Last week, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party took a tour of the South Hebron Hills organized and led by the right-wing NGO Regavim. At the end of the tour she held a press conference in the settlement of Carmel and discussed what she had seen: “We were shown the illegal building Palestinians are doing in Area C [the area of the West Bank administered both militarily and civilly by Israeli forces], including those [built with] foreign funds.” Shaked vowed to “deal with this” and “in parallel, of course, support the settlement of Judea and Samaria”.
The very next day at 6:30 AM, bulldozers arrived in the South Hebron Hills, demolishing five structures in Umm El Kheir, the Palestinian village that sits right next to Carmel. Of those structures, three had been paid for by the European Union, its bright blue insignia clearly visible as the IDF, Civil Administration, and border police toppled the pre-fab homes.
From start to finish this demolition was masterfully planned by Regavim. According to residents of Umm El Kheir, two weeks prior to Shaked’s visit, Regavim field workers had visited the village to conduct “research”. They came alone, without an army escort, and while the villagers were alarmed, they allowed the Regavim workers to take their pictures and leave. The following day Umm el Kheir had another visit, this time from the Civil Administration, which came armed with Regavim’s photos and began IDing buildings for demolition. It was therefore no surprise when the bulldozers arrived this week, “to work on behalf of Regavim”. The Regavim Facebook page gleefully claimed credit for the demolitions that same day.
So who and what are Regavim? The NGO – its name meaning “clods of earth” – takes its model from the left. When Peace Now established “Settlement Watch” to document illegal building of outposts and then challenge the structures in court, the far right took note. Founded in 2006, the organization uses the same tactics as Settlement Watch – documentation of illegal building, court petitions, lobbying – with Arab populations. In 2012, for example, it succeeded in obtaining 52 demolition orders for the South Hebron Hills village of Susiya, orders that still hang over the villagers’ heads. It describes its mission as “protecting national lands and properties and preventing foreign elements from taking over the countries [sic] territorial resources”. Israeli “national lands” defined, of course, as both sides of the Green Line.
The organization has grown exponentially in its power to get things done since 2006. It has enough clout to take the justice minister on a tour of the South Hebron Hills. It has enough influence that that tour can end in demolitions of EU funded structures. It has a budget that comes in part from local authorities – in other words, taxpayer shekels. And it has a built-in lobbyist in the Knesset in the form of Jewish Home MK, “proud homophobe” and out-and-out racist Bezalel Smotrich. Smotrich is one of the founding members of Regavim and sat as its Director between 2006 and 2015, when he was elected to the Israeli legislature. Now, one of his primary legislative goals is to pass legislation that would enable the expropriation of Palestinian land in exchange for post-facto monetary restitution. Similar legislation was short-circuited in 2012 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of the fear that he would be prosecuted for war crimes in The Hague.
And Regavim is only just revving its engines. Palestinians have seen over 1,000 structures demolished since the beginning of 2015, more than 200 of which were EU funded and labeled. Until recently, the Civil Administration and Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had been in the middle of detailed talks with Susiya that would potentially create a masterplan for the village so that they could build legally. But the talks ended abruptly when Ya’alon was summarily dismissed from the current government and Avigdor Lieberman appointed in his place a few weeks ago. The High Court has ordered Lieberman to submit his position on the issue by some time today, August 15.
The US State Department issued a statement on Wednesday, after its diplomats made a trek down to Susiya, which said that “if the Israeli government proceeds with demolitions in Susiya, it would be very troubling and have a very damaging impact on lives of the Palestinians living there, who have already been displaced on other occasions.” The State Department made similarly forceful statements last June.
The humanitarian point to be made here is that the Palestinians caught in Regavim’s web – especially in Area C – suffer the legal conundrum in which over 95% of building permits are consistently denied. And so, if they are to have a roof, they must build illegally. But perhaps the more interesting political point to be made is that if liberals want to talk about problematic Israeli policies in the West Bank that everyone from the US State Department to the EU to the UN oppose, they need look no further than Regavim.