Gulf Arab money behind purchases of Israeli land

JERUSALEM: Vast tracts of Israeli agricultural land in north Israel's Galilee area have been bought up by Arabs with financial backing from the Gulf, Israeli public radio reported on Saturday.

It said dozens of hectares (acres) have been bought and that a local farmers' association had tried in vain to warn the Israeli authorities about the sale.

The radio station quoted Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon as saying the affair was not a matter for his department since "it concerns private land."

Galilee and the Negev desert in the south are relatively lightly populated, and Israel has a minister, Sylvan Shalom, charged specifically with development.

Much of the country's Israeli Arab population of around 1.4 million people lives in the Galilee.

On August 3 the Israeli parliament passed a controversial land reform law that allows local officials to privatise publicly owned land, triggering the ire of the Arab minority.

Arab MPs said the law, which is backed by hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would block efforts by Palestinians who fled the creation of Israel in 1948 to recover their property or seek compensation for what they have lost.

The new law allows local municipal officials to sell off state land in urban centres and maintains a previous ban on the sale to non-Jews of land controlled by the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael Jewish agency.