JNF plans to expand into West Bank settlements draws widespread condemnation

The Jewish settlement of Givat Ze'ev (Ahmad Gharabli - AFP)

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  February 18, 2021

Liberal Zionist criticisms of the JNF’s new plans fail to address the colonial history of the organization, which is rooted at its core in the dispossession of the Palestinian people.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is moving forward with a new policy allowing the organization to purchase privately-owned Palestinian land deep in the occupied West Bank. 

The executive board of the organization, which works to promote Jewish control of land in historic Palestine, voted 6-5 on Sunday to start officially purchasing land in the West Bank to expand Israeli settlements.

A draft resolution of the new policy, obtained by Axios, states that the group would be allowed to purchase land from Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, potentially for hundreds of millions of dollars. 

The resolution states that the group will only purchase land for the “development” of existing settlements “through projects, education, forestation and environmental protection.” 

Priority will be given to acquiring Palestinian land that lies within the boundaries of existing settlements, as well as land adjacent to those settlements that could be used for their expansion.  

Among the areas of the West Bank reported to be prioritized are lands in the Jordan Valley — previously slated by Israel for annexation — and in the districts of Hebron, Bethlehem, and Ramallah, among others. 

The JNF has operated unofficially through sister companies and organizations in the West Bank for years, promoting the expansion and establishment of illegal settlements and outposts, directly resulting in the displacement of Palestinians. 

As recently as 2019, Israeli authorities demolished a Palestinian family home and restaurant on the outskirts of Bethlehem in order to make way for a new settler outpost, following pressure from the JNF. 

In response to the media frenzy surrounding the new resolution, the group said in a statement that “over the years we worked everywhere in Israel including in Judea and Samaria,” referring to the biblical name of the West Bank. 

“The meeting on Sunday is intended to approve policy principles based on a legal opinion we obtained. At this stage we have no intention to establish a new area of development in Judea and Samaria,” the statement said. 

According to Axios, JNF leaders tried to keep the resolution “under the radar,” due to the controversy it has caused within the organization’s center-left party representatives, who are reportedly trying to block the resolution due to the potential tension it could cause with the US Biden administration.

When asked about the resolution during a press briefing, a US State Department spokeswoman said: “It is critical to avoid unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut the efforts to achieve a two state solution. This includes annexation, settlement building, demolitions, incitement and payments for terrorists.”

While the resolution still requires final approval by the JNF’s Board of Directors, in a vote that is scheduled to take place after Israel’s general elections in March, it is likely that the policy will go through, as the organization recently received a new global chairman, Avraham Duvdevani, a right-wing pro-settler politician. 

US-based liberal Zionist groups, which have historically been critical of the settlements and settlement expansion, came out in fierce condemnation of the move, which they say will further hinder the possibility of a two-state solution — something many Palestinians argue has long been made impossible by Israel’s apartheid policies in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). 

A representative from the US-based Union for Reform Judaism told Haaretz that their group plans to fight JNF’s new resolution, through “political and legal channels” and the mobilization of the American Jewish community, the majority of which oppose the settlements. 

The group, however, said it does not plan to cut ties with the JNF over the move, saying “politicizing support for cherished Zionist institutions ill serves the cause of Zionism and the unity of the Jewish people.”

Americans for Peace Now also “expressed its alarm” at the move in a statement, saying it “could have dramatic anti-peace, anti-democratic repercussions,” adding that the group will work to pressure JNF and its board of directors to not move forward with the plan. 

“APN has vowed not to stand silently by as the Jewish National Fund, an agency that was created to build the State of Israel, serves as a tool to destroy the prospects of building a Palestinian state, thus denying Palestinian self-determination and undermining Israel’s future as a democracy,” the group’s statement said. 

The liberal Zionist criticisms of the JNF’s new plans, however, fail to address the colonial history of the organization, which is rooted in the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the confiscation of their land. 

Founded in 1901 as a non-governmental organization, the JNF was established to purchase land for European Jews to settle in Palestine, and eventually create and maintain a Jewish-majority state in their place. 

Historically, the early founders of the JNF advocated for the dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians from their land in order to create a Jewish state, and the destruction of Palestinian villages during the Nakba. 

While the JNF touts itself as an environmental organization, most famous for its tree-planting initiatives in Israel, such initiatives are designed to cover up the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that took place in the year leading up to and after 1948. 

The areas where the JNF plants its forests — which are donated in large part by Jewish communities in the US and other countries —  are often the sites of destroyed Palestinian villages, which organizations like the JNF aim to erase any existence of. 

Today, the JNF owns 15% of all the land in Israel, and continues to promote racist, anti-Palestinian policies that result in the continued dispossession of Palestinians in the oPt. In occupied East Jerusalem, the JNF has been tied to shadowy purchases of Palestinian homes which the organization then turns over to Israeli settler groups. 

Inside Israel itself, the group has worked with the Israeli government to make it nearly impossible for the country’s Palestinians citizens to gain access to state lands for residential, commercial and agricultural use. In the Negev desert, the group has advocated for the destruction of Palestinian Bedouin villages in order to plant trees as part of its “Ambassadors Forest” initiative. 

All of the JNF’s activities in Israel and Palestine are subsidized by American taxpayers, as the organization is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and takes in millions of dollars a year in tax-deductible contributions and grants in the US. 

Yumna Patel is the Palestine correspondent for Mondoweiss