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A jewish man takes a photo of his children in the Israeli-occupied part of the West Bank city of Hebron. Image Credit: AP

Occupied Jerusalem: 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 sometimes controversial philanthropic empire in Israel that runs through the corridors of power and stretches deep into the occupied Occupied West Bank.

$5.6m

amount donated to colonist organizations

An Associated Press investigation shows that the family has donated at least $5.6 million to colonist organizations in the Occupied West Bank and Occupied 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’ funding is a key example of how wealthy U.S. donors have bolstered the illegal colonial activity. Most of the world considers Jewish colonies in the Occupied West Bank and Occupied East Jerusalem to be obstacles to peace, but Israel considers the territories “disputed.”

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An Israeli occupation soldier stands guard as Palestinian school children pass by in Hebron. Image Credit: AP

The Falics support the ultranationalist Jewish community in Hebron, whose members include several prominent followers of a late rabbi banned from Israeli politics for his racist views, and whose movement is outlawed by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

They back Jewish groups that covertly buy up Palestinian properties in Occupied East Jerusalem, and they helped develop an unauthorized colony outpost in the Occupied West Bank.

The outpost was later retroactively legalized.

They have supported groups that are pushing for the establishment of a Third Temple for Jews at the holiest and most contested site in the Holy Land.

They also have given more money than any other donor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong supporter of colonies, and have donated to other leaders of his Likud party.

In a response to AP questions through his lawyer, Simon Falic, who spoke on behalf of the family, said Jews should be able to live anywhere in the Holy Land, whether it’s Israel, Israeli-annexed Occupied East Jerusalem or the Occupied West Bank.

However, the international community overwhelmingly believes the colonies violate international law, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its own population into the territory it occupies.

Since capturing the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 War, the colonist population has grown to about 700,000 people, roughly 10% of Israel’s Jewish population.

In recent years, it has received a boost from Netanyahu’s pro-colonist government and from a far more tolerant attitude by President Donald Trump, whose top Mideast advisers are longtime colony supporters.

This growth has been fueled in part by fundraising arms for leading colony groups in the United States. According to a past investigation of U.S. tax forms by the Israeli daily Haaretz, fundraising organizations in the U.S. raised more than $230 million for colony causes between 2009 and 2013 alone.

“Far-right foreign donors are a pillar of the colony enterprise,” said Peace Now, an Israeli anti-colony watchdog group.

Other prominent colony donors include casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, U.S. billionaire Ira Rennert, American financier Roger Hertog and the U.S. 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.

But the Falics stand out for the wide scope of groups they support and their close ties with leading Israeli politicians.

Critics say activities billed as harmless philanthropy have come at the expense of Palestinians.

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Simon Falic Image Credit: AP

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 U.S. and Latin America. Leon Falic told the trade publication TRBusiness that the privately held company last year posted over $1.65 billion in sales.

The family has two main charitable organizations, the U.S.-based Falic Family Private Foundation and the Segal Foundation in Israel.

$1.65b

Falic sales last year

$20m

amount Falic donated to Jewish organizations

During the decade ending in 2017, the U.S. foundation distributed about $20 million to “various worldwide Jewish organizations,” according to tax filings.

The Israeli foundation gave away roughly $15 million over that time. Financial reports do not outline recipients, but an AP analysis of the tax records of more than two dozen colony organizations identified at least $5.6 million in donations. Other funds went to other causes, including the country’s amateur American football league, a Jerusalem hospital and a Jewish seminary in northern Israel.

Perhaps the Falics’ most controversial activity is in Hebron, a city where several hundred ultranationalist colonists live in heavily guarded enclaves amid some 200,000 Palestinians.

Relations between the populations are tense, and some of the Jewish leaders are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose “Kach” party was outlawed in Israel in the 1980s for calling for a mass expulsion of Arabs from the country. The U.S. also branded Kach a terrorist group.

According to the AP analysis, 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.

Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron, disagrees. He said the seemingly harmless project serves the colonist cause at the expense of Palestinians.

“We are suffering from colonist 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 colonists.’”