How Bibi is turning the defense budget into a settler slush fund

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon will transfer NIS 70 million from the defense budget to compensate the Ulpana Hill lawbreakers. How will the common soldier interpret the command’s will?

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz at the Defense Ministry. (photo: Haim Zach / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz at the Defense Ministry. (photo: Haim Zach / GPO)

Israel’s Channel 10 exposed earlier this week another layer in the unending saga of Ulpana Hill: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon agreed to transfer NIS 70 million from the security budget as part of the Ulpana Hill compensation deal. Meaning: the tax money that was to be spent on defending the citizens of Israel will, in fact, be transferred to settlers as compensation for implementing the High Court of Justice’s ruling.

Here we need a brief summary of the Ulpana Hill affair. Since the beginning of 1996, the Palestinian landowners of what eventually became Ulpana Hill were denied access to their land (you can read an interview with one of them here.) The residents believed the reason was related to military needs, but in fact the Company for Developing Beit El’s Yeshiva Complex began building five houses there in 2003. At one point the company quickly populated the then-empty houses. Yesh Din appealed to the High Court on behalf of the landowners in 2008 (the land, after all, is private Palestinian land), and after a long struggle the government removed the settlers, sealed the houses, promising to move them to a new location and gave up after spending millions on the project (Hebrew).

The government then promised Rabbi Zalman Melamed, the head of the Beit El Yeshiva, a massive compensation package. According to reports in the media (Hebrew), the package included funding for the enlargement of Beit El, including some 300 private apartments and several public buildings. We should note that at the moment, we have an appeal against the state pending before the High Court, demanding that then-CEO of Company for Developing Beit El’s Yeshiva Complex, Yoel Tzur, be indicted, along with the company itself. In his police interrogation, Tzur said that although he did not have a building permit, he assumed that as the Housing Ministry was involved in funding the project, and therefore was allowed to build. And build he did. Despite these very clear words, Tzur was not indicted.

Therefore, Yesh Din asked the High Court on Monday for an order to provide further details vis-a-vis the case. In the request, our legal counsel, Attorney Michael Sfard, asked the attorney general to force Yoel Tzur and the Company for Developing Beit El’s Yeshiva Complex to provide all the details of the deal between the government and the yeshiva, including all sums of money spent on it so far. These details, noted Sfard, are necessary for the hearing on the appeal regarding the indictment of Tzur and the Company for Developing Beit El’s Yeshiva Complex. Since the government did not comply with our request to provide us with the information, we turned to the court.

The NIS 70 million Netanyahu and Ya’alon now want to invest in the removal of an IDF base from Beit El – in order to turn the land over to the Beit El Yeshiva – are part of the same deal they reached with Melamed. We should remind the reader that the duty of the government is to enforce the law. The duty of the IDF soldiers in the West Bank, according to international law and a host of High Court rulings, is to protect Palestinians and their property.

Bulldozers tear down the buildings of Ulpana Hill. Netanyahu and Ya'alon will tranfer 70 million NIS to move the buildings to Beit El. (photo: Yesh Din)
Bulldozers tear down the buildings of the Ulpana Hill neighborhood. Netanyahu and Ya’alon will tranfer 70 million NIS to compensate the settlers. (photo: Yesh Din)

But when the proverbial soldier on the ground comes to do his duty, assuming he is even aware of it, what does he see? He sees the defense minister – the government’s appointed overseer of the army (i.e. his commander) – and the prime minister conspiring with the settlers who stole Palestinian property. He sees that the crime of taking Palestinian property and invading goes not only unpunished – it is rewarded. And he understands the will of command pretty quickly.

The cop on his beat, we know, is the last absolute ruler. He can either arrest a person for nothing, or he can overlook a minor infraction. Soldiers in the West Bank are, in effect,  cops – at least until the police arrive. They have the power detain a person, and when they see Israeli civilians invading Palestinian land, they know their problem is not only with the Civilian Security Coordinators (a quasi-military official who actually promotes the interests of the settlement where he/she resides). At that moment they realize that this is the will from above. They understand that their function is to enforce not the law, but the will of the settlers.

An army is a hierarchical organization. It relies on the concept of “do as I do.” No junior officer will put his career at risk when the defense minister makes it so clear that he stands on the opposite side. This affects not only soldiers, but officials of the Civil Administration – those who are supposed to swiftly issue demolition orders to the invaders. Clashing with the darlings of the minister, who happens to be your boss, is not a career-enhancing move. Act slowly, or better yet, act not at all.

The government would be hard-pressed to claim, after the last move by Netanyahu and Ya’alon, that it takes seriously its duty to protect Palestinian property. The soldiers on the ground already know that these are less than empty gestures. They already know what they should do the next time they encounter settlers taking over land and Palestinian owners protesting the theft.

For years the government pretended that there is a wall between it and those who invade the land. That what they do is unlawful, that the government views their actions with a dim eye. But since it is unable to act – there are always more urgent missions – it cannot help the owners at this precise moment. Perhaps in the future.

This mask has slowly come off over the years, and now nothing is left behind it. And this is, admittedly, hardly news: the Sasson Report, published over a decade ago, already noted that the widespread law-breaking in the West Bank requires the active participation of almost all government offices; that the officials and the enforcers on the ground have long ago internalized the notion that seizing land and building outposts on it are “positive actions, or at the least, not reprehensible.”

And this mask of good faith on behalf of the government eroded years ago. The only question left is whether the courts will deign to see what is right in front of their eyes.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.

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