Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Easy Buying in West Bank Settlements | TOME


In late June, a company called My Israel Home hosted an expo at a Los Angeles synagogue catering to a specific clientele: Jewish Americans looking to buy a new home in Israel — or on illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Similar real estate fairs have popped up across North America this year, in places such as Montreal, Toronto, New Jersey, Baltimore, and Brooklyn, and several have faced protests as the war on Gaza has brought the issue of Israeli settlements and Palestinian sovereignty to the fore.

An outbreak of violence at the LA event thrust the incident into the national spotlight. Protesters at the Adas Torah synagogue, who decried the sale of what they called “stolen land,” were met by pro-Israel counterprotesters on the West LA streets. Fights broke out among demonstrators, LA police said, while protesters reported being beaten by police with batons. The fracas was cast in the national media as an incident of violence at a place of worship, rather than a political protest at a corporate event, prompting political leaders from both parties, including President Joe Biden, to characterize the demonstration as antisemitic. The Justice Department said it is investigating the incident.

But homebuyers interested in purchasing a property in the occupied West Bank have a more convenient option for making an offer: a simple scroll through online listings.

Real estate companies are making an explicit appeal to wartime patriotism, leading with the conflict as a selling point and a reason to invest.

On websites largely tailored for Jewish American buyers looking to move to Israel, prospective homeowners can browse properties that include listings for homes in settlement communities, which offer the typical trappings of suburban life.

Around a dozen real estate firms have participated in real estate fairs organized by My Israel Home across North America this year. Six of these firms are actively marketing at least two dozen separate properties for sale located within eight different West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements, according to their online listings. Other real estate firms commonly list dozens of West Bank properties on their sites. The firms mentioned in this story did not respond to requests for comment.

They listed homes for sale in Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat, Mitzpe Yericho, Ramat Givat Ze’ev, Har Adar, Hashmonaim, and Ariel — all West Bank settlements located within a one-hour drive of Jerusalem — as well as Givat Hamatos, which is in East Jerusalem.

West Bank settlements have long drawn criticism from the international community, which regards the settlements as illegal, in violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions. The Israeli government disputes their illegality, however, and recognizes 146 settlements as legal, according to Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group that tracks and opposes settlement expansion. The Israeli government leases land exclusively to Israelis, the group said, as Palestinians are barred from using the new plots the state has usurped in the West Bank.

Criticism of settlements has only intensified in recent months amid a spike in settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied territory, as Israel’s war in Gaza rages. And on Friday, Israel announced its plans to adopt five illegal outposts in the West Bank as settlements, which has also invited international condemnation.

On its website, My Home in Israel, which helped organize the LA event and runs a team of U.S.-based real estate agents, posted photos from its other conventions in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Montreal, showing the interior of synagogues lined with booths manned by real estate firms, mortgage companies, and law firms, sitting and talking with prospective buyers. “Find your dream home in Israel,” reads one booth’s banner. “Live the American dream in the heart of Israel,” another reads atop a rendering of luxury apartments.

“A lot of people want to live out there — it’s beautiful, the mountains, it’s scenic,” said Baruki Cohen, a real estate agent, referring to West Bank settlements. His firm, Israel Home, did not participate at the LA event but markets similar properties to Jewish Americans, selling property within Israel alongside houses in East Jerusalem. He plans to list properties in an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian city of Hebron in the future. A native of New Jersey who grew up visiting family in Israel, Cohen bought a second home in 2014 in Jerusalem.

Cohen said real estate conventions, such as the LA event, have been going on for at least the past decade. Conventions are commonly hosted in hotel conference rooms and in people’s homes, in addition to synagogues. He estimates as many as 100 different real estate conventions take place across North America each year.

“I have no moral or legal qualms selling property [in the West Bank],” Cohen said. “I would live there myself if I felt it was safe. Anyone who wants to move there, we’re happy to facilitate it.”

