US Cash for Israeli Settlements Making a Mockery of the Moratorium

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have declared a freeze on new settlements, but construction is continuing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Settlers are receiving contributions from American foundations that enjoy tax breaks, including Christian groups that see Biblical prophecies being fulfilled.

AFP

By and


A gray pick-up truck speeds up to the metal gate at the entrance to Shilo, a Jewish settlement halfway between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus and which is home to 2,500 people.

Dror Etkes, 41, puts on sunglasses and a blue cap. He is hoping not to be recognized. Settlers in the West Bank consider Etkes, who has spent more than nine years making note of every new house built in the more than 120 Israeli settlements here, their number one enemy. A settlers' newspaper once printed his picture with the caption "Dror Etkes, head of the peace movement's intelligence service."

So Etkes employs various tricks to gain admittance to the settlements. Nearly every one of them, for example, contains a minimarket. When the guard at the Shilo gate asks where he's headed, Etkes replies, looking bored, "To the minimarket." The guard believes him and opens the metal gate.

'A Bad Joke'

Just a couple hundred meters on, Etkes finds what he's looking for -- a "For Sale" sign advertising "10 family homes." From the top of a hill, Etkes watches Palestinian workers who are using wooden slats to prepare a framework for concrete. "The foundations are from December," Etkes states knowledgeably and clicks his camera shutter button.

Now Etkes has further proof that there has not in fact been a "freeze" on settlement building since November, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have the world believe. In any case, the Israeli cabinet also made exceptions in the moratorium for public buildings such as synagogues and preschools, as well as allowing private homes already under construction to be completed.

The settlers' administration of Samaria in the northern part of the West Bank thus issued permits for 1,600 housing units -- nearly 10 times as many as in the previous year -- before the moratorium began. Etkes' latest research shows that settlers have also begun new construction projects since the moratorium took effect. At least 46 of the 120 official settlements are currently carrying out construction, the left-wing activist says. "Talking about a moratorium is just a bad joke."

Praising Netanyahu's Restraint

US President Barack Obama, on the other hand, praised Netanyahu for his "restraint" on the settlement question during the Israeli prime minister's visit to Washington two weeks ago. That comment struck Palestinian leaders in Ramallah as mockery, especially as it emerged around the same time that many of the settlements have the American tax system to thank for their development.

According to research by the New York Times, pro-settler groups have raised over $200 million (€155 million) in the last 10 years. Such foundations in the United States can be exempted from taxes as long as they benefit "educational, religious or charitable" causes.

This raises some important questions. Do foundations deserve tax breaks even while pursuing clear foreign policy aims? And what happens when their aims run contrary to those of the US government?

Representatives of the foundations in question offer placating words. Sondra Baras from Christian Friends of Israel Communities (CFOIC), for example, says that her organization "does not have a political agenda." The organization, which is based in Colorado Springs, is tax exempt. "CFOIC does not advocate any particular political solution to the problems in the Middle East," she told SPIEGEL. "The support is ideological and Biblical in nature, not political."

'Humanitarian in Nature'

Steven Orlow, president of the One Israel Fund, another tax-exempted pro-settler group based in Hewlett, New York, makes similar comments.

"The activities of the One Israel Fund are exclusively limited to affecting 'quality of life' issues, the primary stress being on preventing the loss of Jewish life," he says. "The perception from our side of the Atlantic is that Europeans may well find the effort to save Jewish lives as political. From the American perspective, this is generally considered humanitarian in nature."

In reality, though, these foundations are unwilling to condone a separate state for Palestinians. "CFOIC does not have a political agenda, but it does support the right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel," Baras says. "For thousands of years, this land has been called the Land of Israel and the Jewish people are the only people on this earth who have prayed and yearned for centuries to return to this land."

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