From New York to Hebron
Al-Shuhada Street in the West Bank city of Hebron is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with its mixture of Palestinians, Jewish settlers, and soldiers patrolling around military checkpoints. It’s very far, in every possible aspect, from the skyscrapers of Manhattan, but some of what is happening here is sponsored by American tax-deductible donations.
From New York to Hebron: The American Treasury’s Support for Jewish Settlements in the West Bank
Approximately 1,000 Jewish (permanent settlers and religious Yeshiva students) people live in four different neighborhoods of Hebron, a small minority compared to the 170,000 Palestinians living in the city. Of these Palestinians, about 30,000 reside along the Al-Shuhada Street or bordering the Jewish neighborhoods, a part of the city officially called "H2." The Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron describes the bleak economic outlook for the population of H2: "In 1994, the once main market street of Hebron, Al-Shuhada street, was closed by military order for Palestinian vehicles and pedestrians."
Hebron is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial sites of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca and Leah, so many Jews and Muslims consider the city as a sacred place. And as such, Hebron has its followers, supporters and above all the ones contributing financially from their fortunes to support the settlers. As one of them described the situation to me, "Hebron is a brand name."
The settlers know their best audience and have a unique way to appeal to visitors—and to encourage their donations. "Isn't it about time you took your children to visit their great-grandparents in Hebron?" suggests the website of The Jewish Community of Hebron, the most reputable local non-profit in charge of fundraising for its people. "New armored buses, inspiring guides, Hebron's historic sites and our pioneering spirit—all come together to make this tour your most moving day in Israel!"
This kind of advertisement works. The Hebron Fund—only one example—is an American-based non-profit recognized by the IRS for tax-deductible donations, which has raised over one million dollars in 2011 in funds for these settlers. Most of this money went to the Jewish Community of Hebron organization. According to a promotional brochure, the organization utilized the money to build a gym, purchase a school bus, install ATV for security patrols, and more.
The Hebron Fund also helped pay the $50,000 annual salary of Menachem Livni, who served as the CEO of the Jewish Community of Hebron until 2011. In the early 1980’s, Livni was a member of the Jewish Underground which carried out attacks in the West Bank. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for his part in killing three Arab civilians and maiming two Palestinian mayors in car bombings. Granted a reduction of his original life sentence, Livni was released from prison in 1990. Upon his release, his friend Noam Arnon—a current senior member of the Jewish Community organization—praised the actions committed by Livni and his associates in a radio interview: "They are heroes because they decided to sacrifice themselves, their future, their families, for the security of Jews," he said.
Hebron is only one instance of a trend in recent years, which shows settlements or right-wing Israeli organizations adopting a new business model: raising funds through American tax-deductible charitable donations. Pro-Palestinian organizations also raise money through American non-profits, but their money, obviously, is not used to finance Jewish settlements.
Another similar example is the Central Fund of Israel—"promoting charitable activities in Israel," according to its mission statement—which has raised over 10 million dollars in 2011 alone, mostly for activities aiding Jewish communities in the West Bank.
One of the Israeli organizations that raises money via the Central Fund of Israel is called Honenu (from the Hebrew word for "amnesty"). As shown in an article I published in 2005, Honenu has collected money for the benefit of Yigal Amir, the convicted assassin of late Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin. On their website, after offering 2 paths for donation (online or by check) Honenu declares firmly and clearly: "ATTENTION AMERICAN DONORS: The IRS will allow US tax deductions only to those donating by the above 2 choices."
And there are even more examples. In an article published in Haaretz in 2009, I exposed that the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a non-profit organization based in New York, sends millions of shekels worth of donations to Israel every year for overt political purposes, such as buying Arab-owned properties in East Jerusalem. In their recent IRS report for the year 2011, the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim declared they have raised over one million dollars to promote their goals.
As a way to promote and encourage donations, the U.S. tax code enables non-profits to receive tax-exempt status if they engage in educational, charitable, religious or scientific activity. However, such organizations are forbidden by IRS guidelines to engage in any political activity. The latter is broadly defined as any action, even the promotion of certain ideas, that could have a political impact. Financing land purchases in East Jerusalem would, therefore, seem to violate the organizations' tax-exempt status.
There is hardly any way to know the full extent of this phenomenon, given the sheer number of non-profits in the United States. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 2.3 million non-profits operate in the US, with 1.6 million of them registered with the IRS. A New York Times piece, published in 2010, offered the guesstimate of "at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade."
While the former Palestinian main market in Al-Shuhada street remains shut, these large sums of money continues to help build houses, schools and synagogues for Jewish communities in the West Bank. These considerable tax-deductions help to perpetuate the settlement movement in the West Bank—the same movement that the official American foreign policy stance opposes, considering it an obstacle for a possible peace agreement in the region, as reiterated again by President Obama a few months ago during his visit to the Middle East.