The 1948 War of Independence is not over, and we’re losing.
Last Rosh Hashanah, we picked “The Indefatigable MK Itamar Ben-Gvir” as the Jewish Press’ Man of the year, and soon after, he became the most popular and effective leader the national religious public has seen in years. We noted his street theater tactics, and predicted that he would “continue to influence right-wing politics in Israel for many years to come, even if he fails to make it to the 25th Knesset.” Which stands to show you how limited our own imagination can be on occasion.
This year we’ve selected the Regavim movement for the honor. The Regavim movement was created in 2006 as “The Association for the Preservation of National Lands” by MK Bezalel Smotrich among others. Smotrich is, of course, Ben Gvir’s partner in this year’s elections to the 25th Knesset.
Regavim brings to the table everything Ben Gvir does not: consistent, detailed, sober hard work in research, legal action, political advocacy, and communication. The dozen men and women of Regavim are paid professionals (they tried to use volunteers; it didn’t work) who put their nose to the grindstone 24/6. Yes, they go home on Shabbat, since most of them are religious Jews.
“The fact that you identify these qualities in us is a great compliment,” says Regavim CEO and co-founder (with Smotrich and former Binyamin Council CEO Yehuda Eliyahu) Meir Deutch, who believes Smotrich’s DNA is imprinted on the organization. “From day one, it was important that the organization be run professionally. That you’ll enter our office and immediately get the feeling that this is a self-respecting place.”
Deutch mentions many right-wing groups who have been active since the Oslo Accords and the Gush Katif Expulsion, whose members have all been dedicated, hard workers and created much media interest – but fell short of producing a cohesive, effective, well-documented message to generate positive political and judicial action.
“We decided to employ the best lawyers, the best spokespeople, a respectable-looking headquarters, high-quality cameras, and use vehicles that are good enough to run mapping programs, so that, in the end, anyone who picks up one of our publications would say, these people know what they’re talking about.”
Regavim describes itself as a public movement aimed at setting the Jewish and Zionist agenda for the State of Israel in the areas of land and the environment.
“The Regavim movement aims to influence all government systems in the state, to push them to act in light of the fundamental Zionist principles and implement them de jure and de facto, protect the lands of the Jewish people and its natural treasures and landscape, and prevent the takeover of these resources by foreign elements.”
Their website describes the group’s tactics as “exerting constant pressure on the law enforcement, government, and judicial systems, using legal, parliamentary, and public means, operating a constant observation of the actions and functioning of these systems. At the same time, the movement works to formulate and promote operative proposals and ideas, as well as deepen public awareness of the importance of preserving the nation’s lands.”
For the Record
Here are but a few reports (for the full and eye-opening archive click here) researched by Regavim that are impressively connected to the zeitgeist in the Israeli public and have responded to the massive assaults by foreign-funded NGOs, leftwing (including self-identifying “center-left”) political parties, and Israeli and foreign media that are largely hostile to the Zionist message in general and the Jewish settlement enterprise in particular:
Bedouistan (March 2022): In recent years, the Negev has become a no man’s land. Unfathomable quantities of weapons, land takeovers, electricity and water thefts, hard drug trafficking, massive cannabis cultivation in IDF firing zones, agricultural terrorism, collection of protection fees, and theft of property from IDF bases – this is the daily reality in southern Israel. One stunning event follows the next, and the result is lawlessness, anarchy, and the rule of fear. The helplessness of the state to do anything about it is evident everywhere.
Easy as A,B,C (August 2021): The Palestinian Authority’s
weaponization of schools as a tactic for de facto annexation in Area C.
in 2009, then Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad devised a plan for the de facto establishment of “an independent Palestinian state in the territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” with an emphasis on Area C of Judea and Samaria which, according to the Oslo agreements, should be under Israel’s full security and civil control.
A significant part of the Fayyad plan is massive illegal Arab construction in Area C, to manufacture a contiguous territory comprising the Arab settlements of Area B while disconnecting the Jewish communities from one another. One of the methods to achieve this end is the construction of numerous schools (such as the notorious Khan al-Ahmar) that are set up as nuclei for nomad communities, counting on the PR nightmare involved in Israel demolishing an illegally built school. The Palestinian Authority’s legitimate schools are far from being overcrowded, compared to the situation in Jordan and Israeli Arab communities. The Regavim report diligently exposes every one of these illegal phantom schools and Israel’s persistent feebleness in fighting them.
