ARYEH KING is nothing if not forthright. Touring Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood nestled between the Jewish Arzei Habira and Ramat Eshkol neighborhoods to the west and Mount Scopus to the east, on a sunny morning in late November, the 41-year-old Jerusalem City Councilor makes no bones about his goal for this neighborhood, like all Arab-majority neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.“I prefer the Arabs to leave this area voluntarily, I try hard not to force the police to evict anyone,” King tells The Jerusalem Report without a smile.“But, if need be, I have no problem doing what needs to be done. Seventy-five percent of the Nahalat Shimon and Shimon Hatzadik neighborhoods – the real names for the area the Arabs call ‘Sheikh Jarrah,’ are owned by Jews. We have every intention of restoring these properties to their rightful owners.”
Walking around the area, King claims to have encyclopedic knowledge of the history of virtually every plot of land here. The abandoned home on Pierre Van Paassen Street? Owned by Jews, then abandoned in 1948 when the family fled the city ahead of the Jordanian advance. The Al-Hayat Medical Center? Belongs to the Kupashkas, a Yemenite Jewish family whose members are split between the US and Israel. The dilapidated shacks on Conder Street? All owned by Jews, King says.The search for Jewish-owned property in Arab-majority areas of Israel, he says, is his “life’s work,” spurred by his vision of Zionism that includes a maximum number of Jews and a minimum number of Arabs.This is a goal that has animated King since his childhood at the national-religious Kibbutz Alumim in the northwestern Negev. Born and raised on the kibbutz to immigrants from England, he became one of the founders of Ma’aleh Zeitim, where he lives with his family in the heavily guarded Jewish community on the Mount of Olives, in the heart of the Arab-majority Ras al-Amud neighborhood. He is fluent in Arabic and has a degree in Islamic studies and political science from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.Eventually, King’s passion for “redeeming Jewish property” spurred him to establish the Israel Land Fund (ILF) in 2007 at the behest of Guma Aguiar, a maverick Latin-American Jewish philanthropist with an interest in Zionist causes including Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, who disappeared in his boat off Fort Lauderdale in June 2012. Later, King was the number four candidate on the far-right Otzma L’Yisrael party that failed to win entry to the 19th Knesset, and would go on to be elected to the Jerusalem City Council as head of the United Jerusalem party The fund is shrouded in secrecy. King cannot say how much money is behind it nor who the primary investors are, but he stresses that ILF does not own land or property, only that it serves as an agent between potential buyers and sellers. According to ILF’s website, inquiries about land purchases are vetted prior to involvement by the fund to ensure that the potential investors are, indeed, Jewish. The website offers few details about available properties.King says the ILF is active throughout Israel – its projects to establish a right-wing, mainly Orthodox Jewish presence in Acre and Jaffa have repeatedly made news in recent years – but he does not maintain statistics about the number of Palestinians displaced as a result of ILF activities. Instead, he steers the conversation about the fund toward the guiding principles that govern its activities.“We try to identify Jewish-owned properties that were registered with the Turkish or British authorities, but which have been stolen or taken over by Arabs over the years, and to return those properties to their rightful Jewish owners. Second, we identify Arabs who want to sell and we match them up with Jews who want to buy.“The second point is critical. It is important that people understand that one does not have to be a millionaire to redeem land.I would prefer 1,000 people to join together to purchase small pieces of property over two massive investors who cover a whole project because that way they form a con - nection to the Land of Israel, which is our third goal – to make people feel connected to the Land of Israel.I want people to understand that Eretz Yisrael is a part of them, that they have a stake here. And that they can stake part of that claim for as little as $10,000 to $15,000,” he says.There is also an educational element to the fund, King says, claiming that few Israeli and foreign politicians and rabbis understand the reality of today’s Jerusalem, including his colleagues on the Jerusalem City Council.Not surprisingly, King’s activities have earned him the censure of left-wing groups in Israel and abroad, which say settling Jews in Arab-majority neighborhoods is, at best, an unnecessary thorn in the side of local Palestinians. At worst, they say King employs immoral and possibly illegal means to convince Arab homeowners to sell to Jews, quite possibly endangering their lives by doing so and that the attempt to Judaize East Jerusalem is