A major “expose” in Ha’aretz last week on the “relationship” between the state and Elad, Hebrew acronym for the City of David Foundation, which is reclaiming property in the City of David for Jewish housing –touted as having “information revealed for the first time,” in the words of Ha’aretz reporter Nir Hasson – is just a rehash of decades-old charges that have been disproven “over and over,” says Udi Ragones, media liason for the Elad organization. “Occasionally they reprint the same information in different packages, but it is all the same information that has been checked numerous times by all relevant state agencies and even the High Court,” Ragones said.
The Ha’aretz “investigation” consists of a long and sometimes rambling accusation against Elad and Ateret Cohanim organization, which, like Elad, also purchases properties from Arabs in Jerusalem neighborhoods, accusing them of “improprieties” in the acquisition of properties in the City of David area. Specifically, the article points to 11 properties that were involved in “secret transactions between the state” and the two organizations. Some of the properties, claims the “investigation”, involved “involved truly paltry sums,” well below market values on properties rented by or purchased from the Israel Lands Administration.
For example, the article discussed a property called Beit Ma’ayan, which Elad rented for a monthly fee of NIS 23.73. “An ILA document indicates that a 1,075-square-meter plot containing a 134-square-meter building (Beit Hama’ayan ) was leased to Elad in June 2006 for 49 years for NIS 382,000,” far below current market value. And, the article charges, none of the properties in question were acquired by a public tender – with the implication being that the properties were acquired through “under the table settler shenanigans” of some sort. Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, leftwing activist Dror Etkes, who took legal action to demand to see the documentation of the deals, said that the documents “expose a very corrupt relationship between the State of Israel, the Israel Lands Administration,(ILA) and these two settlement organizations.”
But Ragones said that the Ha’aretz “expose” was as notable for what it did not say, as for what it it did say. “You’ll notice that the term ‘illegal’ does not appear anywhere in that article, because there was nothing illegal about anything cited in the story. If the reporter had had the requisite sense of decency, s/he would have stated clearly that Elad complied with all laws in all of these arrangements, and that they have been investigated numerous times and found to all be legally sound. The fact that the article itself was written is a clear sign that nothing illegal took place,” Ragones said. “If you suspect illegal activity, you go to the police, but if there is nothing illegal and you just want to besmirch someone, you run to a reporter – and that is exactly what happened here.”
The two main “charges” in the article – the low rent/sales prices and the lack of a tender – are easily explained. “What the article fails to mention is that those low rents are the result of ‘key money,’ a term less commonly heard nowadays but still relevant,” Ragones said. “There are key money buildings all over the older sections of Jerusalem, and in this case, the key money property was held by the ILA. There was no demand for the property, and when we took it, the ILA set the rent based on the key money.” In Israel, a key money situation generally amounts to rent control, which makes the rents charged usually very low.
Regarding the lack of tenders, Ragones said, “at the time the properties in question were acquired during the 1980s, there was no tender process in place for ILA property. The law requiring this was only passed in 1992, so any transactions made before that time were perfectly legal as well. All of the quotes from reports cited in the article were taken out of context. The bottom line is that all of these ‘charges’ were checked and investigated by numerous government agencies, as well as the High Court, and nothing came of any of them.”
Why would the left prompt Ha’aretz to recycle the charges precisely now? “They are afraid of our success, of the success of Elad and other groups in settling Jews in Arab areas of Jerusalem. We do everything legally, and are able to live in harmony with our Arab neighbors,” Ragones said, pointing out that the trouble in the neighborhood is usually the work of outside agitators. “They cannot allow that success to continue, because our success means their failure – they will be unable to divide Jerusalem as they desire.”