The Sumarin family has long been a symbol for the struggle between Palestinians and Israeli settlers over the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Located next to Al-Aqsa Mosque and sharing a fence with the City of David, an archaeological site and Jewish tourist attraction, the Sumarin home has been the target of an eviction legal battle since the early 1990s, led by the Jewish National Fund (JNF).
Recently, however, the struggle over the Sumarin home has exposed an even deeper story. In August, it was unveiled that Elad, an organization that promotes Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, has been advancing the case in the Israeli courts from behind the scenes. As international public pressure has mounted on the JNF over the slated eviction, the relationship between Elad and the JNF appears to have soured. It was even reported last week that some inside the organization are trying to pull the plug on the cooperation with Elad around the Sumarin home, with a decision likely to be made on Monday.
Yet the Sumarin case is only the tip of the iceberg. An internal 1998 JNF report, revealed here on +972 Magazine for the first time, alongside other historical documents and interviews held in recent weeks, portray a deliberate, close, and fruitful cooperation between the two organizations that goes as far back as the 1980s. This collaboration, which included personal handwritten letters and contracts, shows the JNF willingly granted Elad the right to pursue cases on its behalf — resulting in the taking over of various properties in Silwan. “Nothing was done in secrecy,” the report’s author told +972 last week.
‘Everything is organized’
Founded in 1901, the Jewish National Fund was established to buy and develop land for Jewish settlement in Palestine under Ottoman and British rule, and later the State of Israel. Over the years, the organization has been heavily criticized by Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights for its activities inside Israel and beyond the Green Line. The JNF has a strong philanthropic presence in the United States; U.S.-based JNF nonprofit organizations raised $72 million in 2018 alone.
The Ir David Foundation, commonly known as Elad, was founded as a non-profit organization in 1986 by David Be’eri, a former military officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal and Duvdevan units and a recipient of the 2017 Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor. The organization seeks to strengthen Jewish settlement in “ancient Jerusalem” and develop large-scale Jewish tourism sites, including City of David, in the eastern part of the city, which is home to about 350,000 Palestinians. Elad has worked to place hundreds of settlers in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, focusing on the Wadi Hilweh area of Silwan, where it has helped settle over 350 people.
Elad’s ability to promote its activities in Silwan is backed by significant financial resources. According to its financial reports, Elad received donations of about NIS 700 million (over USD $200 million) between 2005 and 2018, the last year for which public records are available. As exposed in a BBC Arabic documentary last month, nearly half of that sum arrived from just four British Virgin Island companies, controlled by one of Israel’s richest people, Russian oligarch and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. A further NIS 320 million came from the NY-based tax-deductible “Friends of Ir David.”
After it occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel began a process of seizing property that belonged to Jews before 1948. It also used the Absentees’ Property Law — legislated in 1950 to expropriate land and houses belonging to Palestinians who either fled or were expelled during the 1948 war — in order to confiscate Palestinian property in East Jerusalem. The JNF participated in these proceedings through its subsidiary, Hemnutah, which purchased a number of properties in Silwan from the Custodian of Absentees’ Properties.
Following those transactions, Hemnutah began working to evict Palestinian families from these homes. To do so, the organization cooperated with Elad, as proven by the documents revealed below.
On August 16, 1998, then co-chair of the JNF, Yehiel Leket, received a 12-page document, accompanied by a few annexes, titled “A Review of City of David (Silwan), Jerusalem.” The report’s author was the JNF’s real estate department director, Avraham Haleli, who retired from the organization around 20 years ago and has since been practicing law in Israel. Haleli, who has unique expertise and experience regarding properties in such areas, says that the JNF still hires his services and consults him on a regular basis.
Haleli’s 1998 report describes in detail the close relationship between JNF and Elad that began in the mid-1980s. “It was clear to all of the involved [parties] that eventually the organization [Elad] will request to use the JNF’s property in the area and live there as protected residents,” wrote Haleli.
