200 Cases Probed, 9 Men Jailed : West Bank Land Fraud: Furor Growing in Israel

Times Staff Writer

The scene on the enclosed porch of Mustafa Khamdan's house here in the rocky, West Samarian hills grew increasingly chaotic as the almost-toothless, 80-year-old patriarch described to a visiting reporter what he called an elaborate plot to steal his land for Jewish settlement.

As word of the visitor's presence spread through this Arab village of 8,000 people, members of Khamdan's extended family showed up, along with several neighbors who had their own stories of alleged land fraud. Soon dozens were gathered, all trying to speak at once in a babble of English, Hebrew and Arabic.

The excitement on Khamdan's porch reflects Biddya's role in a potentially far-reaching Israeli scandal touched off when some forged government documents involving private land sales were found in the home of an accused Jewish counterfeiter late last month.

The discovery has spotlighted a politically charged investigation of West Bank land fraud dating back at least to 1979.

The scope of any wrongdoing is still not known, but a top Justice Ministry official said that about 200 cases of alleged irregularities are under investigation by a special 13-member police team. And, according to reports in the Israeli media, as many as 500 additional complaints have piled up.

"It's like an onion--you just peel it and peel it," said Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. He heads the West Bank Data Project, a program supported by the American Enterprise Institute, a private research group based in Washington, to monitor land use in the occupied territories.

Both Arabs and Jews have been victimized by the fraudulent land sales, and both Arabs and Jews are accused of illegal activity.

The mukhtar (headman) of Biddya is one of at least nine men--Jews and Arabs--already in jail in connection with the investigation. Another is the Arab dealer to whom Khamdan supposedly sold six acres of land.

Khamdan contends that he had no intention of selling his land and that his signature on the sales contract was forged. An Israeli handwriting expert said his analysis backs up Khamdan's contention.

Rightist Israeli politicians, who were in power during most of the time that the questionable land sales occurred, said the problem is being intentionally blown out of proportion. Their opponents are engaged in a "witch hunt" meant to embarrass them and to undermine Jewish settlement of the West Bank, they argue.

Even some Palestinian Arabs agree that publicity surrounding the case is being manipulated for Israeli political motives.

No Officials Implicated

No current or former government officials are known to have been criminally implicated so far. Pliah Albeck, the Justice Ministry official in charge of verifying all West Bank property sales, insisted in an interview that no existing Jewish settlement in the occupied territories is built on dishonestly acquired land.

However, by some estimates as much as 25% of land earmarked for future settlement may be involved. And, whatever its ultimate political and criminal ramifications, the land scandal has exposed what several Israeli commentators call a "Wild West" atmosphere surrounding West Bank land dealings--particularly since a 1979 government decision allowed private Jewish citizens to buy land in the occupied territories.

"Most of the land deals in the area are rooted in forgery, deceit, pressures and threats," charged Yossi Sarid, a leftist member of the Knesset (Parliament), during a news conference last week.

10 Killings Reported

According to Benvenisti, 10 killings since 1979 have been linked to land scams. A Biddya man was shot to death and two others were wounded by border police two years ago when a village protest against what residents called illegal Jewish development of their land turned violent.

Police suspect arson was involved in a Nablus courthouse fire late last year that destroyed hundreds of files connected with alleged West Bank land-sale irregularities. And the rightist newspaper Maariv reported last week that a police investigation into official leaks concerning Arab land for sale in the West Bank was shelved after "highly placed" interference.

Justice Ministry official Albeck said, "Out of land offered for sale by Arabs to Jews, more than 90% are attempts at fraud--people trying to sell land that does not belong to them."

Mystical Importance

The land scandal occurs against the backdrop of a national struggle in which both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews attribute an almost mystical importance to these rocky hills and fertile valleys.

To the Arabs, the land is a symbol of status, a source of sustenance and the ultimate measure of their battle for a homeland on territory captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Rafik Halabi, an Israeli Arab journalist and author of a book about the West Bank, recalls his father's two commandments to him: "Do not sell your land, and protect your sister's honor."

Raja Shehadeh, an Arab lawyer from Ramallah active in Palestinian causes, said, "There is a feeling that the fight we are having is over land--that if Palestinians are deprived of their land, they are deprived of their future."

Sentenced for Selling

Jordan, which ruled the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, periodically sentences to death in absentia any Palestinian Arab resident who sells his land to Jews. And the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the region's highest-ranking interpreter of Islamic law, reminded Muslims earlier this year that they are subject to excommunication if they part "with so much as a millimeter of Palestinian soil."

But to many Jews, the West Bank is an integral part of the Promised Land, a piece of the Jewish patrimony. And Jewish settlement of the territory is seen as divine will.

Addressing those whom he accused of trying to manipulate the land-fraud investigations for political ends, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is foreign minister in Israel's year-old national unity government, warned: "Don't lay a finger on the redemption of land! That is a sacred commandment which must be observed."

