Israeli activist buys Arabs' land for Jewish settlements

McClatchy NewspapersMay 14, 2010 

JERUSALEM — Aryeh King has a vision of the future of Jerusalem that would horrify the diplomats and U.S.-led negotiators who arrived this week to try to resuscitate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I've heard people say Jerusalem is for everyone, but it is not," the right-wing activist and founder of the nonprofit Israel Land Fund told an audience earlier this week. "Jerusalem is for the Jews, and we need to stop apologizing about this."

As he ran through a PowerPoint presentation on the future of Jerusalem, more than two dozen local city and development experts applauded.

Officials in the Jerusalem municipality say King is among the most influential and effective activists moving Jewish settlers into largely Arab east Jerusalem. As a close confidant of Florida billionaire Irving Moskowitz, he has the means and the backing to bring his vision of Jerusalem to life.

On a large projector in Jerusalem's Begin Center, a museum and research center created for Israel's sixth prime minister, Menachem Begin, King displayed his ideal map of interspersed Arab and Jewish communities between the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah.

The area is well over the Green Line, the 1967 armistice line that Palestinians, Americans and much of the international community agree marks the border of a future Palestinian state.

Jewish settlements there are the main stumbling block for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the cause of a continuing diplomatic dispute between Israel and the U.S.

King made no apologizes or concessions as he described the process by which he helps Jews settle in the disputed area. He made no apologies for the Arab straw men — people who pose as buyers and put their names on land deals — he uses to buy property from Palestinian families and then transfer ownership to Jewish settlers.

The Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, has ruled that Arabs who sell their property to Jews are violating a law, a crime that's punishable by death.

By using non-Jews as his straw men, King said, he outmaneuvers the Palestinians, who otherwise would be punished by their communities.

"There are loopholes in place and well-established means of moving Jewish families anywhere. We have used this method for years, and it works, despite the best efforts of the government to stop us," he said.

"Most of the time, the people have no idea that it is going to Jews until the day they move in, and then it is too late," he said.

He gave an example from six months ago. Using an Arab family from the northern Israeli city of Acco, he bought a property in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

The Arab family negotiated with the property's Palestinian owners and managed to get what he said was a discounted price for moving in immediately. When the deal had been processed and signed and the money transferred, the Arab family transferred the deed to a Jewish family that moved in.

King makes his living the way other real estate agents do; on the website of the Israel Land Fund, he displays available properties, including "ideological sites" — those in the West Bank.

The website explains to potential investors that, "Investing in property in Israel is without a doubt one of the best investments a Jew can make."

"With hundreds of properties all over Israel being offered for sale, the Israel Land Fund offers every Jew, regardless of location, the opportunity to obtain a portion of the land.

"House by house, lot by lot, the Israel Land Fund is ensuring the land of Israel stays in the hands of the Jewish people forever. You, too, can take part in this great endeavour," the website says.

King said that despite the positions of the U.S. government and most of Europe, he was receiving "more interest than ever" from "sympathetic parties" abroad.

His organization has been involved in some of the most controversial settler disputes in recent years, including the Shepherd's Hotel in East Jerusalem, which the U.S. has protested.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a partial freeze on settlements in the West Bank 10 months ago, but he's refused to announce a similar freeze on East Jerusalem settlements, arguing that the city has a "special status" and would remain a "united Jewish capital."

Palestinians, however, consider East Jerusalem the capital of their future state, and that's an issue in the indirect peace talks that the Obama administration is trying to broker.

The administration was forced to delay restarting the talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders when Israel embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden during his visit in early March by announcing 1,600 new settler homes in East Jerusalem.

Those talks are to begin this weekend, when U.S. officials meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but American officials say the settlement issue could easily derail them.

King knows how sensitive the issue is, but he says he's proceeding with plans to help establish as many as 400 new settler homes in East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yitzchak Pindrus said he was well aware of King's activities.

"We know about these kind of activities happening, but if someone private goes and buys a home, what does anyone in the world really expect the municipality to do? I know politically it sounds great," he said. "There are quite a few of these cases, but they are private interactions between buyers and banks and sellers. We can't intervene, and no government in the world would expect us to do otherwise."

King's activities illustrate the difficulty of attempting to halt Jewish building in East Jerusalem, Pindrus said.

"It is easy to point to his activities and use them as an excuse to embarrass the Israeli government, but there is nothing illegal about his activities. There is no authority to stop him," Pindrus said.

Sitting at a cafe minutes from one of the East Jerusalem homes he's attempting to purchase in largely Arab Sheikh Jarrah, King seemed confident that the municipality won't stop him.

"They have not made things easy, but there are ways around them," he said, swinging his feet in the sandals that betray his upbringing in a rural town in southern Israel's Negev desert.

Jerusalem is the last place in the world he thought he'd live, let alone learn to love, he said.

"I always loved warm places, the beach. I never thought that I would love Jerusalem so much that I would fight to protect her, but this has become my life," he said.

In a single hour, he took nine phone calls related to various projects he's advancing with pro-settler groups, including Ateret Cohanim and Elad.

Though 2009 was one of his biggest years, he has even bigger hopes for 2010, although he wouldn't provide a number to support his claim.

"God willing, it will be even bigger. We'd like to see Jewish presence in Jerusalem expand to this," he said, pointing to his map dotted with potential settlements.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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