Avraham Haleli’s report:
“There is a file on this at the JNF Real Estate Department,” he said to +972 in a conversation with him last week. “Everything is organized. Nothing was done in secret. It was all done in an ordinary way and was based on decisions.”
Over the last decades the cooperation between the two organizations enabled Elad to settle Jewish Israelis in at least 10 properties in Silwan, as well as some properties in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tur, says Hagit Ofran, who works in the “Settlement Watch” project of the Israeli NGO Peace Now. Ofran, who reviewed Haleli’s report, explains that the majority of the land taken over by Elad has been used for tourism, and the rest used as residences for about eight settler families.
One of the report’s annexes, a hand-written letter sent by Elad founder Be’eri and current executive director in 1985, reveals the depth of the budding relationship. “Shalom Mr. Haleli,” wrote Be’eri a year before he officially established Elad. “We became aware of Jewish ownership of JNF on land plots in Shilo Village [Silwan].” Several of the plots, he explained, “were taken by Arabs.” From Zionist, moral, and religious perspectives, Be’eri wrote, “we view seizing those houses, especially in this area, as highly valuable.” Be’eri then offered to “volunteer” to promote the goal of obtaining those properties.
The following year, in 1986, Be’eri sent another letter to JNF CEO Shimon Ben Shemesh discussing his commitment to assist in locating properties for takeover in Silwan. That letter dealt with a specific plot of land, whose resident had recently died. “We believe this is the time to act urgently, using legal manners… to ensure the land is given to its legal owners [JNF].” Be’eri ended the letter by agreeing to take care of the costs of the case, though it is unknown whether he did so.
The report describes the first instance of cooperation between Elad and the JNF in 1986: a court request filed by Hemnutah to evict a Palestinian family in coordination with Elad’s attorney. The report notes that the primary resident agreed to be evicted, and that the lawsuit was only filed so “his neighbors will think he was forced to leave;” Haleli added that Elad had also paid compensation to the Palestinian family. He further described how in some cases, Elad’s lawyer provided the JNF with pro bono legal assistance.
The report also refers to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two organizations signed prior to the legal cases. In the MOU, Hemnutah agreed to let Elad lease properties whose Palestinian inhabitants would be evicted. “Of course there was no conflict of interest between the sides,” Haleli asserted in the report. He further explained that the rent Elad would pay to the JNF will be deducted from the money that the former had already invested in its eviction proceedings.
Haleli was clearly aware of the sensitivity of this cooperation, writing in the 1998 report that “we have warned Elad to not provoke” residents in the area, in order “to avoid criticism of Hemnutah and the JNF.” For that reason, Haleli continued, the JNF “supported the idea of Arabs from Southern Lebanon temporarily residing in the evicted properties… for various reasons we had to give up this plan.”
Haleli then added that he was aware that there were conflicting opinions about the JNF’s activity in the area. Those who support us, he wrote, think we don’t do enough, while the opposing side presents JNF as a group that “strips Arabs of their properties.” Haleli’s assessment was that neither side was right. “The JNF operates as a Jewish National Zionist organization aiming to secure the land for the people of Israel for eternity. It is done according to Israel’s laws without jeopardizing the right of any resident, Arab or Jewish… I believe the way we operated in the City of David needs to be applauded,” he concluded.
The 1998 report is reportedly not the last to be written by the JNF on its relationship with Elad. From conversations held last week with two senior JNF members, we understand that an updated version of Haleli’s report was produced in 2010. JNF did not respond to +972’s questions on the matter, nor a request to receive a copy of the updated report.
Neither the JNF’s nor Elad’s spokespeople responded to +972’s requests for comment.
Differences over Sumarin case
The Sumarin home was declared absentee property in 1987 and sold by Israel’s Development Authority to Hemnutah in 1990. Hemnutah subsequently filed an eviction lawsuit against the Sumarin family, who have been struggling to remain in their home for the past 30 years. In late June of this year, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the Sumarins had failed to prove their rights to the property and must vacate it by mid-August. The family has appealed the decision and will be able to remain in the home while the Israeli High Court deliberates their case next April.
