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JERUSALEM (AP) – Generations of Jews have deposited coins in the iconic blue boxes of the Jewish National Fund, a 120-year-old Zionist organization that acquires land, plants trees and carries out development projects in the Holy Land.

But the Israeli group, known by its Hebrew acronym KKL, is now considering officially expanding its activities in the occupied West Bank. This sparked fierce opposition from left-wing Jewish groups in the United States, deepening a split with the increasingly right-wing Israeli government.

The debate has drawn attention to the fact that the KKL, which owns more than a tenth of all of Israel’s land, has been operating quietly in the West Bank for decades, building and developing settlements that most of the international community considers. as a violation of international law.

A separate New York-based organization, also known as the Jewish National Fund, does not take a position on the settlements and operates primarily in Israel.

Controversy erupted earlier this month when the Axios news site reported that the KKL was considering a proposal to openly finance land purchases from Palestinians in the West Bank. This move could potentially funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into the expansion of settlements, some deep within occupied territory.

Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want it to be the main part of their future state. They see the settlements – home to nearly 500,000 Israelis – as the main obstacle to a two-state solution to the conflict.

Israel views the West Bank as the biblical heart of the Jewish people and says any partition must be negotiated through peace talks, which have largely been moribund for more than a decade.

The proposal is expected to be approved by the KKL board, which includes representatives from several Jewish organizations and is not expected to make a decision until the country holds national elections on March 23.

“Throughout the years and to this day, the KKL-JNF has operated in all parts of the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the name Bible from the West Bank. “At this point, there is no intention to open a new area in Judea and Samaria.”

He added that all projects are confirmed in advance with donors, which suggests that funds intended for projects inside Israel would not be diverted to the occupied territory.

But Peace Now, an anti-settlement Israeli watchdog, says the KKL has been operating quietly in the West Bank for decades, acquiring at least 65,000 dunams (16,000 acres) of land for settlements, mostly through a subsidiary company.

“It has happened before, so it’s not a radical change,” Peace Now spokesperson Brian Reeves said. “But this would be the first time they’ve officially endorsed the idea of ​​buying land in the West Bank, and basically saying ‘we don’t agree with international law, or there’s occupation, or that the two-state solution matters. ‘ “

Palestinians view the sale of land to settlers as a betrayal of their national cause, so such transactions are usually carried out in secret or through intermediaries, opening them to allegations of fraud. In some cases, they result in the eviction of Palestinian families who say they have never sold their property.

While the settlements enjoy wide support in Israel, they have come to be viewed as an obstacle to peace by many Jews in the West, who also disagree with the Israeli government on religious matters. Most American Jews belong to the more liberal streams of Judaism and feel alienated by the ultra-Orthodox authorities in Israel, who question their faith and practices.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, North America’s largest Jewish movement, says change in KKL stems from recent World Zionist Congress elections that brought right-wing leaders to power more closely aligned with the Israeli government.

His group and others opposed to the settlements have denounced the KKL proposal and have vowed to oppose it when the board meets, but it is not clear whether they have enough votes. Jacobs fears the move will spoil the KKL for many in the West or cause tension with the new US administration, which is also opposed to settlement expansion.

He admitted that the KKL had operated in the West Bank in the past, but said its activities had declined dramatically over the past two decades before resuming and accelerating in secret in recent years, drawing opposition from the URJ and other groups.

“We basically whistled and said wait a minute, there’s a lot of land buying under the table, under the radar unattended, and frankly, without even formal permission to do so,” he said. he declares.

“Here in North America, the majority of Jews are opposed to the proliferation of the settlement enterprise,” he added. “This is something American Jews are very fond of.”

The US-based JNF is a separate entity with its own board of directors and offices in New York and Jerusalem. CEO Russell Robinson said he does not get involved in politics and focuses on projects in the Negev and Galilee regions of Israel.

“Politics is not the area where the majority of people want to get involved,” he said. “They want to get involved in improving the world and we are giving them that opportunity.”

The US JNF subcontracts forestry and reservoir construction to KKL, what Robinson calls “seller service”. It has also funded a few small projects in the occupied territories, including a heritage museum in the Gush Etzion settlement.

Robinson dismisses the infighting within major Zionist organizations and says it has had no impact on his group’s fundraising. But Jacobs says the Israelis should be concerned about the frayed relationship between their hawkish government and their allies abroad.

“American Jews are very involved in the political life of the United States,” he said. “We are working overtime to bridge the differences and build more commonalities, but we are not going to give up on our core commitments in this regard.”

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