The Jewish National Fund suspected of trading in stolen Palestinian land

By Jonathan Lis and Amos Harel

Haaretz

Adar1 19, 5765

Police are investigating suspicions that the former CEO of Himnuta, a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund, purchased stolen Palestinian lands in exchange for bribes.

On Sunday, police arrested five suspects in the affair: Haim Cohen, who was Himnuta's CEO until two months ago; Lieutenant Colonel Yair Blumenthal, head of the Civil Administration's infrastructure department; brothers Yosef and Yaakov Amram, Jerusalem businessmen; and their lawyer, Eitan Tzachi. The five are suspected of forging documents, illegal land dealing and aggravated fraud.

Police believe that the ring was responsible for at least five deals in which West Bank lands were stolen from their Palestinian owners and sold to Himnuta for a total of more than NIS 20 million. The stolen lands are located near Hebron, Gush Etzion, Jericho, Ma'aleh Adumim and Givat Ze'ev.

The JNF said in response: "The JNF has a great interest in the affair's exposure. In recent months, we have been in contact with the police and helped them with the investigation. We will continue to cooperate with the police in the future as well."

Cohen allegedly authorized Himnuta's purchase of the lands knowing all too well that they were stolen. However, police do not believe that anyone else at Himnuta was aware of the fraud.

Blumenthal, one of the Civil Administration's most veteran employees, is suspected of providing the ring with information acquired in the course of his work about lands that would be suitable for fraudulent sale. He also allegedly approved the sales in his professional capacity, even though he knew they were fraudulent. Police suspect that he was bribed to provide these services.

The Amrams and their lawyer allegedly bought the lands from Palestinian accomplices and then sold them for inflated sums to Himnuta. Three of the suspected Palestinian accomplices were arrested last week, and police sources predicted that many more arrests will soon follow, including the arrest of 19 lawyers who, knowingly or not, participated in the fraud.

Chief Superintendent Eliezer Elhar of the Samaria and Judea District Police said that the motive for the crimes was primarily financial, but some of those involved may also have been influenced by a desire to "redeem" Palestinian lands and use them for the construction of Jewish settlements.

"I have more than a gut instinct that there was also an ideological motive," he said.

Army sources concurred, noting that Blumenthal is an ideological ally of the settlement movement and good friends with many of its leaders. In his professional capacity, the sources added, he often facilitated the establishment of illegal settlement outposts.

According to the police, the investigation began in May 2004, when certain Palestinian landowners discovered that their lands had been sold without their knowledge and were now registered in Israel's Land Registry (known by its Hebrew acronym, Tabu) as belonging to Himnuta. Army sources, however, claimed that the Civil Administration was the first to file a police complaint, and the Military Police participated in the probe.

Police believe that the ring, with help from Palestinian and Jordanian accomplices, located West Bank lands whose Palestinian owners were either dead or living in Jordan. The ring would then forge a power of attorney from the deceased or absent owner - in some cases, with help from Palestinian accomplices - and use it to sell the land to their Palestinian accomplices, who would then resell it, for much less than its true value, to a Jerusalem company called "Awad and Daoud," that was owned by the Amrams.

The brothers would then sell it to Himnuta for an exaggerated price, with the profits being split between the five conspirators.