ethnic cleansing by an avowed racist.The criticisms are not entirely unfounded.Sitting in his third-floor office at City Hall, King is not shy about his plans for the Arab “enemy” – maximum home demolitions for illegal structures built by Arabs – or about generalizing and using epithets to describe Arabs and their culture – “they are natural swindlers, it is part of their culture to lie.”Because of that, a spokesman for one group, Ir Amim, argued strongly that the authorities should ban King’s activities on grounds they lead to violence and that they are opposed to the interests of the State of Israel.Another left-wing activist, who asked not to be named because she said King has a long history of suing for libel – in 2008 King won NIS 58,000 in a libel suit against Peace Now – claimed that King’s methods include pressuring and threatening residents to leave their homes. The activist admitted that, although she finds ILF activities morally repugnant and King’s racism deeply offensive, it does not appear that the fund has engaged in any illegal activity.Still, Many ILF land purchases appear to be clouded in secrecy, or at least mystery.Take the story of Nati Amichai, a 28-year- old single man who lives in one of the homes King says he has “liberated” on behalf of the rightful Jewish owners in Nahalat Yitzhak, one of the historic Jewish subdivisions of Sheikh Jarrah. After growing up in Kiryat Moshe, a national-religious Jerusalem neighborhood, Amichai had been living in a “redeemed” house in Jebl Mukaber when King approached him to take possession of a property in Nahalat Yitzhak.The property is meager. Like many of the homes in Nahalat Yitzhak, the picturesque garden is surrounded by a high wall. Unlike the others, however, this wall is topped with rolls of barbed wire. Inside, the small com - pound looks like little more than a run-down storage area for discarded building materials and metal containers of varying shapes and sizes. Under a large fig tree, there are several decaying couches and arm chairs, too wet to sit on after a rainstorm the previous evening.Inside, the two-room, split-level structure is in poor condition and badly in need of repair.Details of Amichai’s formal rental arrangement are similarly sketchy, possibly because he is still sleepy after being woken up at 9:45 a.m. to open the property for our group, but possibly because he does not appear to be entirely lucid. Amichai, who says he works as a handyman, is unable to say how much rent he pays for the apartment, or to whom he pays it. The Interior Ministry lists his official residence at his parents’ home.“I came to live here because Aryeh was looking for someone who knew how to take care of himself to hold on to this property [after the Arab residents were evicted].It takes a special kind of character to live here, but I’m happy I made the choice to come here. Jerusalem is my city. I’ll live wherever I want, no matter if the neighborhood is Arab or Jewish,” Amichai says.Significantly, Amichai says he feels safe here (but notes that he has applied for a gun license). However, there have been attacks on his, and other Jewish homes in Sheikh Jarrah, including stones and Molotov cocktails.King lost his seat in Mayor Nir Barkat’s governing coalition in September for opposing the mayor’s plan to build 2,200 homes for Arabs in the Arav al-Swahara neighborhood. He says the plan would further entrench the city’s de-facto separation and proves that Barkat, generally considered right of center, is little more than a “left-winger” bent on preventing Jews from living in certain areas of the city. As further proof, he cites the 600 to 700 illegal buildings built by Arabs in Jerusalem each year, as well as the municipality’s decision to return NIS 300,000 of the municipal demolition budget to the state treasury instead of using the allotted funds for their intended purpose.But the bulk of King’s fury is reserved for the courts. “The courts are the biggest asset land falsifiers have in Israel,” he alleges, the rhythm of his speech speeding up as succumbs to outrage. “If they weren’t real estate and property attorneys before joining the bench, it is easy to fool them. In case after case, the Arabs show them fake document after fake document, but the judges won’t do anything about it.Critics of King point out that while making every effort to restore property in East Jerusalem to its pre-1948 Jewish owners he totally rejects Palestinian claims to homes in West Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Baka, Malha, Katamon, and Talbiyeh.King claims he is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and feels strongly that there is a solution for Palestinian political aspirations – in Jordan.“I believe with perfect faith that Jordan will eventually become the Palestinian state, as it should have become decades ago. Mark my words – by the time Hussein ibn Abdullah, the son of the current Hashemite king, ascends the throne, he will be the King of Palestine.”Until then, King says he will continue pushing for as many Jews to come to Jerusalem as possible.