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The Jewish National Fund: Lands for Jews only?
By JNews, Thursday, 10 June, 2010, London, UK
Recent actions by a leading Jewish charity have raised questions about its links with Prime Minister David Cameron and other leading political figures.
Conservative leader Cameron and former Labour leaders Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are honorary patrons of the Jewish National Fund (JNF)-UK which calls itself “the UK’s leading humanitarian Israel charity.”
JNF-UK defines itself as “entirely non-political.” Yet, in London on 11 May, the JNF co-hosted a far-right Israeli government minister committed to extending Jewish-only settlements throughout the Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which was illegally annexed to Israel following its occupation in 1967.
In publicity for the event the JNF and five other organisations hailed guest speaker Benny Begin – from the hard-line Likud-Herut political bloc – as “a vigorous defender of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish nation and for the rights of Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael [the whole of Biblical Israel].”
All three main UK parties regard Jewish settlement in the Palestinian areas occupied in 1967 as an obstacle to peace, because it blocks the creation of a Palestinian state.
“We need a State of Israel, with her existence recognised by all her Arab neighbours, living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian State,” Cameron told the Jewish Chronicle in March this year.
Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg, now Deputy Prime Minster, is not a patron of the JNF – Keren Kayemet LeYisrael in Hebrew – which was established in 1901 to acquire land “to be held in perpetual trust for the Jewish people”.
According to Israeli media, the annual income of the JNF in Israel from donations is approximately 500-800 million NIS ($120-200 million), as well as at least $600 million per year in revenues of the Israel Lands Authority.
For more than a century, the JNF has been a popular cause for Jews in the diaspora who want to donate funds to Jews in Israel and to charitable activities there, and its collection boxes have long been a permanent presence in many Jewish homes. It is still a common practice for Jewish families to donate money for the planting of trees in Israel by the JNF.
However, JNF’s declared aims and practices today run counter to the aspiration for peace with the Palestinians and an independent Palestinian state. Over the years, its subsidiary Himanuta has bought tens of thousands of dunams (square kilometres) of lands for illegal settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, seeking to entrench Jewish control over regions adjacent to the pre-1967 armistice lines prior to any peace agreement.
Inside Israel proper, JNF policies are characterised by blatant discrimination against non-Jewish residents of the state of Israel.
JNF policy prohibits sale of its lands to Israel’s 20-percent Arab minority, and in 2007 a bill was tabled in the Israeli Knesset to anchor its principles in Israeli law. In 2009, a new land reform law was passed, enabling the transfer of State lands to the JNF and to other private holders who discriminate against non-Jews.
A conference held in Edinburgh on 9-10 May, whose participants sought to challenge JNF-UK’s claims to humanitarian and environmental charity status, enabled a glimpse into the JNF’s methods, including the use of forestation to entrench Jewish control over lands in Israel.
Delegate Faisal Sawalha of the Regional Council of Unrecognised Villages (RCUV), a representative of 45 Bedouin villages in the south of Israel, spoke about JNF practices in the Negev desert.
The unrecognized villages are at the heart of a years-long dispute in which the state seeks to displace Bedouin residents from their traditional lands to urban centers, in order to extend Jewish development in the Negev desert. As a form of pressure, the state has refused to connect the villages’ 80,000 residents to running water, electricity, sewage infrastructure or roads, and denies them some essential medical and educational services.
Sawalha said the JNF was at the forefront of dispossessing Bedouin Arabs of their land.
“Land ownership based on customary title was acknowledged under the British mandate [which ended in 1947],” said Sawalha. “But the Israeli authorities demand documents and when these cannot be provided, they seize the land and expel people whose families have lived and farmed there for generations.”
Sawalha said villagers of Al-Araqib north of Beersheba lost tracts of their land to a JNF project, begun in December 2005, to plant 700 dunams (700,000 square metres) of forest.
The JNF now runs what it calls the Ambassadors’ Forest, denying access to the site’s Bedouin former owners.
“When Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon was asked in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) to justify the expropriation, he replied that it was a good way to keep the land for the nation,” said Sawalha. “In other words, a good way to take it away from us.”
Eitan Bronstein, Director of the Israeli organisation Zochrot (“Remembering” in Hebrew) told the Edinburgh conference about their work recovering memories of the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed during and since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 – the period Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe.
He described what happened to the villages of Imwas, Yalo and Beit Nouba in the Latroun district between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Lying outside Israel’s 1948 borders, they were seized and destroyed by Israeli forces during the 1967 war, displacing 8,000 residents. Many moved to nearby West Bank villages from where they often visited the ruins of their old homes.
“But in the early 1970s, JNF set about creating Canada Park on the site, using money donated by Canadian Jews, some of whom were horrified when they learned what their money had been used for,” Bronstein said.
“Now the so-called security fence keeps West Bank Palestinians out, while hundreds of Israelis go there at the weekends, having picnics and enjoying the open air,” he said.
The JNF placed signs throughout the site describing its ancient and biblical history, with no explanation for the ruined Palestinian structures. For years the history of Palestinians in the area was neglected. Only a petition submitted by Zochrot to the Israeli High Court of Justice forced the JNF to put up two notices acknowledging the former Palestinian villages.
The Chief Executive of JNF-UK, Elliot Conway, has not responded to questions posed by JNews regarding the veracity of these claims.
In a telephone conversation, he claimed that the JNF was not an official host of the Jerusalem Day event at which MK Begin had spoken. He did not explain the presence of the JNF logo and name on flyers advertising the event.
Neither the Conservative nor Labour Party HQs has responded to questions from JNews regarding the affiliation of their leaders and former leaders to the JNF.
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