Jerusalem — In a move that strikes at the heart of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, the Jewish National Fund would sever all legal ties to the state to prevent anyone but Jews from building on the land it owns, according to a proposal under consideration by the Sharon government.
The proposal stems from a statement last week by Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, that JNF cannot prevent Israeli Arabs from applying for building plots on land it owns.
According to JNF, it owns 13 percent of the land of Israel, about half of which is settled. JNF said that 70 percent of the Israeli population lives on land owned by the group.
Mazuz’s comment was prompted by petitions to Israel’s High Court of Justice from four human rights groups objecting to the decision by the Israel Lands Authority, a government body, to restrict the marketing of JNF land to Jews.
The ILA acted after marketing leases last year on 43 plots in the primarily Jewish neighborhood of Karmiel. Six of the 17 families that won plots were Israeli Arabs.
But Jewish residents of the area objected, and the ILA froze the transaction. It cited a 1968 contract between the state and JNF whereby JNF-owned land would be sold only to Jewish citizens of Israel.
When the land was offered again for lease in September, the ILA said Israeli Arabs could not apply.
In his statement, Mazuz said he was confident that a way could be found “to uphold the principle of equality without harming the aims of the JNF as set down in its mandate to settle Jews on the land it owns.”
The petition by the human rights groups cited a 2000 High Court ruling which said that Israel could not discriminate between Arabs and Jews in the allocation of land within Israel.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the government was considering a proposal to have JNF and the Israel Lands Authority swap land “acre for acre.”
Virtually all of the land owned by JNF is located north of Beersheba. The property it would acquire primarily would be on the periphery, such as “border towns and villages and in places where we want to settle, in the Negev and the Galilee,” Gissin said.
This land would be restricted and could be leased only for purposes of settling Jews, but because it would no longer have ties to the state, JNF could not be accused in court of discrimination.
“JNF will have a separate deal with the Lands Authority,” said Gissin. “The ties between JNF and the state would be severed [and JNF would be] an organization whose main purpose is to develop land for the Jews.”
But a JNF spokeswoman in New York, Sarina Roffe, said her organization was still in discussions with the Sharon government over its proposed separation from the ILA. Roffe said should that happen, JNF would want not a simple acre-for-acre swap because the land north of Beersheba is more expensive than land to the south.
Thus, she said, JNF would insist on a dollar-for-dollar swap, meaning that JNF would get considerably more land than it would be relinquishing.
“We feel that the future of Israel is in the Negev, and if this deal goes through it would enable JNF to proceed with our vision of ‘Blueprint Negev’ — our plan to develop 25 new commuter communities in the Negev that hub around Beersheba, Eilat and Mitzpe Ramon,” Roffe said. “That would entail bringing 250,000 new residents to the Negev in the next five to 10 years.”
Itzik Shaanan of the New Israel Fund, which funds Adallah, an Arab-Israeli human rights group, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, two of the organizations that filed the petition, said the groups have now pushed “the state to deal with very substantive questions about how to be a democratic and Jewish state. The fact that JNF can only pass lands to Jews is problematic for a democracy.
“Being a Jewish state and a democratic state don’t always sit together,” Shaanan added. “It’s a type of maturation. The AG is requesting a re-examination of Israel’s democracy 50 years afterward.”
In a statement, JNF recalled that when it was founded in 1901, “persecuted and poor Jews throughout the world put their hard-earned coins in little Blue Boxes with the dream that the Jewish National Fund would purchase land that they dreamed would one day become the State of Israel. Those pennies — collected in the subways and streets and by knocking on doors — were designated for the purchase of land to be owned by the Jewish people and held in trust by Jewish National Fund.
“Jewish people have a right to own land in the only Jewish state in the world,” the organization said. “According to JNF by-laws, land owned by JNF cannot be sold or leased to non-Jews. … Selling and/or leasing land to Arabs would be a violation of the covenant established between JNF and diaspora Jews who paid for the land.”
Were JNF forced to sell to non-Jews, its land would be “nationalized” and millions of Jews who contributed to the organization “will have lost those hard-earned land rights,” the organization said.
Since its inception, JNF has planted 240 million trees, developed 450 parks and built 167 reservoirs.
The statement cited a recent poll finding that 80 percent of Israelis would like Israel to be a Jewish state.
It also noted that Israel would not be alone in imposing restrictions on land sales. Many European nations regulate land purchases by non-citizens, and the Muslim Waqf owns 4 percent of the land within Israel and “transacts only with the Arab population in accordance with their own beliefs and laws.”
Suhad Bishara, a lawyer for Adalah, said that although Mazuz’s comments are “very positive” because they order the ILA not to discriminate, the ruling about JNF is “problematic” because he allows it to be “openly discriminatory.”
“The root of the problem will remain, despite the positive direction of the decision,” she said.
But Knesset member Benjamin Elon was upset with Mazuz’s decision.
“His position is a post-Zionist position,” Elon said. “[Mazuz] believes that Zionism has no meaning anymore after the establishment of the State of Israel. That’s the only way I can explain it. He wants a separation between Judaism and the Jewish state.
“His attitude reminds me of the abstract paintings of Chagall. The Jews are blowing in the wind or somewhere on the roof. They are not grounded.”