June 6, 2014
When the phone call came as we were driving to the Qalandia checkpoint separating Ramallah from Jerusalem, I grew worried. I thought the Israel Land Fund (ILF) was about to cancel my appointment with Aryeh King, the head of the settler organization. They found out I was a critic of Israel, I surmised. Instead, the group’s spokesman told me that King could meet me and my colleague Allison Deger in his Jerusalem office, but that there would be no tour of the fund’s properties in the occupied holy city, as I had requested.
We arrived to his third-floor City Council office in Safra Square on a hot May day after crossing East Jerusalem into the smooth streets of the western part of the city. The office is uncluttered, save for his computer, books on his desk and a portrait of the Dome of the Rock on a Jerusalem night that hangs on his wall.
I was nervous as the elevator took me to King. But ten minutes into our interview, the willingness to speak to us began to make sense. I don’t think he knew who we were, but that didn’t matter. It was easy to set up a meeting with the man. He likes to hear himself talk. And for the next hour and a half, that’s what he did, interrupting a prior conversation he was having with a blond-haired woman. Wearing a blue polo shirt and a dark crocheted kippah, King, stout and stocky, held forth on his activities with the Israel Land Fund, the word "apartheid" and John Kerry, and African refugees. He’s bombastic and has wild-eyed dreams of making Jordan the Palestinian state and building the Third Temple where Muslim holy sites currently sit.
He knows exactly what he wants for Jerusalem: maximum Jews on maximum land. In other circumstances, such a call might be benign. But in present-day Jerusalem, where inequality is woven into the city’s fabric, it’s a call for a dystopian future where the dispossession of Palestinians is put on hyper-speed.
For a Greater Israel-devotee like King, that’s exactly the point. The national religious settlement fund leader has worked hard over the years to make his vision for the holy city a reality. He hasn’t come close to succeeding, as evidenced by the continued presence of Palestinians and his frequent swipes at the Israeli political establishment for not demolishing more homes and building more settlements. But King, who was recently elected to the Jerusalem City Council on a platform of tamping down the Muslim call to prayer and "Judaizing Jerusalem," is doing the best that one man can do.
King’s Israel Land Fund is a non-profit organization devoted to settling Jews in Israel and the occupied territories, though the group focuses much of its energy in East Jerusalem. The group relies on donations, some of them from overseas, which is the main source of King’s income. A key backer is Irving Moskowitz, the rich Florida resident who uses his profits from a bingo company to funnel millions of dollars to settle Jews in the heart of Palestinian areas.
The Israel Land Fund (ILF) is a real estate company of sorts, connecting Jewish buyers to property the fund says is rightfully owned by other Jews. To King, Israel (and Jerusalem and the West Bank) is Jewish land invaded by many "squatters," in his words–and he has the documents in the Jerusalem land registry to prove it. When I ask him how many Palestinians live in homes that are not theirs, he says, "I don’t know, but it’s a lot"– adding that he personally knows that tens of families in Jerusalem are living on stolen land. Therefore, the displacement of Palestinians who have been living for generations in the homes King targets is common.
"I don’t cry about any property that is being demolished in East Jerusalem," King tells me. "I am crying for many others that are not demolished."
The run-up to settling in these homes is often characterized by ownership disputes. And the goal is to boost the Jewish population of Jerusalem–and make it impossible for East Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state.
When it has an interested buyer, the ILF locates property it claims is owned by Jews. Its first go at it is to buy the land from the current occupant; King says he mostly facilitates purchases from Christians. (He emphasizes that the ILF itself doesn’t own any land–it just helps Jews who wish to do so.) Sometimes, King uses an Arab middle-man willing to help the settler leader out. If that doesn’t work, he turns to the power of the state to evict the owners, often making use of an Israeli law allowing the Jewish owners of pre-1948 homes to lay claim to that property. The previous owners then transfer the land to King’s group. The ILF is most active in Sheikh Jarrah, Beit Hanina, Ras al-Amud and Kafr Aqab–settlements populated by some of the 2,000 settlers living in the heart of Palestinian residential areas in the city. (In total, 200,000 settlers live in East Jerusalem in violation of international law, but the majority reside in big Jewish enclaves separate from Palestinians.)
