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Originally published Saturday, June 20, 2009 at 9:06 PM

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Lawsuit brings murky West Bank land deals to light

It reads like a standard real estate contract between a Zionist institution and an Israeli couple. But it offers a rare glimpse into the bureaucratic smoke screen that helps ensure a strong Jewish presence on lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

Associated Press Writer

OFRA SETTLEMENT, West Bank —

It reads like a standard real estate contract between a Zionist institution and an Israeli couple. But it offers a rare glimpse into the bureaucratic smoke screen that helps ensure a strong Jewish presence on lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

The document, which surfaced in a case before Israel's Supreme Court, shows that the World Zionist Organization, acting as an agent of the Israeli government, took private Palestinian land in the West Bank and gave it to Jewish settlers, even though the state itself had declared the property off-limits to settlement.

The affair points to a chaotic mix of a government at odds with itself and involved in murky real estate deals fronted by one of the Zionist movement's most respected organizations.

It's not the first time such land deals have come under fire, but in the year since the case went to court, the political context has been overturned. President Barack Obama, in a departure from Bush administration policy, is pressing for a complete freeze in settlement development as a prelude to a new push for Mideast peace.

The contract authorized Netzach and Esther Brodt, a couple in their early 20s, to lease land in the settlement of Ofra where their home and eight others are in contention.

When Israeli human rights groups and Palestinians who claim to own the land went to the Supreme Court to get the houses torn down, they went with the knowledge that demolition orders had been issued against construction at the site.

The court gave the state two weeks to explain itself, during which time the settlers hastily completed construction of the homes. Then, in another reversal, the Defense Ministry froze the demolition plan, and left the case no closer to resolution.

The affair also threw a spotlight on the World Zionist Organization, an international body founded more than 100 years ago that promotes Jewish education and immigration to Israel.

After Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the 1967 war, the government began settling Jews in the captured territories. To avoid complications stemming from international law, it turned to the WZO, setting up a special settlement division not technically part of the government but entirely funded by it.

The maneuver has served to cloud the issues and confuse the finger-pointing when uncomfortable questions arise.

Such questions had already arisen in 2005, when a government-commissioned report accused the settlement division of complicity in diverting funds and confiscating West Bank land to put up some of the more than 100 "outposts" - small wildcat settlements - that settlers have built, some on privately held Palestinian land.

They had no government sanction, yet a slew of former Cabinet ministers, settler leaders and lawmakers have confirmed that they went up with the full knowledge of the state, and their removal is viewed by the U.S. and others as a first step toward a broader rollback of settlement expansion in the West Bank.

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The case before the Supreme Court involves not a flimsy "outpost," but Ofra, a full-blown settlement of 3,000 Jews, 15 miles north of Jerusalem.

The contract shows that the settlement division authorized the Brodts to lease land allocated to Ofra even though Israel's Justice Ministry had declared it to be private Palestinian property.

"Here you have proof" of a settlement deal violating Israel's own rulings, said Talia Sasson, the former chief state prosecutor who wrote the 2005 report.

Defying international objections, Israel has allowed nearly 300,000 Jews to settle in the West Bank plus some 180,000 in Jerusalem's Arab sector, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital. In a speech last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, "We have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements," but he gave no commitment to stop expanding existing settlements as the White House has demanded.

Land deals between settlers and the settlement division are usually shrouded in confidentiality and the contract with the Brodts is a hard-to-find example.

The settlers maintain that secrecy is essential to protect Palestinian sellers from retribution. The Ofra purchase is such a case, they told the court. Ofra's lawyer, Yaron Kosteliz, said proof that the land was bought from Palestinians has been given to the state confidentially to protect the sellers.

Yesh Din, one of the Israeli rights groups that went to court, says the land was stolen.

"It's like I was going to sell a house that didn't belong to me," said Dror Etkes, Yesh Din's settlement expert. "It's an international organization that is, simply put, stealing land."

The government referred questions about the contract to the World Zionist Organization, which referred the questions back to the government. The Justice Ministry refused to discuss the case because it is under litigation.

The Defense Ministry, named as a respondent in the court petition, did not respond to an e-mail and calls seeking comment.

Another respondent, the military's Civil Administration in the West Bank, said only that "there are differences of opinion pertaining to the ownership of the property."

"The issue is currently under discussion in the Supreme Court that will ultimately decide on this issue," it added in a written response to questions from the AP.

The Justice Ministry confirmed to the court that the land was owned by Palestinians, that a construction freeze had been ordered there a year earlier, and that a final demolition order for all nine houses had been issued.

"The construction was done in violation of stop-work and demolition orders," the state said in papers presented to the court.

As is often the case, however, the state was not speaking with one voice. Defense Minister Ehud Barak suspended the demolition order in December because of broader questions about the legal status of settlement activity in Ofra.

Kosteliz, Ofra's lawyer, said the settlement never received the demolition order. The Brodts said they were unaware of it when they signed the contract with the settlement division. They said the settlement was in charge of the construction.

The houses were near completion when the legal appeal was filed, and settlers hurried to finish construction during the two weeks the state was given to respond to the petition. They even won a rare and controversial dispensation from Ofra's rabbi, Avi Gisser, to allow construction to continue on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, using non-Jews as workers.

Palestinians and Israeli right groups say the case is nothing unusual, and that settlements are often built on private Palestinian land.

Yesh Din says it has seen a classified database prepared for the Defense Ministry and that it shows that much of the construction at Ofra and in many other settlements is on land registered to Palestinian owners.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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