Regavim: The Israeli Faux Environmental Org Converting US Donations into Palestinian Evictions

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OCCUPIED WEST BANK — In the village of Khan al-Ahmar in the occupied West Bank, dozens of Bedouin families are at risk of losing their homes and becoming refugees again by July. While it is the Israeli government and military that are enacting the demolitions and evacuations, their efforts are largely driven by a pro-settler nonprofit supported by American charities.

While it is masked as an environmental organization, Regavim’s work involves petitioning the Israeli government to demolish structures and pursue evictions for Palestinians and Bedouins under the guise of protecting “Israel’s most precious and scarce resources: land reserves, water, air quality” — though much of the organization’s focus is on occupied Palestinian territory. Regavim’s most recent targets have been the villages of Khan al-Ahmar and Susya, located in Area C of the West Bank, which is under total Israeli military control. Israel rarely approves building permits for the indigenous people in Area C so the majority of Palestinian and Bedouin construction there is deemed illegal.

In collaboration with nearby Israeli settlements, Regavim has petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court to demolish hundreds of buildings in Khan al-Ahmar since 2009. The Israeli government has continuously delayed the displacement, causing Regavim to repeatedly file petitions in order to speed up the evacuation process, the most recent being filed in November 2020. In response to Regavim’s latest petition, the High Court gave the state until July to demolish Khan al-Ahmar. Regavim did not respond to a request for comment.

A settler organization funded by taxpayers

Regavim was founded in 2006 by Bezalel Smotrich, a former member of Israel’s parliament and head of the Religious Zionist Party.

“[Regavim has] managed to make serious inroads into the Israeli political system,” Cody O’Rourke of the Good Shepherd Collective, a nonviolent grassroots resistance movement in the West Bank, said, referring to how Smotrich’s political party was able to secure six seats in March’s election.

“The Israeli military has to respond to Israeli politics,” O’Rourke continued. “So, having their co-founder now in the Knesset, they’re able to put the sort of pressure on the Israeli military and on the Israeli civil administration to push these people off their land.”

Regavim Settlement

Children watch as an Israeli army bulldozer prepares the ground for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar. Oren Ziv | ActiveStills

However, Regavim’s ties to government don’t stop with its founder. A 2018 Haaretz investigation found that the pro-settler group is financed by Israeli taxpayers through local settler councils, and it has collected taxpayer money from the United States. “[Regavim] also has been able to exploit the U.S. 501(3) system to receive charitable donations to really engage in essentially what is ethnic cleansing of the land,” O’Rourke said.

The U.S. charities behind Regavim

Regavim is backed by tax-deductible donations from three New York-based nonprofits: The Central Fund of Israel, One Israel Fund, and the Israel Independence Fund. According to the most recently available financial reports from Israel’s Registrar of Associations, the Central Fund of Israel gave Regavim 1,804,175 shekels ($553,000) in 2019.

Information on donations from the One Israel Fund and the Israel Independence Fund is not available for 2019. However, according to 2018 tax filings, the One Israel Fund made more than $2 million in grants to the Middle East, and the Israel Independence Fund said it distributed $580,00 to Keren Nahlat Atzmaut (the executive arm of the Israel Independence Fund). Tax-exempt charities do not have to list the names of the foreign organizations to which contribute.

Overall, Regavim received 319,603 shekels (almost $9,800) from abroad in 2019.  Their Israeli donations amounted to 3,748,584 shekels (approximately $115 million). Hagit Ofran from Israeli settlement watchdog group, Peace Now, said the lopsided ratio of donations could be because Regavim marks U.S.-based organizations’ donations as Israeli when these donors have offices in Israel. “So the money comes from U.S. donors, but it goes through the Israeli office, so they can call it an Israeli donation,” Ofran said.

In order to classify as a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt charity, an organization must be licensed at the federal and state levels. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the U.S. Treasury Department determine if a nonprofit is adhering to charitable guidelines at the federal level, while the state attorney general makes those conclusions at the state level.

With this in mind, the Good Shepherd Collective is currently campaigning online for New York’s attorney general to revoke the charitable status of the organizations involved in funding Regavim. “These organizations still have to follow charitable guidelines,” O’Rourke said. “And engaging in what the International Criminal Court said was war crimes, that doesn’t follow a charitable description.”

IRS regulations require American nonprofits to make what is called “an equivalency determination” when providing grants abroad, meaning they must assure that the foreign recipient functions under the same rules as a U.S. nonprofit. Charitable guidelines stipulate that tax-exempt donations are defined as “lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.”

Additionally, tax-exempt organizations are prohibited from making contributions that counter American foreign policy or abet those engaged in illegal acts. Experts have long argued that supporting Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, fits squarely into that category.

When probed by Haaretz in 2015 over the tax-exempt status of organizations funding settlement activity, the White House responded that the “the policy of every administration since 1967, Democrat and Republican alike, has been to object to Israeli settlement beyond the 1967 borders.”

Nonprofit donations in the U.S. are often shrouded in secrecy and lack transparency. Halah Ahmad, a policy analyst at Palestinian thinktank Al-Shabaka noted that this is due to minimal governmental oversight. “If a nonprofit is given tax-exempt status by the U.S., you have organizations that could be complicit in human rights violations,” Ahmad said. “Regavim is just one organization among many that are party to this problem.”

The Central Fund of Israel and One Israel Fund did not respond to press inquiries, but the Israel Independence Fund denied that its involvement with Regavim violates international law and U.S. regulations and referred to the Jewish people as the indigenous population of the West Bank, telling MintPress, “The IIF was, is, and will remain a proud supporter of Regavim” (read their full statement here).

These three charities are not required to disclose where their donations come from. However, private foundations must inform the IRS of any domestic grants they make. Several notable philanthropists have made sizable donations to these organizations, including the late casino magnate and Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson and the controversial Irving Moskowitz, who sought to use his wealth to create a Jewish majority in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Below are the supporting foundations followed by the amount and year of their most recent donation. This information was gathered using ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer tool.

Edwin Soforenko Foundation: Unknown amount to One Israel Fund in 2018

Part of the ‘apartheid apparatus

Funding of Israel’s settler movement goes through a variety of channels and relies on a wide network of organizational and governmental support. Neve Gordon, an Israeli professor at the Queen Mary University of London, has conducted research on Regavim, concluding that the use of nonprofits is just one part of the larger “apartheid apparatus,” explaining:

In order to make a regime that is based on institutionalized discrimination and ethnic and racist identifications, you need to set in place a whole apparatus. Part of it is legal. Part of it is governmental. And part of it is the executive branch of the government. So, you have the three branches, but then part of it — and that’s what is often not discussed — is organs within civil society. And Regavim is an organ within civil society that enables apartheid.”

And whether these donors know what their money is being used for or not, Gordon emphasized that exposing them as “apartheid enablers” is crucial in dismantling this system.

Feature photo | Israel police guard a military bulldozer at it destroys a Palestinian home in the South Hebron Hills. Photo | International Solidarity Movement.

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.

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