Criminal investigation into Ofra land transfer under way

Ofra sources say they bought the property from Palestinians but had been unable to register the sale, out of fear for the lives of the sellers.

Police have carried out a wide-ranging probe in recent weeks into suspicions the WZO Settlement Division illegally transferred Palestinian-owned land to the Ofra settlement, a Judea and Samaria Police source told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "Many bodies" had been investigated, "including both public organizations and government organizations," the source said, a possible hint at the World Zionist Organization and the Agriculture Ministry. A letter from the Attorney-General's Office sent to Yesh Din-Volunteers for Human Rights earlier this month under the subject heading of the WZO and the Partnership Association for Ofra, stated that a criminal investigation regarding the allocation of the land was already under way. "The investigation is at a sensitive stage and we cannot comment further at the moment," the police source said. Police investigators have already passed their findings on to Jerusalem District Attorney's Office, and are awaiting possible requests to complete particular lines of inquiry, the source said. "The investigation was a continuation from the High Court case over the issue," he added. The investigation stems from the illegal construction of nine homes in Ofra in 2008, against which Yesh Din has filed a petition on behalf of five Palestinians from the nearby village of Ein Yabrud, who claim ownership to the property located within Ofra's municipal boundaries. Yesh Din asked the court to order the state to honor demolition orders issued against the homes by the civil administration. Among the documents submitted to the court was a sales contract from May 2008 for one of the homes, between a buyer and the Partnership Association for Ofra. The contract stipulates that the association had received rights to the property from the WZO. Yesh Din has argued that since the land belongs to Palestinians, the WZO did not have the right to transfer it to the association. It further said that the association should not have allowed a developer to construct homes on the property, not should it have sold those homes and the rights to live in them to private individuals. A source from Ofra told the Post the police investigation was part of the ongoing High Court case. He said that resident of Ofra had last been called to give testimony to the police more than a year ago. He pointed to the section in the state's response to the High Court where it explained that the residents of Ofra say they had purchased the property from Palestinians but had been unable to formally register the sale, out of fear for the lives of the Palestinian sellers. He added that they were willing to testify to this effect. A resident of Ofra involved in the matter said that proof of the purchase had been given to the police. The resident added that the settlement itself, which is home to close to 3,000 people, had been created in 1975 by the government. It is located in the Binyamin region, outside of the planned route of the West Bank security barrier. The state told the court that while the land in question appeared to be registered to Palestinians, the names on the documents were not those of the plaintiffs. Irrespective of the ownership issue, the state said the homes were built illegally because the settlement lacked an authorized master plan. The court has yet to rule on the matter. The Ofra source said one could read between the lines to see that the state believed the Palestinians had a weak case. But Dror Etkes of Yesh Din said the actual owners of the Palestinian property were dead, and it was very complicated for legal reasons to re-register the property in the correct names of the heirs. Etkes said he believed that the state's response to the court implied that the homes' illegal status stemmed from the fact that the they were built on private Palestinian property. He noted also that a report prepared by the Defense Ministry said that much of Ofra had been built on private Palestinian land. A WZO spokesman said he could not comment on the matter because it was currently before the court and under investigation. He did, however, say that the WZO Settlement Division merely implemented the policies set by the government. Its budget comes from the government. No Jewish philanthropy or donor money from abroad had been used to fund the Settlement Division, he said. Although the WZO has long had ties with the Jewish Agency, and until this year, they had a joint chairman, the two organizations were separate legal entities. But the chairman never had jurisdiction over the Settlement Division, which since 2007 has been under the Agriculture Ministry, and before that under the Prime Minister's Office. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is not the head of the WZO, which at present lacks a chairman. The Settlement Division's nebulous standing has created a confusing picture of its operations, and it remains unclear which organization would be held responsible for any criminal wrongdoing by the division.