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Israel settlers used public funds for illegal race-car track in West Bank

A Ferrari Formula One racing car in action during the 2014 edition of the Formula 1 Peace Road Show on October 6, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. (File photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
A Ferrari Formula One racing car in action during the 2014 edition of the Formula 1 Peace Road Show on October 6, 2014 in Jerusalem, Israel. (File photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

An Israeli regional council comprising several West Bank settlements used public funds to build an illegal race-car track.

The Aravot Hayarden Regional Council’s budget – which was made public thanks to a Freedom of Information request – shows that through the end of 2017 the council had spent 284,000 shekels ($76,000) to build the track near the settlement of Petza’el, north of Jericho in the occupied West Bank.

Since its 2018 budget hasn’t been made public, it is not clear whether the council has spent additional money on the project this year. However, budgets from earlier years show that the total allocation was slated to exceed half a million shekels ($135,000), Haaretz reported.

The documents also show that Israel’s Interior Ministry approved a grant of more than 4 million shekels ($1 million) for construction of the illegal racetrack. The ministry said that though the funding was approved it hasn’t yet been transferred, adding that it won’t be transferred unless the project obtains a retroactive building permit.

The ministry thereby effectively admitted that it had budgeted money for a project that hadn’t yet received legal approval.

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Although the racetrack is a private enterprise and currently in commercial operation, the regional council provided financial support, submitted a plan to retroactively legalise use of the land and has also sought to build a hotel there.

Council Chairman David Elhayani did not respond to Haaretz’ request for comment.

The plan passed the first stage of the legal approval process in February, but that is not sufficient to allow legal construction. Nevertheless, as far as is known, the authorities do not intend to enforce building laws by demolishing the track, since it may still be legalised in the future.

The track, which was built over the past two years, has received coverage in various automobile and sporting magazines. Drivers can enter races there for a fee; the entrance fee for this week’s race, for instance, is 300 shekels ($81). Driving lessons are also offered and there are tracks for go-karts and motorcycles as well as cars.

The Freedom of Information request was filed by NGO Peace Now and the Movement for Freedom of Information.

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“In recent years, the Jordan Valley has become the Wild West of the territories, and the regional council, which is supposed to be the sovereign that enforces the law, appears to be a full partner in the law-breaking,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project. She added that it is only one of several West Bank regional councils “that allocate public funds to illegal activity and creating facts on the ground that are meant to distance Israel from any chance of a two-state solution”.

The Movement for Freedom of Information’s legal advisor, Or Sadan, said he had asked the council for information about its outside contracts almost a year ago but still hadn’t received an answer. “That’s an unreasonable amount of time in which information of great public importance is effectively being concealed from the public,” he said.

Sadan added that local governments ought to publish their contracts with outside suppliers of their own accord “so the public will know what’s being done with its money”.

The Interior Ministry said it gave preliminary approval to a grant of 4.145 million shekels ($1.1 million) for the racetrack last year. “Despite this approval in principle, no money at all has yet been released to the council for this,” it added, saying: “It was made clear that the fund transfer was conditional on submission of a building permit as required by law.”

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