The impending eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood has prompted Palestinian rights activists to call for more scrutiny into how tax-exempt US-based charities – and the private firms that donate to them – are funding Israeli settlement activity that is widely seen to violate international law.
US-funded settler groups have long viewed Sheikh Jarrah as a future home for Jewish families and pushed for the removal of Palestinians who have lived in the area for decades.
The expected expulsions from the historic neighbourhood are at the centre of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Activists say the evictions are made possible largely thanks to private US funding, with non-profit groups enjoying tax-free status that effectively amounts to a generous subsidy from the federal government.
“Without the donations, [these groups] don't exist,” said Hagit Ofran, who heads the settlement watch team at Peace Now, an Israeli non-governmental group.
The UN has repeatedly called for Israel to halt its settlement activity in the Palestinian territories, including in East Jerusalem.
The forced transfer of a “protected population under occupation is a grave breach of Article 4 of the Geneva Convention of International Law,” said Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.
"It may well amount to a war crime under international law," Mr Lynk told The National.
Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American political analyst and non-resident fellow at the Arab Centre think tank in Washington, believes the US government should crack down on non-profit groups funding Israeli settlers.
"If people were using charitable organisations as a way to support war crimes overseas in any other context, I think our government would probably take serious steps to prevent that from happening," Mr Munayyer told The National.
"We need an approach from the government that says American tax dollars and our charitable mechanisms should not be used" to support settlement activities, he said.
“That's really the least we should expect from a responsible administration.”
Currently, four Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah risk losing their homes to Jewish settler groups after a long-running legal battle.
Nahalat Shimon International, the organisation leading the legal fight for settlers, is owned by a company registered in Delaware, US.
US citizens are major contributors to what rights groups call Israel’s “illegal expansion” into territory that would go to Palestinians in a two-state solution.
According to a 2015 report in Israel's Haaretz newspaper, from 2009 to 2013, US-based charities donated more than $220 million to Israeli settlement organisations.
Peace Now said Israel has built more than 55,000 housing units in East Jerusalem since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the Israeli military occupied the area.
Meanwhile, Israeli law makes it extremely tough for Palestinians, who consider East Jerusalem the capital of their future state, to build homes.
The Israeli government has only allowed the construction of 600 housing units – and those were all built in the 1970s, Peace Now said.
The Central Fund of Israel, a US-registered non-profit organisation that is exempt from federal income tax, gave more than $36m to various Jewish charities and causes in 2019, according to its financial information disclosure that year.
The organisation, which has an address in Cedarhurst, New York, is listed as the US charity for tax-deductible donations by the Israel Land Fund, a real estate company that buys up land in East Jerusalem.
CFI president Jay Marcus said it does not fund settlement activity.
It gives money to charities "all around the land of Israel without discrimination", he said.
"CFI's criterion is only that the charities are worthy and they are registered charities in Israel and CFI does not discriminate or favour based on location," Mr Marcus told The National in an email.
He did not immediately respond to a query about CFI’s connection to the Israel Land Fund.
Headed by Jerusalem's deputy mayor, Arieh King, the ILF's mission statement is to "reclaim the land of Israel for the people of Israel".
Its website lists land it wants to buy in Sheikh Jarrah, which it refers to by the Hebrew name of Nahalat Shimon. The company calls these “ideology properties".
Since its creation in 1948, Israel has used an absentee property law to claim land that had been owned by Palestinians who fled the newly founded state.
The Israeli government has continued to use the law to obtain properties in East Jerusalem.
On the ILF's website, it claims it is running “critically low” on funding and asks for donations “to help us fulfil the commandments; help bring Jewish land back to the Jewish people".
The US charity has significant backing from major donors, including Cherna Moskowitz, the widow of the late Irving Moskowitz, an American billionaire physician and businessman who was one of the leading funders of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Cherna Moskowitz Foundation gave just over $3m to the ILF in 2018 – the fund's second-largest contribution.
In addition, the Irving Moskowitz Foundation gave $2.1m.
Ms Moskowitz also gave $50,000 to American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a US-based charity established to fund the Israel-based non-profit Ateret Cohanim, which buys land in East Jerusalem with the purpose of installing Jewish tenants in the area.
The National tried to contact Friends of Ateret Cohanim for comment but did not hear back in time for publishing.
The National also called the number listed on the Cherna Moskowitz Foundation's tax forms.
The person who answered did not identify herself but said she worked for a company affiliated with the foundation and was not in a position to comment.
Ateret Cohanim’s stated goal is to “fulfil a generations-old dream of rebuilding and securing a united Jerusalem, strengthening our Jewish roots and re-establishing the once thriving Jewish communities that were destroyed by Arab pogroms".
The organisation's purchases have been focused in and around the Old City.
The US arm of the non-profit is run by Susan Hikind, the wife of Dov Hikind, a former New York state politician.
One of the largest funders of settlement activity in East Jerusalem is the Israel-based Ir David Foundation, often referred to as Elad.
According to its website, the foundation “is dedicated to the preservation and development of the Biblical City of David and its environs".
In practice that means purchasing land from Palestinian families and in the past two decades, the group has bought dozens of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem and developed archaeological sites in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.
The foundation is funded in part by the US-based non-profit Friends of Ir David. Among the charity’s top donors are the Cherna Moskowitz Foundation and the Koum Family Foundation.
According to Friends of Ir David’s most recent tax returns, which are publicly available, the Koum Family Foundation donated $3m in 2018.
The Koum Family Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Jan Koum, the Ukrainian-born American co-founder of the mobile messaging application WhatsApp.
When reached by phone, Moshe Billet, the executive director of Friends of Ir David, declined to comment.
US Internal Revenue Service rules prohibit tax-exempt charities in the US from funding activities "that are illegal or contrary to public policy".
Mr Lynk, the UN special rapporteur, said there has been little enforcement of the rules when it comes to Israel, even though the US – alongside countries like Canada and Britain – has stated opposition to Israeli settlements.
“In Canada and the United States, charitable organisations have been allowed to maintain their status and have been able to use tax laws to be able to raise money to be able to further the Israeli settlement project,” Mr Lynk said.
“We've yet to see a decisive decision in either the courts of these countries or by changing legislation to make more definitive restrictions on these organisations.”
However, some of the pro-Israel non-profits have claimed they have been discriminated against by the IRS.
In 2010, the Z Street non-profit that claims to “educate Americans about the Middle East” sued the IRS for delaying the approval of its tax-exempt status. The organisation in 2018 won its case, along with an apology from the IRS for taking so long to grant the approval.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus, Z Street's founder, wrote in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal which stated that under the Obama administration, the IRS was unfairly scrutinising charities with links to Israel.
The US State Department and the IRS did not respond to requests for comment from The National.