Illegal Junkyards in Northern Israel (May 2019): Each year, about a quarter million vehicles are taken off the road in Israel to be cannibalized for parts and destroyed. Regavim asked the Transport Ministry for its list of licensed shops and discovered that such a list does not exist. It further discovered that the bulk of chop shops in Israel operate illegally––an estimated 150 businesses, most of them up north, where the Arab population far outnumbers the Jews.
The pastoral landscape along Israel’s northern roads is dotted with thousands of wrecked and rust-eaten vehicles that in addition to being an eyesore, are hazardous to safety and the environment. The Regavim report documents how the State of Israel chooses to ignore these pirate shops and avoids enforcing the law there.
A Stinky Tale (January 2017): Israel invests billions in garbage elimination and burial, in keeping with the highest standards of OECD countries. But the green policies stop at the green line. The Palestinian Authority operates only three garbage burial sites serving several million residents. The rest of the waste produced in the Palestinian Authority settlements is disposed of without governmental oversight, causing heavy and irreversible damage to the environment, mainly through trash burning in illegal sites.
According to Regavim, there are at least 200 such burning sites scattered from southern Mount Hebron to northern Samaria, about a third of which are in Area C. These hundreds of burning sites create a huge amount of smoke which constitutes a significant environmental nuisance to the nearby settlements, Jewish and Arab alike. Several illegal sites are burning electronic waste containing heavy metals and organic pollutants, creating harsh health hazards. The Israeli authorities hide behind the ambiguity of who controls which area to justify doing nothing.
Incidentally, these environmental hazards, together with many more that are produced daily by the Palestinian Authority Arabs, will persist even if one day, God forbid, the two-state solution will be implemented.
It’s About Professionalism, Stupid
Regavim Attorney Boaz Arzi points out that the need for professionalism was dictated by the fact that the group’s first target was the Supreme Court. “When you’re supposed to present your arguments in court, especially the highest court, it requires a different kind of effort, nothing like what’s involved in political agitation,” he says.
Arzi notes another right-wing organization that operates professionally for similar reasons – Honenu, the legal aid society that defends mostly right-wing activists before the courts. But Honenu is less concerned with influencing public policy and politicians – its mission is to influence judges.
Another serious right-wing group is Lavi, which recently convinced the High Court of Justice to issue an injunction against the transitional government’s appointment of retired judge Meni Mazuz to an 8-year term. At which point we should probably apologize (we know Yom Kippur is around the corner) to all the other very serious, sober, and hardworking right-wing organizations we failed to mention (such as the Kohelet Policy Forum).
Arzi emphasizes that unlike so many other groups out there that are engaged in doing good, Regavim’s mission statement is to get others to do their job – the government, the courts, the military, and the municipalities. “That’s the reason we hardly use any volunteers,” he explains. “When we need to submit a position paper to the government, it has to be done right, you can’t rely on someone doing it in their free time. It doesn’t work that way.”
Yachin Zik, Regavim’s Director of Operations, says one of the challenges Regavim faces is working on the seamline between the public at large and the country’s officials.
“Countless groups are working in the public sector, demonstrating, protesting, and there are some groups, such as Kohelet, that elevate the conversation, which was very much lacking on the right. But Regavim manages to connect the reality on the ground with policy,” he reiterates. “Yes, our mission is centered around policy papers, but those rely on deep, continuous work on the ground. It’s this up-to-date work in the field that enables us to present to decision-makers the reality as it is out there, as opposed to the fabricated reports of some NGOs, or by now stale observations that were made by civil servants years ago.”
“Eventually, it’s the right-wing politicians, or the people from Kohelet, who turn to us for fresh and reliable information on what’s going on in the field,” Zik says. “Our ability to provide reliable information, gathered and delivered professionally, has no equal on the right.”
Telling It Like It is
Sam Whitefield, who manages Regavim’s communications, says the group’s professional standards on occasion conflict with the needs of modern communication for the lightning-speed posting of fresh information. He and Naomi Kahn, the group’s liaison to the foreign press, face this dilemma every day. They are quite successful in reaching out to the media – including The Jewish Press, which features their content frequently and prominently. But we are part of the movement.
Here’s a sampling of stories that were run by news outlets that don’t start the workday with the singing of Hatikvah:
And we saved the best for last: the left-wing British daily newspaper Morning Star: Meet Regavim, the far-right, pro-settler demolition ‘charity’ – Israeli NGO Regavim wrecks Palestinian lives – and receives donations to do so
Kahn often presents Regavim’s message on YouTube:
How the Palestinian Authority cynically uses Bedouin children
Water in the Negev: Why Israeli taxpayers are suckers
Deutch points out that even though the current government has been less hospitable to Regavim’s reports and appeals, there has recently been a positive development in Israeli municipalities which, motivated by Regavim’s data, have upgraded their treatment of land grabs and other illegal real estate activities in their territories. In many cases, the municipalities send their employees for training with Regavim, which far extends the group’s ability to monitor and report violations on either side of the green line.