Since the early years after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, the country has invited the immigration of Jews from across the globe. Immigration beyond the Green Line — the border between Israel and the West Bank that was drawn after the Israeli-Arab War of 1948 — boomed in the 1980s as settlements expanded from small illegal outposts into suburban cities with the help of Israeli government funding and military support. Since then, the Israeli government has continued to evict Palestinians from their land and homes as settlements expand.

Most Jewish Americans who exercise their right to emigrate to Israel don’t move to the West Bank, experts say, but hundreds still make the choice to do so each year.

Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a visiting professor at the University of Haifa and an expert on Jewish American settlers, estimates that among the 3,000 Jewish Americans who move to Israel each year, about 15 percent of them are moving into settlements. There are about 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. About 60,000 are American according to Hirschhorn. This excludes the more than 200,000 Israeli settlers who live in East Jerusalem.

To the majority of American immigrants, Hirschhorn said, the border between the state of Israel and the occupied West Bank still matters. But the real estate firms profiting off the modest yet steady stream of American migration are less discerning.

Jerusalem-based Noam Homes lists properties within Israel alongside homes beyond the Green Line in major settlements like Efrat and Ma’ale Adumim. Most listings for settlement communities show an address in Israel and at times refer to the region with biblical names like Judea and Samaria.

“These are not like tiny hilltop outposts; these are massive settlement blocks that are contiguous with and integrated into Israeli state proper,” said Rachel Feldman, an anthropologist at Dartmouth University who specializes in Judaism and Israel and Palestine. “I spoke to American Jewish settlers here who don’t even have a sense that they are living beyond the state’s borders.”

Parents often send their children there for a gap year or seminary school treating the settlements as part of Israel. She said that during the Trump era even more American Jews were emboldened to ignore the Green Line.

Their studies predate October 7 attacks so Hirschhorn and Feldman could not quantify the impact of Gaza war on American interest in West Bank homeownership.

But Cohen said that he’s seen demand for Israeli property increase since war began. Before October 7 he would receive about four or five inquiries from homebuyers each week. While immediate weeks after attacks were quiet interest has picked up over last three months parallel to series of settlement expansions announced by Israeli government. Cohen said he now gets 15 inquiries per week.

Real estate companies are making an explicit appeal to wartime patriotism leading with conflict as selling point and reason to invest.

“Although we are in midst of Iron Sword war,” said Meny Group in promotional material on their website using Israeli government’s official name for campaign “the real estate market is booming.” Several other firms argued that investing in housing is way for Jews to support Israel in times of conflict and instability. Firms also cited early years of Covid-19 pandemic as another crisis that Israeli economy survived due to support from foreign and American buyers.

Most firms’ marketing materials appeal more broadly to Zionist ideals of supporting homeland and its economy pitching owning “a piece of Promised Land for themselves and future generations.” One such firm Meny Group notes rise in antisemitism across globe painting Israel as “a beacon of security for Jews.”

The real estate companies also highlighted economic concerns for American buyers. The Meny Group’s website highlights public education options that teach Torah in appeal to Orthodox families who struggle to meet religious education costs in U.S. One real estate agent who made move from U.S. wrote that tuition for his four children cost roughly $17 500 per child. In Israel his costs in single year for his children was $3 000.

Hirschhorn said even though housing is expensive in Israel and West Bank like U.S. overall lower cost of living made possible by state-sponsored Jewish infrastructure allows for life to possibly be more affordable. Health care is also socialized in Israel new arrivals may also receive small stipends or tax incentives and deductions to buy new car or appliances for new home.

“Cost of Kosher food is lot less you don’t have to worry about sending your kids to Jewish day school cost of college in Israel isn’t going to be too much” she said “Being part of Jewish community just really isn’t as expensive or difficult.”

The properties in settlements are hardly cheap but they are less expensive than homes within Israeli cities. Price for condo in popular Gush Etzion group of settlements ranges from $500 000 to $1 million for properties with around four to six bedrooms and more than 1 000 square feet. Cohen said similarly sized home in central Jerusalem may run for much as $3 million.

One listing shows 2 000 square-foot penthouse in suburban enclave of Ma’ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem for $1.2 million. Space listed as “Stunning Penthouse” has five bedrooms and two “generously sized” balconies

Latest stories