Trump’s Israel Envoy Pick Funds West Bank Settlements. Here’s Why That’s a Problem

A U.S. network of pro-settlement non-profits aids in the displacement of Palestinians.

Alex Kane

An Israeli soldier stands guard in the Israeli settlement of Bet El, facing the West Bank city of Ramallah, which can be seen in the background. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s choice of David Fried­man — his for­mer bank­rupt­cy lawyer — as U.S. ambas­sador to Israel has sparked con­tro­ver­sy amongst sup­port­ers of Pales­tin­ian rights.

Advocates fear that the appointment sends a signal to the Israeli settler movement that encroachment upon Palestinian land will get little meaningful pushback from the United States.

Left-lean­ing Jew­ish groups J Street and Jew­ish Voice for Peace have blast­ed Fried­man for rais­ing mil­lions of dol­lars for an Israeli set­tle­ment in the West Bank. The U.S. Cam­paign for Pales­tin­ian Rights says Fried­man is unfit” because he has spo­ken approv­ing­ly of Israeli annex­a­tion of the West Bank.

Fried­man, whose Sen­ate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing is set for Thurs­day, is the pres­i­dent of Amer­i­can Friends of Bet El Yeshi­va, a pro-set­tle­ment non­prof­it based in For­est Hills, N.Y. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s fam­i­ly foun­da­tion are among the nonprofit’s donors. It has poured mil­lions of dol­lars into infra­struc­ture, includ­ing a news out­let and reli­gious schools, for Bet El, a hard­line hill­top set­tle­ment north of the Pales­tin­ian city of Ramallah.

Set­tle­ments are one of the major flash­points in the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict because they are built on Pales­tin­ian land and dis­place Pales­tin­ian res­i­dents. Friedman’s pro-set­tle­ment stance puts him at odds with inter­na­tion­al law, under which the set­tle­ments are con­sid­ered ille­gal, and with past U.S. admin­is­tra­tions, which have con­sis­tent­ly opposed set­tle­ment con­struc­tion as harm­ful to the Israel-Pales­tin­ian peace process. 

Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion has embold­ened the set­tler move­ment, which sees Trump and his advis­ers as sym­pa­thet­ic to its cause. On Jan­u­ary 24, the Israeli gov­ern­ment announced approval for 2,500 new set­tler hous­ing units in the occu­pied West Bank.

Pres­i­dent Trump has sent mixed sig­nals on his posi­tion on set­tle­ments, but recent­ly told an Israeli paper he doesn’t think they are good for peace.

How­ev­er, his cho­sen ambas­sador may be direct­ly aid­ing the planned expan­sion. Twen­ty of the 2,500 new units are slat­ed for Bet El — and appear to be under­writ­ten in part by a dona­tion from Amer­i­can Friends of Bet El Yeshi­va. In 2015, Friedman’s orga­ni­za­tion gave about $666,000 to the Israeli group Sukkat Ova­dia Yeshi­va of Bet El. That group put cash behind plans for the five-sto­ry build­ing with 20 apart­ments, accord­ing to Hag­it Ofran, the direc­tor of the Israeli group Peace Nows Set­tle­ment Watch project.

These apart­ment units are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­tro­ver­sial because they are ille­gal­ly built on pri­vate Pales­tin­ian land — as opposed to land that the Israeli mil­i­tary con­fis­cat­ed for the pur­pos­es of build­ing set­tle­ments. (The ille­gal­i­ty of build­ing on pri­vate Pales­tin­ian land, how­ev­er, is begin­ning to change. Ear­li­er this month, the Israeli Par­lia­ment passed a law that would, over the next six months, retroac­tive­ly legal­ize many set­tle­ments on pri­vate land.)

Trump is appar­ent­ly still work­ing out his pol­i­cy on Israeli set­tle­ments. But advo­cates fear that the appoint­ment of Fried­man sends a sig­nal to the Israeli set­tler move­ment that encroach­ment upon Pales­tin­ian land will get lit­tle mean­ing­ful push­back from the Unit­ed States.

The mon­ey trail

Amer­i­can Friends of Bet El Yeshi­va is one of dozens of sim­i­lar U.S. pro-set­tle­ment non­prof­its whose donors receive tax write-offs from the U.S. gov­ern­ment, despite the gov­ern­men­t’s his­toric oppo­si­tion to set­tle­ment construction.

Some of these non­prof­its go beyond fund­ing set­tle­ment infra­struc­ture to fund­ing secu­ri­ty oper­a­tions. An inves­ti­ga­tion in the March issue of In These Times looks into one such char­i­ty, called the One Israel Fund.

Based in the sub­urb of Cedarhurst, New York, the One Israel Fund has, since 2001, raised at least $26 mil­lion for a vari­ety of West Bank set­tle­ments. The mon­ey does not just go towards con­struc­tion of homes and oth­er insti­tu­tions in the occu­pied West Bank. In These Times found that at least $960,000 went to secu­ri­ty personnel.

These secu­ri­ty guards are not a typ­i­cal police force. Trained by the Israeli mil­i­tary, but paid by the set­tle­ments, these live-in civil­ian secu­ri­ty guards form what is essen­tial­ly a state-sanc­tioned, mil­i­ta­rized neigh­bor­hood watch pro­gram. The bound­aries of that neigh­bor­hood, how­ev­er, can be blur­ry: Guards often ven­ture out into sur­round­ing Pales­tin­ian vil­lages. In These Times found that these guards harass, intim­i­date and threat­en to kill Pales­tini­ans — and face vir­tu­al­ly no account­abil­i­ty for their actions.

David Friedman’s appoint­ment as U.S. ambas­sador to Israel has put set­tle­ment non-prof­its in an uncom­fort­able spot­light. This rais­es an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er their grounds for tax-exempt sta­tus, as well as the broad­er U.S. role in fur­ther­ing Pales­tin­ian dis­pos­ses­sion and displacement.

Alex Kane is a New York-based free­lance jour­nal­ist who writes on U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East.
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