Did Israeli Settler Group Use Government Funds to Spy on Human-rights NGOs?

Haaretz investigation: State-funded group Regavim commissioned and paid for private investigation into prominent human-rights lawyer and the organizations he represents.

Illustrative photo: Israeli human rights lawyer stands in court (center) while reporters film documents on a desk. Tomer Appelbaum

A pro-settlement organization that is partially funded by local governments in Israel was behind a private investigation that targeted a prominent human-rights lawyer and the organizations he works with, Haaretz has learned.

The attorney, Michael Sfard, had filed a police complaint after internal documents, apparently from his office, had surfaced in the media. In a years-long probe, police questioned several people under caution, including the founder of the right-wing movement Im Tirtzu, and found that between 2010 and 2013 Sfard and his office had been placed under the surveillance of a private detective.

However, the police did not find who had commissioned the probe, and around six months ago they closed the case.

Haaretz has now learned from sources involved in the affair that the private investigation was commissioned and funded by Regavim, a nongovernmental organization that documents unlawful activities perpetrated by Arabs and Bedouin on state lands in Israel and across the Green Line separating Israel and the West Bank.

The findings raise questions as to whether Regavim, which receives state funds, used taxpayer money to conduct private investigations of groups on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.

At the time of the probe, Regavim’s legal department was headed by Bezalel Smotrich, one of the NGO’s founders who is now a member of Knesset for the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. In a conversation with Haaretz, Smotrich said he was not familiar with the matter.

Regavim itself and its chairman declined to comment.

A ‘political investigation’

The affair began at the end of 2010, when an article appeared in the free Hebrew daily Israel Hayom, owned by Jewish-American businessman Sheldon Adelson, under the headline “Exposed: This is how the Yesh Din organization planned to apply the term ‘war crimes’ to IDF activities.”

The article focused on the human rights organization Yesh Din, which is based at the same address as Sfard’s law firm. Other articles appeared around the same time in the right-leaning daily Makor Rishon.

Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich.Olivier Fittousi

All the articles referenced internal documents that were apparently from Sfard’s office, which represents several left-wing and human-rights organizations including Peace Now and Breaking the Silence.

Sfard filed a complaint with the police, demanding that they find out how the materials reached the newspapers. The probe was shut down a year later, but was reopened in 2013, in the wake of hearings in a separate case in which Im Tirtzu founder Ronen Shoval acknowledged that the organization had used documents about left-wing activists that were obtained from private investigators.

Another year passed before Shoval was questioned under caution about the Sfard affair at the police station on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.

“I’m not sure who commissioned the police investigation, but the mere fact that this happened in a democratic state is galling. It isn’t proper. ... This [police probe] is the sort of investigation that characterizes dark, totalitarian regimes; it is a political investigation,” Shoval told police at the time, according to transcripts of the interrogation obtained by Haaretz.

While sharply criticizing left-wing groups for their activities, Shoval denied commissioning the private investigation into them, according to the transcripts. He acknowledged, however, that he had received information about Sfard from a private investigator named Zeev Koren.

“I saw an affidavit that the documents were obtained legally by a private investigator, with the signature of an attorney on the affidavit,” Shoval told the police. “I have never violated the law. Everything that I’ve done was kosher, strictly kosher.”

When asked whether he passed on the documents from Sfard’s office to representatives of the media, he said, “I don’t think it’s me. I don‘t remember it.”

Going through the trash

Two days after Shoval was questioned, Koren was called in for questioning at the police station. He confirmed that he had gathered information on Sfard and a number of left-wing groups for a client between 2010 and 2013. “The job was to track a few left-wing organizations, including Yesh Din. Sfard was the hub for those organizations and at a certain point, fairly early [in the investigation], I understood that I would get the material if I stayed on him,” Koren said, according to transcripts of his police interview.

Koren refused to give his client’s name, but denied that it was Shoval.

“In May 2013, I completed the investigation, so I gave all the material to the client, whose name I am not interested in revealing, and am unable to reveal,” he told investigators. “I can say that this client is not Ronen Shoval.” Koren added that he was aware that Shoval received the material after he signed an affidavit stating that the documents had been acquired legally.

Koren told the police that he did not break into Sfard’s office and that all the material had been obtained by combing through his target’s trash and piecing together documents that had been thrown out.

Ronen Shoval in court, Jerusalem, July 15, 2015.Emil Salman

“Throughout the two years I spent sitting on that specific office, I knew when it was cleaned, when the trash was taken out, I would argue with the guys on the garbage truck before they took away the trash. I did all of this personally,” Koren said. “From the trash, on more than one occasion we managed to rescue documents and torn pages and even shredded pages. I am guessing that is what is causing him to believe that his office was broken into.”

