case ended, and the case was transferred to the state prosecutor. The police did not interrogate Hever, but by questioning a chain of straw men it emerged that 14 of the 15 supposed deals were forged.
An investigative report by Raviv Drucker documents two Palestinians who acted as straw men for Al-Watan. The straw men would buy the lands from people using forged documents purpoting to be those of the real landowners (many of whom are no longer alive) and then transfer them to Amana in a fake deal.
Border police troops prepare to evacuate buildings in Ma'aleh Rehavam outpost. May 14, 2014.Emil Salman
One of them, Akram, said to the camera, “I signed on many plots and lands.” Referring to the land upon which the outpost of Amona was established he said: “I signed in Silwad," he said, referring to a West Bank Palestinian town northeast of Ramallah. "They told me there is land with such and such a number, and another plot with number … sign. I signed so many times for many lands. I made five or six deals.”
He added: “I told them I am signing for all the Palestinians, but let me live in Israel because of my children. My children are in Israel, and I don’t see them, and I am always entering Israel and going to jail because I have no permit, and I tell them in the investigation that I am threatened. I have a problem in the Palestinian Authority, and I am threatened unless you let me live in Israel. I sold [land] because they would help me, and no one is helping me. I am suffering from complexes now.”
Straw men, cash suitcases
The two straw men attest that at the signing, an Israeli lawyer from Jerusalem, who was investigated in the case and who name is barred from publication under a gag order, handed them a suitcase with half a million shekels ($126,400). When they go outside, the lawyer takes the suitcase back. The goal is to fake a deal. Mohammed, one of the straw men who was interviewed, said that he sat with the lawyer in a restaurant, and afterwards went up to his office.
“He told me that this man’s friend cannot put the land under his name because of the Income Tax Authority,” he explained. “I signed on the papers and afterward he gave me a suitcase full of money and told me, ‘Take this.’ When I went downstairs, he took the money back and told me, ‘Take, this is what you get.’ That’s all.”
The investigative report documents attorney Eytan Lehman meeting with Akram at a gas station after he learned that Akram was speaking with Drucker, and instructs him to call him and tell him that he does not remember anything, without realizing that he was being recorded.
“The question is if you can have the conversation with him,” he said in the recording. “Tell him [Druker] perhaps I no longer remember he story blah blah blah, and then he will tell you: 'but don’t worry, I know the whole story.' Tell him what does he mean 'know the whole story,' for you don’t remember what I said to the police or something like that … Try to get it out of him without him understanding.”
Hever responded by saying he does not have knowledge of the report's content.
Al Watan responded to the report, saying all of their land deals were done legally.
The forgery at the heart of West Bank land transactions
Palestinians: Settlers fraudulently bought land from dead man
Police Discover That Entire Amona Outpost Was Built on Palestinian Land
Amana settler organization accused of widespread forgery of ownership documents.
Chaim Levinson May 26, 2014 6:20 PM
Ze'ev Hever, right, with IDF Spokesperson Yoav Moredechai, then head of Civil Administration, center.Tess Scheflan
A police investigation has revealed that Al-Watan, a subsidiary of settlement organization Amana run by Ze’ev (Zambish) Hever, filed forged documents attesting to a legal purchase of Palestinian land, the site of the Amona outpost.
The Amona outpost was built completely on private Palestinian land, and is currently home to some 40 families. In 2008, the landowners, along with the Yesh Din organization and attorneys Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zacharia, filed a petition requesting to demolish the entire outpost. The government responded to the petition, stating that the outpost would be demolished before the end of 2012, and later postponed demolition to June 2013.
Al-Watan is a registered organization in the West Bank, a subsidiary of the Amana movement. The organization’s goal is to purchase land from Palestinians in areas over which there is a dispute within the Supreme Court. A few days before Amona was scheduled to be demolished, Al-Watan officials claimed that they had purchased portions of the land there.
In response to Al-Watan’s claims, the government changed its position on Amona, and instead of demolishing it, divided the land there into three categories: private land whose owners have asked the courts to evacuate, private land whose owners haven’t asked the courts to evacuate despite the illegal land theft, and the lands purchased by Al-Watan. The lands belonging to this last category would be frozen until the end of legal proceedings in the Magistrate’s Court.
Last summer, the road leading to the outpost as well as one structure were cleared off of private Palestinian land. As for the entire outpost, Supreme Court President Asher Grunis has been putting off making a final decision.
Last Thursday, the state prosecutor reported to Yesh Din that according to the Israel Police forensics unit, the documents regarding one plot of land in Amona were forged. It is unclear which plot, specifically. In addition, the owners of two plots filed suit in the Jerusalem District Court over the forgery. The government has stated that it is considering its next moves regarding the forged documents.
This case is the latest in a series of forgeries. Ten days ago, it was determined that an Al-Watan document regarding the Migron outpost was forged. The forensics unit also reported to the Supreme Court last week that a document pertaining to a sale of land in Givat Assaf was also forged. The government has not been clear on what it intends to do with this information.
