Why Is an Israeli Pro-settler Group Campaigning for Brexit?

Right-wing organization Regavim supports the U.K.'s exit from the European Union as punishment for the bloc's support for Palestinians.

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Regavim's altered Hamas videoCredit: Regavim Advocacy Project
Ariel David
Ariel David

A right wing, pro-settlement organization that is partially funded by local authorities in Israel is campaigning in support of Brexit, urging Britons to vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union as payback for the EU’s support for the Palestinians.

Regavim says it launched its “Support Israel — Leave Europe” campaign to push eligible British citizens living in Israel and Israel supporters in Britain to register to vote and “take a stand against the EU” for what the group says is the European bloc’s support for the Palestinian cause and Palestinian terrorists.

Amid surging support for the “Leave” campaign in polls just a week before the June 23 referendum, government officials and experts from around the world have repeatedly warned that a vote in favor of leaving the EU could damage the continent’s fragile economy and throw global financial markets into turmoil.

Regavim’s online campaign, which is being publicized through the movement’s social-media channels, features an altered Hamas video showing masked Palestinian militants speaking to the media. The original video is from a Hamas press conference in which the group made threats to attack Israel at the outset of the 2014 conflict in the Gaza Strip, Operation Protective Edge.

In a voice-over that Regavim recorded to replace the original video’s sound track, the militants praise the EU for its recent decision to label Israeli products from West Bank settlements as well as for sending financial and material aid to the Palestinians.

“If you truly hate ‘Isra-hell’ and the Jews and want to support our struggle, help Britain stay in the EU,” the voice says.

The fake Hamas spokesman concludes by sending “a special shout-out to our good friend Jeremy Corbyn” — the British Labour Party leader who was embroiled in controversy over anti-Semitic statements by fellow party members — and adding that “we look forward to taking you up on your kind offer to have tea on the terrace at the houses of Parliament.”

Regavim is a nonprofit association that monitors and initiates legal action against what it sees as illegal construction and land seizures by Palestinians and Bedouin in Israel and the West Bank.

Its leaders have frequently criticized the EU and other international bodies for their supposed interference in Israel’s internal affairs and support of illegal construction projects.

“We thought the only way we can give them a piece of their own medicine is by expressing our frustration by going and getting involved in what is seemingly an internal issue for the British people,” says Ari Briggs, Regavim’s international director.

Bezalel Smotrich, who co-founded the organization in 2006 and led it until winning a Knesset seat with the far-right Habayit Hayehudi party last year, is one of the politicians spearheading a controversial law requiring nonprofit organizations supported by foreign governments to publicize their funding sources. Smotrich has also criticized what he has said was the use of “foreign funds from embassies, countries and foreign authorities” in the campaign to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2015 election.

In a telephone interview with Haaretz on Wednesday, Briggs said there was no contradiction between leveling such criticism at foreign intervention and then attempting to influence U.K. voters on Brexit because Regavim is an independent NGO.

“If we were funded by the Israeli government and we used those funds to run a campaign in the U.K. against the U.K. government or against the European Union that would be on par with what is happening here,” he said.

However, according to a Haaretz investigation published in January, Regavim does receive funds from local Israeli institutions in addition to private donations.

Like all Israeli NGOs, Regavim must submit its yearly financial statements to Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations. A review of these reports showed that from 2006 to 2014, the group received nearly 20 million shekels (around $5.1 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 in turn receive state funding.

The reports do not specify which government entities made the allocations, but Haaretz tracked down some of the payments. For example, in 2014 and 2015, Regavim received 900,000 shekels from the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, according to the financial statements of the council, which has jurisdiction over an area of the West Bank just north of Jerusalem.

Regavim’s reports also show that it receives donations from the Amana settlement movement, through a subsidiary of the organization, which is itself supported by the membership fees paid by residents of Amana settlements.

Briggs denied that Regavim receives state funding, saying that occasionally local authorities will pay for the group’s services and legal assistance. He stressed that the pro-Brexit campaign was funded only by private donations from Israel and abroad specifically granted for that purpose.

A spokesman for the EU delegation in Israel declined to comment.

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