Why is KKL-JNF’s plan to buy Palestinian land in West Bank controversial?

Written by on February 23, 2021

 The new plan by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) to buy land in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) has sparked controversy in the Jewish world.

The Union for Reform Judaism said, for example, that “politicizing support for cherished Zionist institutions ill serves the cause of Zionism and the unity of the Jewish people.” Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz warned that “the move will have serious consequences for the JNF’s status among Jewish communities around the world.”

We respectfully disagree. The executive committee of KKL-JNF has the right to approve the purchase of private Palestinian land in Area C, which comprises parts of the West Bank controlled by Israel. The focus of the plan, according to a KKL memo, is on land that is within the boundaries of existing settlements and/or adjacent to those communities and which can be developed for construction – and not on new settlement land.

KKL-JNF, which it must be stressed is a separate organization from the New York-based JNF-USA, said in response, “Over the years, we worked everywhere in Israel, including in Judea and Samaria. 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 organization’s new global chairman, Avraham Duvdevani, who initiated the plan, said, “It’s nonsense to say that KKL has not operated in Judea and Samaria before.”

Duvdevani has noted that the Labor Party, under KKL-JNF’s previous chairman, Danny Atar, supported the move, which had been given a legal green light by former judge Joseph (Sefi) Alon. “During Atar’s tenure, they purchased land in Judea and Samaria as they hadn’t done since the establishment of the state, but under the radar,” Duvdevani said. “I simply ensured that [this policy] would have greater strength and be more official.”

KKL-JNF, which was established in 1901 to buy and develop land for Jewish settlement and is famous for the millions of trees it has planted throughout Israel, serves as the Jewish people’s custodian for some 15 percent of the land in the country. In this role, it has in the past purchased land in Judea and Samaria and been involved over the Green Line since the 1967 Six Day War, buying at least 65,000 dunams across the West Bank including in the communities of Itamar, Alfei Menashe, Einav, Kedumim, Givat Ze’ev and Otniel. In other words, buying land is what it does. 

While it may be true that KKL-JNF’s expansion of activities in the West Bank could complicate Israel’s ties with the Biden administration, as critics of the plan have claimed, this is a question for the government of Israel of what it wants to do. Indeed, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in response to the plan, “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.”

But while the State Department is voicing the views of the US, the KKL-JNF plan is in line with existing Israeli government policy which is not aimed at unilaterally establishing new facts on the ground, but rather at expanding and developing existing Jewish communities. This is something that Israel has always done and will need to continue doing to enable a quality of life for residents of existing communities in Judea and Samaria. 

Although the Israeli government – under pressure from the US – can freeze settlement expansion as it has in the past, it cannot prevent existing communities from meeting the needs of their growing populations. This was once termed “natural growth,” and has been largely accepted by the international community, including the US, as legitimate and not in violation of the status quo. We do not expect the Biden administration to adopt the peace plan put forth by the Trump administration under which all settlements were meant to remain and the land to be annexed by Israel, but natural growth of existing communities should not be impaired. 

KKL-JNF has the right to approve the plan, and instead of criticizing the organization, Zionist groups should see it as a way to better the everyday lives of Israelis living in the land of Israel, something KKL-JNF has done since its inception. 

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