Haaretz reported last week that Al-Watan systematically produces and submits forged documents meant to obstruct Supreme Court proceedings. Evidence was found that “last-minute” deals for land in the Ulpana neighborhood, Givat Assaf and twice in Migron involved forged documents. Supreme Court justices, however, are holding up their decisions and postponing planned demolitions of the outposts.
Sfard and Zacharia stated in response that “the story of Amona involves a great crime, perpetrated by a small company of criminals, and this forgery is just the latest in a long history of similar criminal acts. Time after time, it turns out that the settlers’ claims of purchase, which always happen at the last minute, are based on forged documents. Despite this, the government allows these claims to hold up enforcing the law, and prevent the evacuation of illegal structures built on private land. The Amona outpost is built entirely on private Palestinian land, and we hope and believe that it soon will be completely evacuated and returned to its rightful owners.”
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The Forgery at the Heart of West Bank Land Transactions
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Al-Watan, subsidiary of settlement organization Amana, has a history of using dubious documents to defend Jewish settlements in the West Bank from demolition.
Chaim Levinson May 20, 2014 6:22 PM
West Bank settlement of Givat Assaf, November 9, 2011.Moti Milrod
After many postponements, the West Bank outpost of Givat Asaf was about to be demolished in July 2012. The state had promised to demolish the outpost several months prior, following a petition to the High Court of Justice by the left-wing activist group Peace Now. Givat Asaf had been built entirely on Palestinian land.
Eight days before the outpost was to be evacuated, and after the squatters had been living there for more than a decade, settlers pulled a rabbit out of their hat. Officials of Al-Watan, a subsidiary of settlement organization Amana, announced they had purchased a plot of land on the outpost as well as parts of two other plots of land. The state joined the residents of Givat Asaf in requesting a postponement of the evacuation while it clarified whether the change of ownership warranted the outpost’s legalization. Supreme Court President Justice Asher Grunis consented.
There were questions about the legitimacy of the transaction from the start. The chance that a Palestinian landowner would sell a plot of land that was to be discussed in the High Court shortly before its evacuation is close to nil, and forging a land transaction is no rare occurrence in the West Bank. Several months ago, when the Palestinians landowners learned of the supposed purchase, they quickly petitioned the Jerusalem District Court that the registration be changed back, claiming that they had never sold the land to anyone and that the documents were forged.
The affair came to a predictable end this week when the State Prosecutor’s Office notified the Supreme Court, “The opinion submitted by the forensic science department indicates there is a suspicion of forgery regarding the document of sale of one of the three aforesaid plots of land.” Although the state announced it would “consider its measures” in light of the new information, Al-Watan had already won the round: The evacuation was postponed for two years, which may well have been used for additional “transactions.” The outpost will keep on going from one appeal to the next until the arrival of either peace or the third intifada.
Reclaiming the Jewish homeland
Al-Watan (“Homeland” in Arabic) is a company registered in the West Bank according to Jordanian law, which stipulates that only a resident of the area or a company registered there may purchase land. Al-Watan was established in 2002 to buy Palestinian-owned land for Jewish settlement. The owners of Al-Watan are Amana (through its subsidiary Binyanei Bar Amana) and the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council (through the Mateh Binyamin Development Company). The company is managed by Ze’ev Hever, who runs many companies and agencies behind the establishment of outposts in the West Bank. Hever began working for the company in 2011 upon the departure of the previous director, Yitzhak Mamo.
Hever, who was a member of the Jewish underground in the 1980s and served an 11-month jail term for his activities in the group, has been running Amana for the past 25 years. He is considered a prominent figure in Jewish settlement in the West Bank. With his broad connections in the government, the army and the Civil Administration, he is considered a close friend of Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Benzi Lieberman, the director of the Israel Lands Authority and former director of the Yesha Council. The doors of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s offices are open to him, as are those of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry. In the past, he was close with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. About a year ago, Haaretz published an expose revealing the scope of Amana’s illegal construction activities in the West Bank and raised questions about what appeared to be deliberate disregard of Amana’s actions by law-enforcement authorities.
Since the Land Registry Office in the West Bank keeps its records sealed, there is no way to know how much land Amana has purchased. But a look at the building plans submitted to the Civil Administration in recent years shows that Al-Watan’s activity is limited to buying land on outposts that are under threat of demolition — purchases that quickly turn out to be dubious. Criminal proceedings have never been initiated against the company.
Yariv Oppenheimer, the executive director of Peace Now, said, “The State Prosecutor’s Office is overly forgiving, and is not using even one-tenth of the tools at its disposal to prosecute the ones who are responsible and stop this from happening. There are no arrests, no recruitment of state’s witnesses and no questioning under caution about the submission of false and forged affidavits to the Civil Administration and to the court. The Land of Israel is being purchased by fakery, using methods taken from the underworld, and the State Prosecutor’s Office has no one who will investigate and find the ones responsible.”