The Trouble with Benny Gantz
Every Regavim official we interviewed was adamant about the destructive role of Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Judea and Samaria. It is he, and not the prime ministers he has served, Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, and currently Yair Lapid, the group blames for the steep deterioration in upholding the law in Area C.
On August 15, Regavim issued a warning statement about Gantz. Issuing warning is very much out of character for the way Regavim runs its business.
They very clearly strayed from their policy of expressing themselves strictly through well-researched reports and legal appeals. You can say that this was as close as they got to Itamar Ben Gvir’s political style, and they felt obliged to do it given the upcoming elections and the danger that either potential prime minister, Lapid or Netanyahu, would reappoint Gantz as Defense Minister.
Before we quote Regavim’s warning, there’s something you must know: there’s no comparison between the authority of, say, the Secretary of Defense, who serves the supreme commander of the military, namely the President of the United States, and Israel’s Defense Minister.
In Israel, the law grants the defense minister powers that exceed even those of the Prime Minister. According to Basic Law: The Army, the IDF, and the security apparatus are subject to the government’s authority, but the person in charge of them on its behalf is the defense minister alone. He and no one else. The same is true about the IDF Chief of Staff, who is generally subject to the government but is directly subordinated only to the Minister of Defense.
This is even more prominent in Judea and Samaria, which are extra-territorial and officially still an occupied area, governed solely by the IDF.
With that in mind, Regavim warned (see also Indefensible Equivalence by Naomi Kahn):
In the three years that Benny Gantz has been serving as Minister of Defense, the campaign over Area C has turned into a comedy sketch. During this period, thousands of new illegal Palestinian buildings were built, occupying a huge area of about 25 thousand acres in area C in Judea and Samaria.
There’s no such thing today as equal enforcement of the law in the face of the Palestinians’ insane construction scopes that have no equal – strategic and targeted construction for the establishment of a de facto Palestinian state in areas C. The State of Israel has never before had a Minister of Defense who failed to understand what it means to protect territory. This is sad, scary, and dangerous.
Remember Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan to establish a de facto Palestinian state that invades Area C using the salami method? Think of Benny Gantz as the guy standing behind the counter, pushing and pulling the slicing machine.
In mid-September, an IDF officer of the Nahal special forces was killed by an operative of the Palestinian Authority security forces, which are supported and financed by Israel. Regavim once again chose to issue an uncharacteristically angry response, attacking the man in charge of Judea and Samaria:
Gantz’s policies are exploding in our faces in the form of a new intifada. When the Minister of Defense declares and works to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, he means salary payments to terrorists, the granting of wholesale work permits, ignoring the growing takeover and illegal construction in Area C, and the promotion of the PA’s plans in Area C.
This policy unequivocally leads to an increase in terrorism. The attack last night in which an IDF officer was killed by a terrorist affiliated with the PA’s thwarted intelligence proves this once again. Our latest analysis of the state of illegal Arab construction in Judea and Samaria indicates a massive increase over the past year, with an emphasis on the northern sector of Samaria and the Seam Line, where the attack took place.
Gantz’s approach, that strengthening the Palestinian Authority will lead to peace and better security, is blowing up in our faces.
According to Deutch, Regavim has requested a meeting with Gantz on several occasions and was rejected each time. They were told by the DM’s staff that the issues surrounding the PA’s illegal activities in Judea and Samaria “are not our concern.”
The group sent us data on the level of illegal Palestinian Authority Arab construction in Judea and Samaria, showing significant increases in the years since Benny Gantz became defense minister. Although illegal construction has been on the rise, it peaked in 2021, under Gantz:
- Samaria: 11,000 illegal units in 2008 – 28,307 in 2021
- Binyamin: 5,726 in 2008 – 22,993 in 2021
- Gush Etzion: 5,694 – 11,794
- South Mt. Hebron: 5,063 – 13,340
- Jordan Valley: 2,773 – 8,442
- Finally, in the Agreement Reserve, an area in the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea that was defined by the Oslo Accords as belonging to the Palestinians, but they are prohibited from carrying out operations there without Israeli consent due to it being declared a nature reserve: 307 illegal units in 2008 – 1,857 in 2021.
