Jewish National Fund expands settlement influence towards West Bank

A view of ongoing construction work at Nof Zion, a Jewish settlement in the Israeli-annexed eastern sector of Jerusalem (Ahmad Gharabli - AFP)

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  February 18, 2021

A heated debate between Palestinian and Israeli circles surfaced during the past few days after the Jewish National Fund (JNF) announced new plans to expand its settlement projects in the West Bank. The JNF declared a fundamental change in its colonial policy, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) confirmed that it would file an urgent complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the Jewish organisation for committing war crimes by confiscating Palestinian lands.

The JNF is an essential tool of the Zionist project in Palestine. It is no wonder that the fund was established in 1901 during the Fifth Zionist Congress at the insistence of Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement. Thus, prior to the Nakba, the JNF played a pivotal role in extending control of the Jews over hundreds of thousands of dunams. It maintained these practices after the Nakba with only one difference: the confiscation of lands owned by the Palestinians who were displaced or left the territory.

Current data indicates that the fund owns 15 per cent of occupied Palestine, and manages it under a discriminatory and racist approach based on the rule that the land is for the Jews and the Palestinians have no right to own or reside on it. This policy has not changed with the Israeli Supreme Court’s formal rulings based on complaints from local and international human rights and international law organisations. This is mainly because these rulings stipulated that the fund should be compensated with a land lot of similar area for each land it loses when a Palestinian wins a case and restores their property.

The JNF was keen to acquire millions in donations from Jews who sympathise with the occupation state worldwide and in Western countries, but this prevented it from engaging in financing settlement blocs in the West Bank after 1967. However, the organisation’s board of directors has made a ground-breaking step in recent days, by approving a draft resolution that allows it to expand Israeli settlements on the outskirts of Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem and other areas.

Knowing that this decision would raise problems with the new US administration and confuse the work of Jewish lobbying groups in collecting donations for the fund, it is not likely that the JNF will retract this step because it believes that its historic function is to serve the settlement endeavour as a major pillar of the Zionist project. In addition to this, is the fact that the expansion of the settlement area in recent years has turned into a sweeping wave that includes the government, parties and broad segments of the Israeli public.

The PA announced that the Palestinian government would sue the JNF before the ICC. This followed the Zionist organisation’s announcement of its activities in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, to be listed as one of the tools of settler colonialism to be prosecuted in court. Although the fund is registered in the UK, the US, Canada and Israel as a charitable association and receives tax-deductible donations, these funds are invested in the colonies, which are illegal.

The beginning of the JNF, known as Keren Kayemet, goes back to 1884 with the initiative of the Jewish mathematician Hermann Schapira. The proposal was later presented in the First Zionist Congress of 1897, but was only approved at the Sixth Congress in 1903. The JNF was the executive wing of the Zionist movement, paving the way for the Palestinian exodus.

The decision to establish the fund stipulated restricting the use of its funds for the acquisition of land or any ownership rights in the area that includes Palestine, Syria, and other portions of the Asian part of Turkey and the Sinai Peninsula to settle the Jews. These lands are considered to be the eternal property of the Jews, which means that it is forbidden to sell or dispose of them except by renting.

When the JNF administration recently approved a decision to purchase Palestinian lands in the West Bank to expand the settlement project, it sent multiple messages confirming ruling out the two-state solution with the Palestinians and showed a tendency to impose Israeli sovereignty over the totality of the historic land of Palestine. This is consistent with the Israeli government’s recent approval of projects to expand settlements, the legalisation of the status of outposts in the West Bank and allocating hundreds of millions of dollars in budgets to implement infrastructure and service projects.

The fund allocated $1.2 billion as an initial budget to purchase Palestinian lands, while being granted the powers to operate in the West Bank, organise its work and give it immunity to international prosecution. In 1954, the Knesset approved a law defining the area of ​​activity and operation of the JNF, limiting its activities to lands subject to Israeli laws.

Later, the fund’s functions were modified. Its powers were updated and shifted from purchasing to restoring lands, conducting afforestation activities and assisting the new immigrants to integrate by providing jobs and healthcare services. All of this contributed to building military settlements in coordination with the occupation army and financing Zionist education projects inside and outside Israel.

It is noteworthy that the decision sparked a wave of criticism among the representatives of the centre and left parties, representatives of reformist and conservative political currents of the American Jews and the delegate of the management of the World Zionist Organisation (WZO). Accordingly, the meeting of the board of directors of the JNF has been postponed until a final decision is made after the Knesset elections next March.

Strangely, the Israeli government is anticipating unusual relations with the new US administration. Nevertheless, it could have postponed supporting the JNF’s decision to buy lands in the West Bank to expand settlements because it may provoke Washington. However, it is clear that the new step taken by the Zionist organisation is in harmony with the settlement projects that the Israeli government has recently approved by purchasing lands to expand settlements in the West Bank – specifically around Gush Etzion, greater Jerusalem, the southern Hebron mountains and the Jordan Valley, as part of a plan called “reclaim lands”.

Therefore, implementing the decision was postponed until a later date stipulated by the administration of the fund, in order to prevent internal political tensions prior to the elections and avoid a clash with US President Biden’s administration regarding the settlement issue.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza