Israel’s second largest bank involved in illegal Afrin settlements

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – Hapoalim Bank, Israel’s second-biggest bank, is being used by a Palestinian association constructing illegal settlements in the Kurdish region of Afrin.

In a recent Facebook post, the ‘Living with Dignity Association’ (Jamia’at al-Aish Bikarama) announced it was selling 100 40-square-meter units on a new settlement being built near Marata, 3 km west of the city of Afrin. According to the association, the plot of land “is guaranteed to have all the infrastructure, as well as a water and sewage line from a Turkish association.”

The post did not go into detail about the legal mechanism by which the association acquired the land. According to Afrin Post, a local news site, the plot of land is owned by the Kurdish Dado family.

The formerly Kurdish-majority region of Afrin has been under Turkish occupation since 2018. The invasion displaced around 300,000 indigenous Kurds. Turkey and its affiliated opposition factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA), replaced the population with Arabs fleeing other parts of Syria. Kurds in Afrin are subject to systemic discrimination and violence. In 2022 alone, 633 people, mostly Kurds, were arbitrarily arrested by SNA factions and Turkey. Marata, the site of the new settlement, is home to one of several Turkish-run prisons. Former inmates say they were subjected to torture.

Not unlike the West Bank, a number of illegal settlements – at least 21 of them – have mushroomed throughout Afrin. They cater to Arab settlers and the families of SNA militants.

Human rights activists say they are part of a Turkish “ethnic engineering” policy in the region. Most are funded by Turkish, Qatari, Kuwaiti, or Palestinian organizations with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 1.535 Palestinian families living in Syria have been resettled to Afrin.

Despite the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey on February 6, the country seems to be really focused on its demographic engineering project in north Syria. On March 7, an informed source told North Press that a Turkish organization had finished the construction of a settlement  in Jabal al-Ahlam region in southern Afrin, which consists of 250 residential apartments.  

In June 2022, Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a human rights organization, published an extensive investigative report, in which it detailed Turkey’s demographic engineering in Afrin and its countryside.

Living with Dignity has established settlements in Afrin before. One is the so-called Basma settlement, in the Yazidi village of Shadere. The settlement was co-funded with Kuwaiti and Turkish state-sponsored groups, as well as Muslim Brotherhood-linked associations from the US and Britain. What remains of the original Yazidi population has been forced to attend Islamic education by local factions, under threat of force.

Settled accounts

What is remarkable about Living with Dignity’s latest post is that they direct interested buyers towards an account with an Israeli bank – and one deeply involved in the illegal construction of Israeli settlements at that.

The price for each unit in Marata is given in Israeli shekels (6.700 or around $1.868). The bank information given directs one to a Hapoalim Bank branch at the entrance of Tira, a Palestinian-majority city within Israel-ruled territory. According to informed observers, this city is the headquarters of the Living with Dignity Association.

Hapoalim’s involvement in illegal settlements is well-document. However, until now, they had only been linked to Israeli settlements. According to Who Profits, an independent watchdog uncovering private sector involvement in Israeli-occupied territories, Hapoalim has provided loans for the construction of illegal outposts in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Syria’s Golan Heights, co-financed rail and bus lines into the West Bank that cater only to illegal Israeli settlers, and also manages the municipal accounts of the Megilot regional council, another outpost.

For its involvement in activities illegal under international law it has been called out by the UN Human Rights Commission and blacklisted by national banks, such as Denmark’s. However, it still receives investment from Government Pension Fund Global (Norway), Deutsche Bank (Germany), and Pesnloenfonds Zorg en Welzijn (the Netherlands), among others, according to a report by PAX for Peace, a Dutch research group.

That the Living with Dignity Association, a Palestinian group known for defending the indigenous residents of East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood from expulsion by Israeli settlers, is similarly profiting from the occupation of Kurdish land is striking. Certainly, it calls into question the group’s moral righteousness.

But even more striking is the involvement of an Israeli bank, deeply intertwined in its government’s control of Palestine, in aiding the association achieve this goal and, thereby, settle Palestinians away from their land.      

Reporting by Sasha Hoffman