Describing his findings, Koren said: “There were a lot of documents there that were related to the legal representation of Palestinians, of illegal aliens ... strategies of a variety of left-wing organizations ... a page that [Sfard] sent by fax ... and in it ... he did not spare his personal opinion of certain high-ranking officers in the Israel Defense Forces, including obscenities and not-so-nice words. ... There were documents related to contributions by organizations from Israel and from abroad to these left-wing groups.”

About six months later, the police concluded that no crime had been committed and closed the probe.

State support

Haaretz has now confirmed that it was Regavim that commissioned and paid for the private investigation into Sfard.

Established in 2006, Regavim conducts research and legal battles against what it sees as illegal construction activity by Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories.

According to its website, “Regavim is the only organization fighting against this threat to Israel that few are even aware of — the silent conquest of Israel’s national lands. Regavim stands alone against the UN, Israeli and US NGOs, backed by well-known EU & US-based non-profit organizations, major US foundations, several European countries and the European Union. All promoting a policy in Israel that is tantamount to an illegal land grab.”

A review of reports submitted by Regavim to Israel’s Registrar of nonprofit organizations shows that from its establishment in 2006 to 2014, the organization received a total of nearly 20 million shekels (around $5 million at current exchange rates) in donations and other financial support, most of it from public funds. According to the reports, between 2010 and 2014 Regavim received nearly 11 million shekels from various government bodies — primarily local councils, which themselves receive state funding.

Regavim’s reports do not specify which government entities made the allocations, but Haaretz has tracked down some of the payments. In 2014 and 2015, Regavim received 900,000 shekels from the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, according to the financial statements of the council. Mateh Binyamin covers an area of the West Bank just north of Jerusalem, serving the Jewish settlements in its jurisdiction.

Regavim’s reports also show that in 2012 and 2013, it received 800,000 shekels from the Amana settlement movement, through a subsidiary of the movement, which is itself supported by the membership fees paid by residents of Amana settlements. Regavim also receives contributions from abroad, including from U.S. nonprofit organizations recognized as tax-exempt in the United States. For example, in 2013 the organization received approximately 460,000 shekels from the Israel Independence Fund (Israel), which is funded by a U.S.-based philanthropic organization of the same name, according to a recent Haaretz investigation into organizations that funnel private U.S. donations to the settlements. The organization operates out of the offices of Kenneth Abramovitz, a donor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chairman of American Friends of Likud. Regavim has also received tens of thousands of shekels in recent years from the Central Fund of Israel and the One Israel Fund, two American organizations that transfer millions of dollars annually to the settlements.

Paid by taxpayers?

One source who is aware of Regavim’s activities told Haaretz that the money it received served not only to prepare reports on land use and to file legal appeals to the courts, but also to commission the private investigation services directed against human-rights organizations.

A second person, who was involved in the probe of Sfard’s office, confirmed that Regavim paid for that specific investigation. Both sources asked that their names not be used.

According to Regavim’s reports, in 2014 it allocated 600,000 shekels to the goals of “information gathering, research studies and strategic consultation.” The previous year, the NGO spent over 400,000 shekels on the same goals. It is not clear how much money was allocated to the Sfard investigation.

Smotrich, the MK who was one of the founders of Regavim, told Haaretz that he had no knowledge of any involvement by the group in a private investigation targeting Sfard and the organizations he represents, nor did he confirm that the group was behind the probe. Smotrich said he has a personal acquaintance with Koren, but had no knowledge about whether he had been hired by Regavim.

Shoval, who headed Im Tirtzu at the time of the probe, declined to respond to questions about the private investigation, saying only: “We acted in accordance with the law, only what is perfectly legal. I have nothing to add beyond what I have told the police.”

Attorney Sfard commented: “Anyone who ordered political espionage to be directed at a law firm that represents defenders of human rights in order to harm attorney-client privilege and to find dirt that would harm both sides is a very base and dangerous person to the society in which he lives.”

Sfard mocked the results of the private investigation, noting that Koren “found out that my firm is mounting a struggle against the occupation and views it as a crime. Wow!”

He noted, however, that authorities should investigate whether public funds were used to fund Koren’s work.

“If there is a suspicion that use was made of public funds to finance the invasion of my office in order to procure materials, the authorities must investigate the matter and renounce responsibility for what has been done,” he said.

"The extreme right knows no boundaries in its attempt to discredit human rights organizations," said the Yesh Din NGO, which works with Sfard. "We call on the Ministry of Interior to stop funding Israeli local settlement authorities in the West Bank that support organizations that threaten Israeli democracy."         

Regavim did not respond to questions about whether it hired a private investigator to gather information on Sfard and if so, why; how much the private eye was paid and how such activity conformed with the NGO’s official goals. In a phone call with Haaretz, Yehuda Eliyahu, Regavim’s chairman, declined to respond to questions on the matter.

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.