Hever said, “Al-Watan conducts its business honestly. But it is natural that the sellers of the land on the Arab side would deny the sale and even complain about it to the police, since the Palestinian Authority has enacted a law mandating the death penalty for anyone selling land to Jews. I suggest that those who are in a hurry to draw conclusions wait for the court’s final ruling, and then form their opinion.”
In 2006, Peace Now petitioned the High Court via attorneys Shlomi Zacharia and Michael Sfard, asking for the demolition of Migron, which was then the largest outpost in the West Bank, with approximately 50 families living there. Al-Watan came to Migron’s aid. Its officials told the High Court that the company had purchased two plots of land on the outpost two years earlier. But a probe by the police’s National Fraud Squad quickly showed the purchase was fake. The power of attorney for the sale had been signed in 2004 in California by a man who had died in Ramallah 40 years earlier, and the American notary whose signature was on the document told Israeli investigators that his stamp had been stolen several months earlier.
The findings of the police probe did not keep Al-Watan from holding onto the documents in an effort to prevent the outpost’s demolition. In 2011, on a eve of the Supreme Court hearing that would decide the outpost’s fate, Al-Watan sued in Jerusalem District Court to have the land registered in its name, providing the same forged documents as evidence. In the Supreme Court hearing, they claimed they needed to await the district court’s ruling. In that case, the judges did not respond to the request, and when the Migron case ended in January of this year, Al-Watan withdrew its lawsuit.
With this avenue closed, Al-Watan went to Plan B. In an urgent, secret request to the Supreme Court, its officials cited two new land purchases in Migron. Absurdly, one of them concerned a plot of land that the company had already claimed to have purchased in 2004. The second transaction screamed forgery: The seller was a 100-year-old man who had died at an advanced age six months before the sale was reported to the Civil Administration. The man spent his final years bedridden in his son’s home, out of contact with the outside world. Still, the Civil Administration approved the transaction.
Although the residents of Migron were evicted in 2012, the buildings remained standing until the end of the police investigation of the case. When the probe ended last week and its findings were presented, attorney Aner Helman of the State Prosecutor’s Office notified Al-Watan’s attorney that the document they had offered as proof of the transaction’s validity was fake and that the buildings would be evacuated this week. When Haaretz asked the Justice Ministry whether it had opened a criminal investigation into who had faked the document, a ministry spokeman said, “Regarding the new information, a police investigation was started that found the document to be forged. We can give no details beyond that for understandable reasons.”
The death penalty for selling to Jews
Al-Watan used a similar method in the case of the Ulpana Hill neighborhood of the Beit El settlement, and received cooperation from the State Prosecutor’s Office. In the summer of 2012, five buildings that had been constructed illegally on land privately owned by Palestinians threatened the coalition’s stability. After the state promised to evacuate them, Al-Watan officials claimed that Al-Watan owned the land and provided a purchase contract as proof. The police probe found that the name of the seller was not the name of the owner and that the seller had been seven years old at the time the sale was registered in his name — which is not permitted under Jordanian law.
Not even Amana’s officials believed this fictitious purchase. MK David Rotem, who was then the company’s attorney, added a clause to the purchase contract stipulating that the contract would be completed when the fictitious seller showed proof that he was the owner of the land. This was never done. The scenario was repeated: Several days before a crucial hearing in the High Court, a petition was submitted to the Jerusalem District court asking that the land be registered in Al-Watan’s name. Several days later, the state claimed in the High Court that it needed to wait until the lawsuit was decided to demolish the buildings. But the judges denied the request. After Ulpana was evacuated, Al-Watan withdrew its lawsuit.
Al-Watan officials claim that the company purchased land in Amona as well, 17 years after the outpost was established. Following this claim, the state told the High Court it not longer intended to demolish the outpost. Two lawsuits brought by the original landowners, which claim forgery, are pending in Jerusalem District Court.
In another case, which was not discussed in the High Court, the district court ruled that the documents the company produced in 2003 as evidence of the purchase of a Palestinian home in the village of Deir Dibwan, near Ofra, were not authentic. Members of the Mishpetei Eretz Institute for Halacha and Law took possession of the building on the basis of those documents and are still there despite the court’s ruling.
Land transactions in the West Bank are susceptible to trouble and to forgery. According to Palestinian Authority law, any Palestinian who sells land to Jews is subject to the death penalty (although this law has never been invoked during Mahmoud Abbas’ term as president). For this reason, even real transactions are carried out via a series of straw men. In an off-the-record conversation, a former high-ranking official of Al-Watan claimed that the company was actually a victim rather than a perpetrator: Crooked people were taking advantage of its eagerness to buy land in disputed areas and selling it a pig in a poke. But it seems this claim is disingenuous. Al-Watan has no problem falling victim to stings of this sort, which allow it to present purchased documents to the court. Experience shows that the Civil Administration and the State Prosecutor’s Office tend to cooperate.
A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories commented, “In approving the registration of land transactions in the region, the Civil Administration acts according to the criteria required of it in this matter. If a suspicion arises regarding the credibility of a request, the matter is brought for clarification before the registration is completed. In the case under discussion, the required measures were taken when suspicions arose.”
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