By Ronit Avni
Thursday, June 25, 2009 6:33 PM
This month, both at Cairo University and from the Oval Office, President Obama has called on the Israeli government to stop the expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. He should send the same message to the Americans who are funding and fueling them.
There are more than 450,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Peace Now, an Israeli organization that opposes the settlements. Some of them are Americans. And some of the most influential, militant figures in the settler movement have been Americans, too. Among them were Baruch Goldstein, the doctor from Brooklyn who fired 100 shots at worshiping Muslims in Hebron in 1994, killing 29; Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in Israel in 1988 on the grounds that it was racist; and convicted terrorist Era Rapaport, a member of the Land Redemption Fund, which coordinates the acquisition of Palestinian land in areas targeted for settlement expansion.
Before the settlers were removed from Gaza in 2005, I visited a group of them while shooting my last film. Some of the settlements' most passionate advocates spoke about their deep roots in the Gaza Strip even though they were actually Americans. Years earlier, while working as a human rights advocate, I had received reports from colleagues who had been threatened or physically attacked by young settlers as they tried to protect Palestinian farmers during harvest. The attackers often included North American Jews, my colleagues said.
Evangelical Christians in the United States also support the settlements, raising millions of dollars for them, according to a recent National Public Radio report. The Colorado-based Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, for example, encourages churches and ministries to connect with "the pioneers of Biblical Israel" through the "adopt-a-settlement program." Sondra Oster Baras, director of the organization's Israeli office, estimates that more than half of the West Bank settlements receive direct or indirect support from Christians, according to the NPR report.
A handful of wealthy businessmen, including American casino magnate Irving Moskowitz, are widely reported to have donated to groups such as the Brooklyn-based not-for-profit Hebron Fund, which raises money to support residents in the West Bank city of Hebron. According to the donation page on its Web site, the organization aims to "keep Hebron Jewish for the Jewish people." Friends of Itamar, also based in Brooklyn, engages in domestic, tax-deductible fundraising for the West Bank settlement of Itamar. All this comes at the expense of the U.S. government, which loses tax revenue by allowing these groups to operate as not-for-profit entities.
Not all support for the settlements comes through charitable organizations. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that in 2007, the settler organization Amana held "housing fairs" in New York and New Jersey to encourage American Jews to buy property in the West Bank. According to the Jewish Voice and Opinion, a self-described "politically conservative Jewish publication" in New Jersey, approximately 250 people attended and as many as 10 properties were slated for purchase.
Last year the Palestinian village of Bil'in filed suit in Canada against two Quebec-based companies that built and sold residential units in a West Bank settlement. The case is still pending, but it demonstrates that people are beginning to pay attention to non-Israeli influences on settlement growth.
If the courts can't find a way to dissuade settlement expansion, perhaps the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control should intervene. The U.S. government has already designated Kahane's movement a foreign terrorist organization for reasons unrelated to settlement financing, but in doing so, it has prohibited U.S. citizens from providing financial support to this group.
The First Amendment protects the right of the settlement advocates to express their views, and so it should. I am not suggesting that non-profits should lose their tax advantages simply because they are at odds with American foreign policy. But the settlements are widely considered a violation of international law. Thirty years ago, a U.S. State Department legal adviser issued an opinion that called the settlements "inconsistent" with the Fourth Geneva Convention. In recent weeks, officials at State and in the White House have declined to say whether the 1979 opinion reflects official government policy, but President Obama's comments have hardly been ambiguous. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," he said in Cairo. "It is time for these settlements to stop."
Maybe it's also time for Americans to stop supporting them.
Ronit Avni, an Israeli, U.S. and Canadian citizen, is the director of the film "Encounter Point" and the executive director of Just Vision, an organization that documents Palestinian and Israeli conflict-resolution peace initiatives.