The Jerusalem District Court’s ruling led to massive public outcry and pressure among liberal supporters and donors of the JNF to reverse the eviction. Yet not everyone among the JNF leadership is keen on seeing the Sumarin family thrown out of their home.
In August, as part of the Sumarins’ latest legal proceedings, Hemnutah submitted to the Supreme Court a letter written in 1991 by Elad founder David Be’eri to the JNF subsidiary. The letter, which was first revealed in the BBC documentary about Elad [and to which the author of this article contributed], Be’eri listed various land plots in Silwan, including that of the Sumarin house, and wrote that “[w]e will handle the eviction from the properties of their current holders. For the purpose of eviction, we will pay all legal fees and all payments to the holders, whether in a legal settlement or by court order.” A Hemnutah stamp confirms the organization’s approval of the letter’s contents.
Matityahu Sperber, the chair of Hemnutah’s board of directors as appointed by the liberal Reform Movement, said in a phone call with +972 that it was his decision to let the Supreme Court know about the 1991 agreement in order to try to freeze the evictions. The submission of the letter marked the JNF’s shifting approach to the case, which had started a few weeks earlier. On July 20, Sperber wrote a letter to JNF Chair Danny Atar, in which he requested that Atar involve himself in freezing the proceedings against the Sumarin family over concerns that the eviction could adversely affect the JNF’s image.
In the letter, Sperber writes that a legal opinion prepared by the JNF counsel did not provide satisfactory answers regarding a “number of aspects about the relationship between Hemnutah and Elad vis-a-vis the [Sumarin] property.” This includes Elad’s “commitment to Hemnutah regarding the property,” the “authority of the parties that have undertaken a commitment on behalf of Hemnutah,” and the “possible impairment of Hemnutah’s independent discretion vis-a-vis the property in question, due to the involvement of Elad in the legal proceedings and its financing, along with other issues.” All these, Sperber writes, create a “structural conflict of interest.”
On October 12th, Hemnutah’s board was expected to vote on a draft resolution brought by Sperber to both freeze all activities in the case against the Sumarins and to replace the Elad attorneys handling the case on Hemnutah’s behalf.
+972 reached out to Ze’ev Scharf & Co. Law Offices, the firm representing Hemnutah in the Sumarin case, for comment. The firm has yet to issue a response.
However, the board meeting was postponed the day before it was set to take place after Nachi Eyal, one of Hemnutah’s board members, submitted an appeal to the Jerusalem District Court against the draft resolution. In his statement to the court, Eyal, the founder and director of the Legal Forum for Israel and a candidate for the New Right party in previous Knesset elections, claimed the resolution is illegal and was submitted in a rush; Eyal argued that the meeting was set under short notice and that Sperber initiated it because he could potentially lose his chairmanship in the board elections for the World Zionist Organization set for Tuesday.
Nachi Eyal’s appeal:
The court accepted Eyal’s petition. In a conversation +972 held with JNF chair Atar, he said the board will convene on Monday, October 19, to vote on the eviction freeze and the lawyers’ removal.
Meanwhile, Elad’s Be’eri sent an angry letter to Sperber and Atar last week in which he strongly criticized Hemnutah and its head. We have invested “a fortune” in the Sumarin case, Be’eri wrote, and the rights to handle the case were given to Elad — rights, he added, that cannot be revoked. Be’eri further stated that any decision that Hemnutah and JNF will make vis-a-vis the Sumarin case must involve Elad. He also claimed that Sperber was associating himself with extreme left-wing groups and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
David Be’eri’s letter to Sperber and Atar:
‘It’s outrageous. It shouldn’t have happened’
The political faith in Sperber and Atar, who represent the ostensibly liberal wing of the JNF (Atar is a former Labor Knesset member who won the endorsement of Blue and White party head Benny Gantz), will be put to the test on Tuesday, October 20, when the World Zionist Congress convenes remotely to choose its new representatives.
