Background Paper: The controversial land policies of the Jewish National Fund

Thursday, 10 June, 2010 - 23:15
London, UK

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) or Keren Kayemet LeYisrael was founded in 1901 in Basel by the World Zionist Organisation, with the aim of purchasing lands in Eretz Yisrael, the biblical name for Israel/Palestine. In its letter of association, JNF stipulated that it would buy lands for Jews only.

Land policies in Israel: Discrimination against non-Jews

Ninety-three percent of the land in Israel is “State Land”, that is, lands owned by the Israeli government, by the Israeli government’s Development Authority or by the JNF. Of these, 17 percent are owned by the JNF.

In 1961 the JNF and the State signed an agreement for joint administration of their lands by the Israel Land Authority (ILA), whose Directorate of 13 includes six JNF representatives. The JNF was given special status in Israeli law, and is viewed as the decisive entity in land policy in Israel. ILA-administered lands were to be leased for long periods but never sold.

In order to preserve the JNF principle of allocation to Jews only, the agreement stipulated that when a non-Jew leased a plot from JNF, the ILA would give the JNF a plot of equal size from state lands in return.

In 2004 the ILA stopped the land exchange arrangement with the JNF, leading to a refusal to lease lands to Arab citizens of the state, who make up 20% of Israel’s population. Arabs who attempted to lease JNF lands or to register apartments and properties they had bought were prevented from doing so.

Three High Court petitions were submitted by rights groups Adalah, Mossawa, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Arab Centre for Alternative Planning against this practice, leading to a resolution for some individuals, but no principled ruling regarding discrimination in land allocation on ethno-nationalist grounds.

In 2007 a law was tabled by the Israeli Knesset according to which JNF lands should officially be sold to Jews only. The bill needs to be voted on twice more in the Knesset before passing into law.

In 2009, the Israeli Knesset passed a historic new ILA land reform law. The new law institutes broad land privatization; permits land exchange between the state and the JNF; allows lands to be allocated in accordance with “admissions committee” mechanisms and to candidates approved by Zionist institutions working solely on behalf of the Jewish people; and grants decisive weight to JNF representatives in a new Land Authority Council, which will replace the ILA.

According to rights group Adalah, the new law is prejudicial to the constitutional rights of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, and violates the property rights of Palestinian refugees as it contravenes international humanitarian law (IHL) applicable to them and their property.

The law joins a series of other legislative initiatives in which discriminatory segregation is increasingly sanctioned by the Israeli Knesset.

For example, also in 2009, another law was tabled according to which prospective buyers of land in new communities in the Negev and Galilee will be requested to pass an admissions committee, in which Zionist values can be a legitimate criterion for admission and land purchase, along with other criteria such as “social suitability.” Several communities in the Galilee (e.g. Manof, Yuvalim) already use such criteria in order to exclude Arabs and other minorities.

The JNF in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT): Lands for illegal settlements

The JNF is a significant player in the illegal settlement of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

According to its official policy, the JNF does not purchase lands beyond the Green Line, one reason reportedly being to keep it out of political debates liable to have a negative effect on donations.

However, according to a 2005 investigation by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in 1938 the JNF set up a subsidiary company called Himanuta, whose role was to conduct property purchase and sale in sensitive cases where the JNF did not want its name to be cited.

The JNF holds 99 percent of the company’s shares, and its official offices are at the JNF. Legally, Himanuta is an independent company; in practice, it is the JNF by another name.

During the British Mandate in Palestine (1917-1947) Himanuta purchased lands in the Jericho area and in the territory now housing the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh-Adumim to the east of Jerusalem, reportedly aiming to form a Jewish continuum between Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley.

Since the 1967 Six-Day War, JNF subsidiary Himanuta, which is registered as a company under both Israeli and Jordanian law, has purchased tens of thousands of dunams (square kilometres) of land in the West Bank, including in settlements around Jerusalem and the Etzion settlement bloc.

The lands purchased by Himanuta are all near the Green Line, in areas which would be up for negotiation in the event of an Israel withdrawal to the 1949-1967 armistice lines. According to Haaretz, they were purchased with funds from the Israeli government and the World Zionist Organization (WZO).

In occupied East Jerusalem, the JNF itself has bought and developed extensive lands. In accordance with its principles of purchase and lease of lands to Jews, it has planted forests on these lands and later leased them to Jews for settlements. For example, the settlement Har Homa (1997) is built on a former JNF forest, and a 1,000-dunam forest was planted by JNF in 1982 between what are now the Jewish settlements of Neve-Yaacov and Pisgat-Ze’ev.

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