- The total: in 2008 there were 30,603 illegal construction projects in Judea and Samaria – in 2021, under Defense Minister Gantz, the number ballooned to 75,782 illegal structures. On average, the annual number of illegal Arab units in Area C rose under Gantz from around 3,000 a year to 6,000.
“Gantz revived the hope for a Palestinian state,” says Deutch. “It was already a non-issue until he brought it back and gave the Palestinians the signal that they could get a state very soon. Now, look at the sharp rise in acts of terrorism over the past year and you’ll see the correlation there.”
“This policy is reflected in the responses we get from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories,” Deutch continues. “We report to them about hundreds of illegal Arab projects in Area C, and they respond that they’ll get around to them based on their priorities.”
And as countless Jewish settlers have discovered since Gantz became the ruler of Judea and Samaria, said priorities are to send Border Guard, Police, and IDF troops to remove every Jewish lean-to in the outposts, and at the same time turn a blind eye on major Arab construction that includes even ambitious new cities.
In early September, Regavim reported about massive development works on a new PA Arab city have been carried out in secret on Israeli state-owned and privately owned Jewish land in area C, at the heart of Samaria, near the Karnei Shomron industrial zone (New Palestinian City Rising on Jewish-Owned Land near Karnei Shomron). The works include the development of lots, construction of buildings, opening and paving roads, and laying down infrastructure connections.
In similar cases when Jews settled Amona, Migron, and Netiv Ha’avot, Israeli authorities were quick to order their removal and the destruction of their homes, even when only parts of the settlements stood on Arab-owned land. Here, they didn’t bother, allowing a blatantly illegal Arab to take shape on Jewish-owned land.
Moshe Shmueli, the field coordinator for Regavim in Judea and Samaria, says, “We see before our eyes how, day by day, construction criminals take over huge areas of state land and private land belonging to Jews, and only recently we documented another new building and tree plantings. It’s not a single house but a massive infrastructure of roads, water, electricity, and the preparation of lots for huge neighborhoods. The reality in which the enforcement authorities do nothing and the Jewish landowners stand helpless is simply infuriating.”
What to Do Next
Regavim always finds itself being torn between its long-term projects that require steady and persistent attention, and the daily barrage of events about which they must educate the media with their data. One such case was the recent attack in the Jordan Valley on a busload of IDF soldiers by an Arab man and his three sons.
“The man is one of the most active in the area in taking over lands,” Deutch says. “So, for two days we dealt only with this affair.”
“It’s a constant competition between what’s necessary and what’s urgent,” says Zik. “We have our annual agenda, but when we look back, we realize that some of it we carried out and some we didn’t because we had to deal with daily issues that kept popping up.”
“But dealing with those daily challenges is crucial, because they contribute to the consensus in the political leadership, and by using those opportunities to set the record straight, we also help advance our broader, long-term message,” Zik says.
He points out a current, seemingly short-term project around a home in the Palestinian Authority village of Al-Funduq in northeastern Samaria, east of Qalqilya. The home was built directly on a spot that has been designated by the Israeli government for a road that would bypass the village, for the use of the residents of Kdumim.
“You could say, it’s only one home, what’s the big deal,” Zik says. “But this one home shows the lack of enforcement, and the fact is that if the government continues to fail to stop illegal construction in Judea and Samaria, we’ll end up stuck without new roads. Illegal construction is at the root of our failure to govern in many other aspects (on either side of the “green line” – DI).”
“The government employs good professional civil servants,” notes Arzi, the group’s attorney. “Now, say one such professional observes a problem––regarding illegal construction but also any other issue––and he or she approaches their minister with a suggestion for correcting the problem. This may entail a budgetary increase, perhaps requiring more staff, then the minister has his or her political considerations – do they want to damage their relationship with the sector that’s involved here? The civil servant can’t go behind the minister’s back to the political echelon to make recommendations. That’s when we come in.”
“When we figure out the problem, we can go above the head of the minister, we can disseminate information to the political echelon. It’s our biggest advantage. And we maintain a very delicate and complex relationship with government people,” Arzi says.
“There are elements within the government system who work with us for the benefit of the state of Israel,” Deutch offers a respectable alternative for what is commonly known as leaks.
“We have a four-pronged approach to creating real change,” explains Zik. “First, it’s our access to information on the ground in real-time; second, it’s through the judicial system – challenging the courts regarding injustices on the ground; third, the media – using articles and op-eds to influence decision-makers, present the problems and offer concrete solutions; and fourth, influence legislation through the political echelon.”