The West Bank is roughly the size of Delaware and about one-fourth the size of Israel proper. Since occupying it in 1967, Israel has taken legal control of slightly over half the land through direct seizure or administrative actions, according to Benvenisti. Only a small fraction of the Israeli-controlled land--less than 7%--has been earmarked for Jewish settlement.

Speculative Boom

The current scandal focuses mostly on other land, which has changed hands privately since the government of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin approved such purchases by Jews in 1979. The decision touched off a speculative boom that drove up prices of West Bank land in places such as Biddya--only about 20 miles northeast of Tel Aviv--by several hundred percent.

The land scramble quickly turned into what the Jerusalem Post on Friday called a "nightmarish tangle of fraud, deceit and even coercion. . . ." The Post continued:

"It turned out that money-grabbing Arabs, eager to sell land they did not own, were colluding, under the half-closed and half-approving eyes of Israeli officials, with Jews anxious to purchase the land in order to resell it to other Jews at a handsome profit. As a result, many unsuspecting Arabs discovered their fields, orchards and even homes had been alienated without their consent, and many innocent Jews found the fortunes they had invested in well-advertised housing projects (in the West Bank) had gone down the drain."

Amount of Land Unknown

Nobody seems to know for sure how much Arab land has been bought by Jewish public and private agencies since 1979, but estimates put it at about 35,000 acres. The government itself has set a goal of buying nearly 8,000 acres through the World Zionist Organization in the 1983-1986 period.

Some of these land purchases are by the government and are intended to "flesh out" Jewish settlements where private Arab plots obstruct fulfillment of a town plan. Others are by private contractors who, after assembling sizable tracts, expect to win government approval for expansion of an existing settlement or construction of a new one.

For several reasons, the situation is ripe for fraud.

For one thing, a tangle of land-registration practices used during successive periods of Turkish, British, Jordanian and Israeli rule in the West Bank make determining ownership a complicated business.

Sales Through Middlemen

Land dealings between Arabs are typically registered, if at all, by the village mukhtar. Instead of maps, there are written descriptions of boundaries attested to by owners of neighboring plots.

And, given Arab landowners' reluctance to sell to Jews, sales to private Israeli developers or public agencies are almost always done through Arab middlemen.

In practice, according to police investigations, sellers often sign over more land than they really own. In other cases, police say, the signatures of landowners are forged, sometimes with the help of a dishonest mukhtar. (All West Bank mukhtars are appointed by the Israeli military authorities.)

There have been reports of reluctant sellers being threatened or even killed to get their land. In other cases, Arabs who have sold land to Jews have been murdered in retribution.

There are major questions about the extent to which the Israelis have encouraged fraudulent practices and whether they in turn were prodded by Israeli politicians--for reasons of ideology or greed.

Government Role Unclear

"Certainly there were cases where government officials said, 'If you succeed in buying land here in a specific amount, we will bring it before the government to authorize a settlement,' " the Justice Ministry's Albeck said.

But whether any officials knew of fraudulent land-purchasing practices and failed to do something about them is yet to be shown, she added.

Zev Chafets, a former spokesman for the Begin government, said his superiors were purposely sending unclear signals. "The government was saying, 'Obey the law, but get us that land.' "

The Justice Ministry was concerned enough about West Bank land-sale irregularities two years ago that it issued a public "buyer beware" warning and urged that a special police investigation unit be established to look into the situation.

There was no action on the proposal until six months ago, after Shamir's Likud Bloc government was replaced by the current national unity coalition and a new police minister was installed.

Charges Called 'Fiction'

Michael Dekel, a Knesset member who was known as "the Bulldozer" when he headed the Likud government's settlement effort, contends that all the complaints about alleged land-sale irregularities are "a fiction" concocted by Arabs who have sold land to Jews. They see their protests as a form of life insurance against possible assassination by their nationalist Arab neighbors, he says.

Interviewed by the independent newspaper Haaretz, Dekel insisted that there was no fraud and boasted, "I'm happy and proud about every dunam (one-fourth acre) of land which I helped purchase or which was purchased by private people in Judea and Samaria," the biblical names that most Israelis prefer for the West Bank.

Here in Biddya, meanwhile, villagers took a visiting journalist on a tour past their imprisoned mukhtar's home, which they describe as being furnished "richer than King Hussein's house," and to a nearby hillside overlooking the graded but abandoned section of land where the Biddya man, Abdel-Rahim Akra, was killed in the confrontation with police two years ago.

"If it hadn't been for the killing, there would be a (Jewish) settlement here today," one resident said.

A sign at the junction of the main highway and the dirt road leading to the spot identifies it as "Elkana D," a planned extension of an eight-year-old settlement two ridges to the west.

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