The WZC selects the leadership of various Zionist groups, including the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Jewish National Fund. Whether or not Sperber and Atar remain in power will be determined by the kind of coalition formed by the WZC’s various parties, which is usually agreed upon in advance. According to the Jerusalem Post, Atar faces a major challenge for his position by the World Likud slate, which previously split but has reconciled in the run-up to coalition talks.
Negotiations over the top posts are slated to continue until just ahead of the congress. But by last week, the Jerusalem Post reported, it appeared that the JNF chairmanship would likely be split between current WZO head Avraham Duvdevani of the religious Zionist World Mizrachi slate and Likud Knesset member Haim Katz, leaving the incumbent Atar outside the organization’s leadership. Hemnutah’s new chairman, according to business paper TheMarker, is likely to come from Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party.
In a phone conversation with Sperber, I asked why his decision to freeze the Sumarin eviction was only brought before the board on the eve of the elections. Sperber said he only found out about the contract between Elad and JNF earlier this year, and has been trying to deal with the issue ever since. He added that he has the backing of Atar, but admitted it is not clear whether either Atar or Sperber will maintain their positions after the elections.
Sperber talked about the Sumarins’ campaign and expressed hope that it would affect the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision over whether to hear the family’s appeal. It became clear during our conversation that Sperber is banking on the court to solve Hemnutah’s conundrum by taking the family’s case.
But Sperber also made clear that the JNF will not give up the rights to the Sumarin property. “We have no right to [relinquish] it,” he said, explaining that the Jerusalem District Court has deemed the house property of Hemnutah. “We could not do so for the sake of a Reform Jew, an Orthodox Jew, or an East Jerusalem Palestinian,” Sperber said. Hemnutah’s only possible course of action, he continued, is to vote to freeze the implementation of the court verdict. And what if a future board decides to revoke that freeze? “That is a risk,” he admitted.
Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran says “the JNF must immediately cut all connections with the Elad settler organization, and let the Sumarin family live peacefully in its home.”
Atar, meanwhile, said he only found out about the agreement between JNF and Elad two weeks ago. “We are trying to somewhat stop this and cancel the agreement. There is a lot of resistance,” he added. “If we don’t manage to do it now, we will do it right after the [WZO] congress”. It’s very complicated, he said, as Elad has paid for 30 years of the legal battle against the Sumarins.
It doesn’t make sense to me that you only learned about this two weeks ago.
“We really did. We found out by coincidence… during a discussion Sperber had with the lawyers… they argued and we realized it doesn’t make sense that they will use our name and won’t do as they are told by us.”
Still, it wasn’t the first court hearing on the Sumarin family that took place during your role as JNF chairman.
“Right, but we didn’t get into the details. Those are not things I am dealing with on a daily basis, and they were not on the agenda until Matityahu [Sperber] brought them up.”
The relationships between the organizations are not new. Haleli wrote reports on them.
“True. [But] I just learned about them now, in the last couple of weeks.”
What do you think about what you learned in recent weeks about the relationship between Elad and JNF?
“It’s outrageous. It shouldn’t have happened. Absolutely… We are studying this [relationship] now and our legal department is looking into it. We will learn our lessons. It is not the only thing we are working on fixing.”
Why did you wait until the last minute to deal with this? Is it maybe possible you are acting now because of the upcoming elections?
“Precisely the opposite. This is stuck like a bone in my throat. It does me no good to deal with it now. Avoiding this extra tension during these times would have been much better for me.”
And say you managed to let go of Elad’s lawyers. What will you do next?
“Our legal department will look into [Elad’s] ‘protected residency’ status. It’s not a simple issue.”
The court already decided that the Sumarin house belongs to the JNF. If it were up to you, would you retract the petition to court to evict the Sumarin family?
“The ownership will stay [ours], but I am not sure evicting them is worthwhile for us. We will have to find a different solution… according to what the law allows.”
Will you publish a report about the relationship with Elad?
“Of course, like always. When we will finish handling the case we will publish it all.”