Ethiopian Immigrants could be Evicted from Jerusalem-area Absorption Center

The Jewish Agency’s pension fund seeks to sell the building to real estate developers.

The Absorption Center in Mevaseret Zion; photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project.
The Absorption Center in Mevaseret Zion; photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki – Israel free image collection project.

By Nimrod Bousso

Knesset members and NGOs have been battling to halt the sale of an immigrant absorption center to real estate developers, a move that could evict the building’s 1,300 residents – immigrants from Ethiopia.

The center, in Mevasseret Zion near Jerusalem, is due to close on Sunday. It is being sold by the pension fund of the Jewish Agency, traditionally a key player in helping to bring over and integrate immigrants to Israel.

The deal raises several questions, especially because all papers on the run-up to the sale have disappeared from the files of the Israel Land Authority, an ILA ombudswoman says.

“The agency’s behavior in this story is more of a real estate agency than a Jewish Agency that’s supposed to absorb immigrants. We have enough real estate sharks in Israel,” MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union) told the Knesset on Wednesday.

“We don’t need the Jewish Agency to join the party. We have to explore how the state gives away publicly designated land that reaches private hands seeking to make a bundle – and to hell with the public goal of absorbing immigrants.”

The land authority allotted the land to the Jewish Agency in the 1970s to use for the center. Over the past 20 years, the ILA sold 51 dunams (13 acres) there to the Jewish Agency, which transferred it to its pension fund to repay a debt.

It remains unclear which officials at the land authority made the decisions, based on which laws.

According to the tender, the minimum price set for developers was 250 million shekels ($65 million), while the Jewish Agency paid 33 million shekels for the land a decade ago. The Jewish Agency owns the land in equal partnership with the pension fund employees.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel thus filed a petition requesting the land authority to submit the minutes of discussions on the matter, based on the Freedom of Information Law. The ILA said it had no documentation.

Einat Edri, the ILA ombudswoman for implementing the Freedom of Information Law, submitted an affidavit in March stating that “the Jewish Agency request to have the rights to the property transferred was not found in the authority’s files. Neither were minutes or other documents.”

According to the tender, the property contains 224 housing units in 74 one-story buildings and 19 two-story buildings. The Ancom Group, which operates the center, rents the units.

The April 2014 tender sparked an outcry. MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) filed a complaint with the police’s Lahav 433 investigative unit. A spokeswoman says Lahav 433 has passed the complaint on to the state prosecutor.

In recent days, the Movement for Quality Government requested Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, also the new ILA chairman, to block the sale.

“It was discovered that the area was transferred from the Jewish Agency to its pension fund without any convincing reason, let alone for a fair price, and for hidden reasons,” the NGO wrote.

It warned that if Kahlon did not act, “we will face a catastrophe in which public land designated for absorbing immigrants goes to private real estate developers in a process of unclear standards and propriety.”

On Wednesday, the Knesset was due to address a question by Zionist Union’s Shmuli on the issue, but new Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin said he could not respond because of personal involvement.

Rozvazov, who held hearings in the Knesset’s absorption committee on the matter a year ago, said he had sent letters to the new absorption and finance ministers asking them to stop the tender pending further investigation.

The land authority responded: “The ILA approved the Jewish Agency’s request in 1996 to capitalize the property in question, in line with conditions for capitalizing low-rise buildings as was the custom then.” In turn, the capitalization fees were paid and individual leasing contracts were signed for all the housing units.

According to the land authority, after an extended examination of the Jewish Agency’s request to transfer the rights to the property, it approved the change of designation to a residential area in August 2005 and the transfer of the rights to the pension fund.

For its part, the pension fund said “the owner of the land is the Jewish National Fund, under the ILA’s administration. The land is leased to the pension fund.”

The fund said the transfer of leasing rights was done based on a legal agreement after all capitalization fees had been paid to the ILA.

“The transfer of leasing rights was approved by ILA management, as is done with such land,” it said. All the parties involved – the immigrants, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the fund and the Ancom Group – reached an agreement in the Jerusalem District Court “to extend the rental period until September 2017.”