Political nonprofit groups that collect information on controversial construction, issue reports and frequently petition the High Court of Justice in attempts to influence state policy are generally not financed with public funds - at least not when it comes to left-wing groups. Organizations like B’tselem, Peace Now and Yesh Din have never gotten a shekel of taxpayer money.
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But that’s not the case with Regavim, one of the most prominent right-wing groups in Israel today. A Haaretz investigative report shows that the nonprofit, which deals primarily with court petitions against the authorities, got millions of shekels of public funds. In many cases the funds were funneled to Regavim under criteria that were tailored for it, and although the group declared it had received funds from one regional council, it actually got large budgets from at least two additional regional councils.
Regavim focuses on legal battles against allegedly illegal Arab construction in the West Bank, Galilee and Negev. For example, it is leading the legal battle to evacuate the Palestinian villages of Sussia in the south Hebron Hills. Before he was elected to the Knesset, one of Regavim’s leading activists was Habayit Hayehudi MK Betzalal Smotrich.
In 2016, Haaretz discovered that Regavim had funded the surveillance of human rights activists affiliated with the left, paying a private investigator who, among other things, went through the garbage dumpsters outside the office of attorney Michael Sfard, who represents some of these leftist groups, pulled out documents and passed them to the far-right Im Tirtzu organization. Regavim refused to comment on this issue.
Regavim receives funding from private donations, but also gets money that its budget refers to as “participations” and “support.” The Justice Ministry explained that those terms generally refer to funds from government authorities, as opposed to donations from private individuals. Participation and support money need not be designated for a specific purpose, which can be an advantage for Regavim. A regional council that couldn’t directly fund a court petition against the state can pass money to Regavim, which can do with it as it pleases.
Nonprofit organizations report the receipt of participation and support funds to the Justice Ministry, but it’s not always clear where the money comes from. Heads of other right-wing groups say that sometimes these are funds given to a nonprofit to provide specific services. Nevertheless, a substantial portion of Regavim’s budget comes from public funds, not all the sources of which could be identified by Haaretz.
From 2007 to the beginning of this decade, the amount of participation funding Regavim received annually zoomed from 310,000 shekels (nearly $90,000) to more than 2 million shekels, while private donations during the same period rose from 47,000 shekels to 800,000 shekels. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, Regavim got nearly 3.5 million shekels from private individuals, and the percentage of participation funding in its budget dropped to 38 percent. Over the years, however, the data shows that the state and its authorities have been substantially supporting one of the main players conducting legal action against it.
Regavim reports that it gets funds from state bodies, but in its declaration to the Registrar of Associations notes only funding that it gets from the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council. Over the years the council has given Regavim nearly 3 million shekels, by setting criteria for funding “to preserve national lands” that only Regavim could meet, a condition criticized by the state comptroller last year.
But documents from other regional councils reveal that Regavim also got money from the Samaria and South Hebron Hills regional councils. Unlike Mateh Binyamin, which made support payments to Regavim without expecting a specific return, these two regional councils signed contracts with Regavim to provide services. During 2014 and 2015 Regavim got 300,000 shekels from the Samaria Regional Council to “deal with inspection and systematic handling of illegal Palestinian construction in the council’s jurisdiction.” In 2016 the fee went up to 400,000 shekels. The Hebron Hills Regional Council paid Regavim for “protecting and liberating lands”; the sums were 300,000 shekels in 2014 and 2015, while in 2016 it dropped to 220,000 shekels. The council has also paid Regavim 85,000 shekels since 2014 for aerial photographs.
That Regavim gets money from regional councils in the West Bank doesn’t mean only settlers are paying it. These regional councils get tens of millions of shekels in state funding, so Regavim is actually being funded by all taxpayers.
In late 2012, the Galilee Development Authority also began channeling funds to Regavim for “strengthening inspection and enforcement in open areas, supporting the activities of the various enforcement authorities, compiling land information to create an updated land status picture at any given time as a systemic tool for developing the Galilee.” The authority had allocated hundreds of thousands of shekels for mapping open areas and “communities in non-Jewish society,” but it isn’t clear if Regavim got all that money or just some of it.
According to Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, transferring public funds to Regavim tilts the political playing field to the right. “Public funds are not supposed to be used for political needs,” she said. “The political debate must be conducted with equitable tools, not with one side getting public funds.”
Since it isn’t always clear what the sources are for the funds streaming from the authorities to various nonprofits, MK Tamar Zandberg is advancing a bill that would require nonprofit associations to specify which clause in the state or local authorities’ budgets the funds are coming from. “It’s like a thread that we have one end of, but the other end is in the thicket. I want one end to lead to the other end,” she said.
Regavim said in response, “All the activities of the Regavim movement are done lawfully and are approved annually by all the relevant officials. From the questions sent to us by Haaretz it emerges that you possess a lot of erroneous information.”