A map of settlements in the heart of Palestinian residential areas in East Jerusalem. (Screenshot via UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)
"The [Jewish National Fund] is not doing…what they should do, and because of that, there is no real fund, NGO fund, Jewish fund, that is doing what is so important for securing the future of the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael and this is to continue buying land in Eretz Yisrael. This is the first goal," King says. "The second goal is to protect what already belongs to Jews in Eretz Yisrael and Arabs are stealing it daily, in the Negev by the Bedouins, in the north by Arabs, Muslims." For most of our discussion, he did not utter the word "Palestinian."
When I asked him about Secretary of State John Kerry’s warning that Israel may become an "apartheid state," King jumped at the chance to respond. "Arabs have much more rights [in Israel] than the Muslims living in Europe. Much more! Covering their faces in France, it’s illegal today. So, what, France become an apartheid state?" King told me. "I’m laughing when I hear him, it’s like this guy took something, he’s on drugs. It’s like apartheid? You’re talking about apartheid, because you have a black president so you are not apartheid? Go and check all your states in United States and let’s see if all of the immigrants, the illegal immigrants, in the states, have the same rights or less like the illegal immigrants in Israel." He adds that Jerusalem is indeed an apartheid city–because Jews aren’t allowed to live wherever they want.
King walks the walk. In 1997, he was one of the first people who moved to the Moskowitz-funded settlement of Ma’ale Zeitim, which is smack in the middle of the Palestinian neighborhood Ras al-Amud. He boasts that he’s well-liked by Palestinians there, that he shares bicycles with the locals. "We didn’t do any bad thing to any one of them. We are living on land belong to Jews. What the problem here?" he asks. The idyllic vision King conjures doesn’t match up with what a 2009 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks reports:
An Arab resident of Ras al-Amud, asked if he had ever met his neighbors living in Ras al-Amud, shook his head. "They live in a prison," he said. "They come and go in their cars. They don’t walk in the streets. Because they know what will be thrown at them will not be flowers.
And when you get into the details of what King’s co-existence means, it becomes much more clear it’s about Jewish domination that merely tolerates the presence of others as long as they keep their head down. "Arabs or any non-Jews that want to live here in the state of Israel, the holy land of Israel, they need to understand that it is the holy land of Yi-sra-el, and not the holy land of Ish-ma-el," says King. "And if Ishmael wants to stay here, he can stay here, but he need to accept that it’s not just another land."
The overblown rhetoric is almost enough to dismiss King as a inconsequential fanatic. But his efforts are not victimless. In 2012, King evicted a family–the Natshehs–from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina after a court battle to establish a new Jewish settlement, displacing 13 people. King convinced other Palestinian families in Beit Hanina to take the money for the property and leave.
And he also has his sights set on Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem area that became a flashpoint in recent years, with a protest movement sprouting up in response to the evictions of families. The latest family King wants to evict are the Shamasnehs, who live in the western part of Sheikh Jarrah. Though they have been residents of their home since 1964 when it was under Jordanian control, settlers have used Israeli courts to take advantage of a law that allows descendants of Jewish homeowners to evict the Palestinians currently living there and take it over. But the law doesn’t extend to Palestinians, many of whom have property over the Green Line, including in West Jerusalem.
In 2009, the Shamasnehs received their first eviction notice, but it has been delayed by Israeli appeals courts. So the family remains, but it’s an open question how long they will be allowed to remain.
Sheikh Jarrah resident Mohammad Sabbagh told me King wants to "Judaize the land for the settlers." A 65-year-old resident of the neighborhood whose own home has been targeted for eviction by settlers but who won a 2013 court case that froze eviction orders, Sabbagh warns that King "is going after every Palestinian family to get his house and to let settlers live in it by any way."
King is not about to stop. He ended our interview by saying this: "I don’t want to go to sleep at night, and I’m waiting just to wake up because there’s so much to do."
Allison Deger contributed reporting for this article.