The War of Independence Is Not Over, And We’re Losing
“From our point of view, the 1948 War of Independence is still going on,” says Deutch. “The war over the boundaries of the Jewish state and the Arab state is taking place now. People think the war ended with the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan and the war of 1948. It’s not true. I’m not the only one saying this, the Arab MKs are saying it, too.”
“The difference between green line Israel and Judea and Samaria is that in Judea and Samaria there’s a force present representing states the world over who funnel billions to promote a well-designed plan to take over the entire area. In the Negev and Galilee, we don’t face a power that guides the illegal Arab settlements to create a contiguous Arab territory. But in the end, the illegal Israeli-Arab construction creates a contiguous presence, going from the Lebanese border, down through the Arab settlements in Galilee, the Wadi Ara Triangle, Samaria, Mt. Hebron, to the Bedouin in the Negev. In the end, today’s territorial division is worse than the UN partition plan. However, on the Israeli Arab side it’s generally a catch as catch can, opportunistic process, while in Judea and Samaria it’s a well-planned enterprise, down to specific acres,” Deutch says.
You Get What You Pay For
When we ask the Regavim officials we interview what’s the biggest issue slowing down their work, they answer unanimously: money.
“Our annual budget is 5 million shekels ($1.45 million),” says Deutch. “Every court appeal costs thousands of shekels. Aerial drone images of changes on the ground are very expensive – 300 to 400 thousand in Judea and Samaria alone. These are huge sums we must pay if we want to be professional. Attorney fees are also expensive.”
According to Deutch, 45% of Regavim’s budget is based on small donations from some 4,000 contributors, 18 shekels at a time, and 30% comes from a small group of large donors. The other 25% is provided by the local councils in Judea and Samaria, in exchange for area monitoring, help in presenting materials in court, and in parliamentary action.
“Unfortunately, people on the right prefer to donate to substantial things – a new shul, a mikvah,” says Deutch. “Influencing policy looks to them like luft gesheften (hot air).”
“The other main obstacle is the complete absence of government policy on illegal construction in Judea and Samaria,” he says. “To date, with a few sporadic exceptions, there hasn’t been a single cabinet discussion of this problem. The Israeli government is yet to formulate a plan regarding illegal construction in Judea and Samaria.”
Mind you, that’s almost no discussion, never mind policy, since 1967 – 55 years.
One huge success that can be attributed to Regavim is the altering of the courts’ approach to Arab lawsuits regarding the ownership of land in Judea and Samaria. Until very recently, the High Court of Justice accepted Arab petitions on their face, especially since the Ariel Sharon administration had altered the map, causing perfectly legal Jewish settlements to be declared illegal – after decades on the lands they were provided by the government.
It was Regavim’s relentless challenging of the judicial approach, which had no equal on the Israeli side of the green line, that began to move the court, one case after another, to rule that Arab claimants must provide evidence to support their claims.
“Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked led the move to transfer those land claims from the High Court of Justice, which doesn’t deal with evidence, to the district courts, which are all about evidence,” says Deutch.
It was nothing short of a revolution, and as a result, what used to be a daily phenomenon whereby anti-Israel NGOs, using European money, would drag thousands of settlers to the high court to have demolition orders issued against them – those petitions are almost gone from the judicial landscape today. Because, you know, those claimants mostly lied.
Regavim’s Spokesperson Tamar Sikurel is a resident of Judea and Samaria who for years followed the group’s work, until, some five months ago, decided to join. “You see the illegal construction before your eyes every day, and they freak you out until you realize you have to do something about it.”
A community social worker by trade, Sikurel these days manages the group’s entire communications outlets, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, and YouTube. She says some issues practically communicate themselves, but the challenge is to catch the media and the public’s attention regarding the more humdrum, daily issues.
It’s also up to her to humanize the organization in the public eye. They are not, after all, crazed Arab haters, but a bunch of policy wonks and, yes, social workers.
“What surprised me when I started the job was how I didn’t have to introduce Regavim to anyone,” says Sikurel. “Everyone knows us, everyone is familiar with our work, and for the most part find it interesting. There’s a need out there in the Jewish public to go back to the time of the pioneers, to embrace essential Zionist values. Frankly, some of my former social work colleagues admitted they were jealous.”
The group’s latest effort is in helping the local councils organize volunteer groups to collect data for Regavim. Because, after all, is said and done about the need for professionalism, a fight that’s an extension of the 1948 War of Independence is everybody’s concern.