State is funding settler institute squatting illegally in Palestinian home

In 2013, 10 days after court ruled Jewish center’s purchase of the site, outside Ofra, was falsified, the IDF built a fence around it, preventing owners from returning

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Mishpetei Eretz Institute near the West Bank settlement of Ofra. (Kerem Navot)
Mishpetei Eretz Institute near the West Bank settlement of Ofra. (Kerem Navot)

The Culture Ministry has been funding an Israeli religious institute whose founders illegally took over a Palestinian home in the central West Bank and have continued to operate at the site under IDF protection for over 15 years.

An investigation into the financials of the Mishpetei Eretz (“laws of the land”) institute revealed that it has received at least NIS 200,000 ($54,786) annually for the past three years from the Culture Ministry, and that, in total, the academy has enjoyed NIS 781,617 ($214,039) in government funding since 2015.

That state funds came despite a 2013 Jerusalem District Court decision concluding that the compound housing the institute still belongs to its original Palestinian owners, and that the settler group claiming to have purchased the building had forged the necessary documents.

While the IDF recognized the court’s decision, it did not try to remove the squatters. Instead, it built a fence around the compound with the stated goal of protecting its Israeli inhabitants.

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The Mishpetei Eretz institute was founded in 2000 by the Ofra settlement’s chief rabbi, Avi Gisser, who sought to establish a learning center, or kolel, where students could be certified to hand down religious rulings regarding questions of property and business law.

Upon its opening, the academy operated in a mobile home adjacent to Ofra, in the central West Bank, but eventually moved to the Palestinian building a mile and a half south of the community, which was said to have been purchased on the academy’s behalf in 2003.

However, according to the Palestinian family that had been living in the building until then, no such transaction had ever taken place.

Muhammad Shehadeh told The Times of Israel that in March of that year, he took his family to Ramallah for the day so that one of his children could see a doctor.

“When we returned home, there was a group of settlers there that had already changed the locks and told us that the house was now theirs,” he recalled, adding that the Israelis were armed and threatened them.

Shehadeh hired an attorney who reached out to the Israel Police and the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, which oversees civilian matters in the West Bank, but, he said, nothing was done.

Mishpetei Eretz Institute near the West Bank settlement of Ofra. (Kerem Navot)

In the meantime Shehadeh, a father of four, moved his family into his brother’s home in nearby Ein Yabrud.

The home the Shehadeh family had been living in had historically been part of the Ein Yabrud, but was cut off from the town in the mid-1990s when the West Bank’s main north-south artery, Route 60, was paved in the area.

The isolated location of the building made it prime real estate for the Al-Watan settlement organization, which sought to purchase it on behalf of the Mishpetei Eretz institute.

While Gisser claimed that his institute was not at all connected to Al-Watan’s purchase of the home, the director of the latter organization serves as chairman of the board at the Mishpetei Eretz institute.

Regardless, Gisser asserted that five members of the Shehadeh family had in fact agreed to sell their land to Al-Watan, but then got cold feet, worried over possible retribution from the Palestinian Authority over their decision to sell their land to Jews.

Ofra’s chief rabbi Avi Gisser interviews on the Kan Public Broadcaster on May 31, 2016. (Screen capture/YouTube)

But with the purchase already completed — at least in its eyes — the institute moved to further secure the compound, including having the Ofra settlement’s security fence extended to envelop the building.

According to Gisser, his institute was occupying the site in accordance with the wishes of the Ofra settlement, which was seeking a location for Mishpetei Eretz at the same time as it sought to find inhabitants for the empty house.

In the ensuing months, Al-Watan attempted to have the building registered with the Civil Administration, a Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank land purchases. However, the Civil Administration rejected the request, concluding that a number of the forms documenting the transaction had been forged.

Amana, the Al-Watan parent organization, which promotes the development of Jewish communities over the Green Line, has in the past faced similar accusations of falsifying purchases of Palestinian land. The most notable of such cases were in Amona and Migron, illegal outposts that were demolished after settlers failed to prove that they had legally acquired the plots from their original owners.

In 2008, Al-Watan again tried to register the purchase of the Shehadeh home, this time with the Jerusalem District Court. It took over five years, but the appeal was eventually denied again in July 2013, with the court concluding that “the plaintiff did not meet the burden of proof that he had indeed purchased the land lawfully.”

In his decision, Judge Arnon Darel pointed out that a witness on Al-Watan’s behalf, Yitzhak Solomon, has been convicted of land theft and had his legal license revoked. Moreover, he did not keep a copy of the purchase documents, only providing pictures of them. Solomon was also unable to recognize in court the Shehadeh family member whom he claimed to have met twice for the transaction.

The middleman that Al-Watan had ostensibly used to purchase the compound from the Shehadehs, Khaled Kadura, is currently awaiting sentencing on charges of falsifying documents in the sale of a home in Hebron from Palestinians to Israeli settlers.

Al-Watan did not appeal the 2013 ruling, evidently accepting the conclusion.

However, just 10 days after the decision, the head of the IDF Central Command, Nitzan Alon, signed a military order seizing the small plot of land on which the building was located for what it said were security purposes.

The Shehadeh family today in Muhammad’s brother’s home in Ein Yabrud (Courtesy)

The order prevented the Shehadeh family from returning to the structure.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, in a statement at the time, claimed the order had been handed down so the army could build a new fence around the institute. Around the time of the ruling, the Civil Administration dismantled the original barrier the Ofra settlement had illegally built engulfing the institute.

However, despite the fact that the new fence was completed within a matter of days, the military order will remain in force until the end of 2019.

While the IDF statement acknowledged that the Jerusalem District Court had denied the Mishpetei Eretz institute’s request to register the property, it provided no explanation as to why the settlers were allowed to remain at the site.

In a recent followup request with the military spokesperson’s unit, The Times of Israel asked why the institute has been allowed to remain at the building if the IDF recognized that its purchase was invalid. The army took 10 days to respond, ultimately sending a statement nearly identical to the one it made five years ago.

The Shehadeh family outside their old home in Ein Yabrud in 2000. (Courtesy)

The Kerem Navot settlement watchdog lambasted the state’s handling of the institute’s invasion of the Palestinian home. “We see here another example that reveals the corrupt system that Israel maintains in the West Bank,” the left-wing NGO said.

“Rather than enforce the law, and evict and punish the settlers who invaded the property, the IDF issued a corrupt military order based on security needs that de facto enables them to stay there. On top of that, we now discover that the government is generously funding criminal bodies like the Mishpatei Eretz Institute.”

Asked to explain why it was funding the religious institute, the Culture Ministry said, “The Mishpetei Eretz institute is a research institute that employs researchers and publishes on a variety of topics and fields related to the study of Jewish law.”

It added that “the institute met the criteria for sponsorship required of Torah research institutes.”

The Times of Israel reached out to Al-Watan for comment, but did not receive a response.

The Shehadeh family’s attorney, Muhammad Dahleh, said his office plans in the coming months to submit a petition asking the High Court to order the eviction of the institute from the home, in light of the state’s refusal to do so on its own.

Asked why it has taken five years to submit such a petition, Dahleh explained that such appeals are expensive and that the Shehadeh family needed time to gather the necessary funds.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report. 

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