When travelers shop at dozens of duty free shops at airports worldwide, they may be paying for more than a bottle of vodka or box of chocolates.
The Falic family of Florida, owners of the ubiquitous chain of Duty Free Americas shops, funds a generous and controversial philanthropic empire in Israel that runs through the corridors of power and stretches deep into the occupied West Bank.
An Associated Press investigation has found that the family has donated at least $5.6m to settler organisations in theoccupied West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past decade, funding synagogues, schools and social services as well as far-right causes considered extreme even in Israel.
The Falics’ philanthropy is not limited to the settlements. They support many mainstream causes in the US and Israel. However, they are a key example of how wealthy US donors have bolstered the contentious settlement movement.
Critics say activities billed as harmless philanthropy have come at the expense of Palestinians.
Under international law, settlements built in the occupied territories are illegal. While most of the world considers Jewish settlements to be obstacles to peace, Israel considers the occupied territories “disputed”.
Perhaps the Falics’ most controversial activity is in Hebron, a city where several hundred ultranationalist settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves amid some 300,000 Palestinians.
The Falics support the ultranationalist Jewish community in Hebron, whose members include several prominent followers of Meir Kahane, a late rabbi banned from Israeli politics for his racist views. Kahane’s Kach party was was outlawed in Israel in the 1980s for calling for a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the country, and is designated by the US as a “terrorist” organisation.
According to The Associated Press investigation, the Falics donated roughly $600,000 to “Hachnasat Orchim Hebron,” a group that hosts visitors to the Jewish community. Baruch Marzel, a former aide to Kahane, is deeply involved.
An Israeli soldier watches Palestinian schoolchildren head home from school in the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron in occupied West Bank [File: Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press]
Simon Falic, who spoke to The Associated Press on behalf of his family, said his connections to Marzel were primarily through a “beautiful project” that distributes snacks to Israeli soldiers protecting the residents of Hebron.
“While I may not agree with everything he has said, the work we have done that has been affiliated with the Hebron community has been positive, non-controversial and enhances Jewish life in the Hebron area — which we strongly support,” he said.
Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron, disagrees. He said the seemingly harmless project serves the settler cause at the expense of Palestinians.
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“We are suffering from settler violence,” he said. “When I tell the soldiers ‘protect me,’ they tell me ‘we are not here to protect you. We are with our own people, who are the settlers.’”
Duty Free Americas is headed by three Falic brothers: Simon, Jerome and Leon. The chain operates over 180 stores at airports and border crossings in the US and Latin America. Leon Falic told the trade publication TRBusiness that the privately held company last year posted over $1.65bn in sales.
The family has two main charitable organisations, the US-based Falic Family Private Foundation and the Segal Foundation in Israel. During the decade ending in 2017, the US foundation distributed about $20m to “various worldwide Jewish organisations,” according to tax filings.
The Falics back Jewish groups that covertly buy up Palestinian properties in occupied East Jerusalem, and they helped develop an unauthorised settlement outpost in the occupied West Bank. The outpost was later retroactively legalised.
The family has also supported groups that are pushing for the establishment of a “Third Temple” for Jews at the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in the old city of Jerusalem. Referred to byJews as the Temple Mount, it is the most contested site in the old city.
They also have given more money than any other donor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong supporter of settlements, and have donated to other leaders of his Likud party.
Simon Falic said Jews should be able to live anywhere, whether it’s Israel, Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem or the West Bank. He condemned violence and claimed none of the groups he supports does anything illegal under Israeli law.
“We are proud to support organisations that help promote Jewish life all over the land of Israel,” said Falic. “The idea that the mere existence of Jewish life in any geographical area is an impediment to peace makes no sense to us.”
‘A pillar of the settlement enterprise’
Since capturing the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, the settler population has grown to about 700,000 people, roughly 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population.
In recent years, it has received a boost from Netanyahu’s pro-settler government and from a far more tolerant attitude by US President Donald Trump, whose top Middle East advisers are longtime settlement supporters.
This growth has been fueled in part by fundraising arms for leading settlement groups in the US. According to a past investigation of US tax forms by the Israeli daily Haaretz, fundraising organisations in the US raised more than $230m for settlement causes between 2009 and 2013 alone.
“Far-right foreign donors are a pillar of the settlement enterprise,” said Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement watchdog group.
Other prominent settlement donors include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, US billionaire Ira Rennert, American financier Roger Hertog and the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Names of dozens of other lesser-known donors adorn buildings, playgrounds and even park benches throughout the occupied West Bank.