BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- A tiny village of Palestinian families in the southern West Bank has had an unwelcome visitor in recent months.
“He comes with small weapons and his camera, sometimes with armed forces, sometimes with settlers,” Susiya resident Nasser Nawaja says.
The armed visitor is Ovad Arad, the Judea and Samaria Director of Regavim, an Israeli non-governmental organization.
Arad’s job is to roam the West Bank photographing Palestinian buildings for the group’s legal petitions, which demand the Israeli government expedite their demolitions.
Susiya, a hamlet of 350 people, including 120 children, is now at immediate risk of forced displacement as a result of Regavim’s petition, the United Nations humanitarian affairs office says.
Arad is not a lone-ranger.
The group he works for is run by residents of Israeli settlements and illegal outposts, with political connections to local government and the Likud and National Union parties.
According to Israeli experts who reviewed the group’s official reports, the NGO is financed by publicly funded local councils of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It received more than 2 million shekels ($550,000) of funding in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available.
Regavim referred Ma’an to a representative named Yoni who, after several weeks of unreturned calls and emails, refused to confirm or deny its funding or clarify details of its work.
“We don’t want to cooperate with Ma’an,” he said Tuesday, before hanging up. Legal ‘price tag’
Founded in 2006, Regavim insists it is an independent group interested in equal application of the law for both settlers and Palestinian communities.
With a 2010 budget that increased more than six-fold since 2008, it has stepped up a legal campaign calling on the Israeli state to act on frozen or drawn-out challenges to demolitions of Palestinian buildings.
In recent months, a Regavim petition secured a commitment from the Israeli state to tie up all pending Palestinian demolition orders before August 2012.
But research by Ma’an shows the group is staffed by politically connected settlers, and it champions demolitions as retribution for Israeli government moves against settlements, echoing the ‘price tag’ slogan of settler outlaws.
Regavim director-general Yehuda Eliyahu lives in one such outpost, Haresha, near Ramallah, and according to the outpost’s website, helped found the plot in 1999.
While the Israeli government has supported settlement building in the West Bank for decades, outposts set up by settlers are illegal even under Israeli law.
After Israel's Supreme Court ordered the evacuation of the outpost in 2009, Haresha says it "joined hands with Regavim ... to file petition after petition" against Palestinian homes.
Then when the court ruled last August against the high-profile outpost Migron, Regavim began working with the outpost to flood Israeli courts with cases against Palestinian Bedouins inside Israel, the Haaretz daily reported at the time.
The petition that now threatens Susiya was filed in response to a 2010 case against the neighboring settlement, to enable villagers to access their lands safely, lawyer Quamar Mishirqi says.
Aftermath of an Israeli demolition in Susiya in November 2011. (MaanImages/EAPPI, File)
Regavim has also directly petitioned against government removal of settler outposts. In April 2010 it won a case to halt the demolition of six homes in Har Bracha outpost near Nablus, according to the settler news site Arutz Sheva.
And Regavim joined the Binyamin settler council in filing for an injunction against demolition of Migron homes in 2011, Arutz Sheva said.Partnership
Binyamin’s local authority serves 42 settlements and outposts, including Migron and Haresha, and the Mevo Horon settlement, the stated hometown of Judea and Samaria Director Ovad Arad.
Israeli experts believe Regavim’s relationship to this state-supported settlement council props up its activities.
The group applied for support from Binyamin, recent documents submitted by Regavim to the Israeli Registrar of Associations show.
Regavim’s latest report says it received 1,861,987 shekels ($490,000) in “partnership” contributions in 2010.
Financial and legal experts who reviewed the documents described the organization’s financial reporting as deliberately obscure.
But they said the relevant regulations indicate this bulk of revenues are from such publicly funded municipal councils.
The group’s leadership by no means shy from public life. Director-General Eliyahu also works as an assistant to the mayor of the same Binyamin council, Avi Roeh.
Regavim Director Betzalel Smotrich, who lives in Tulkarem-district settlement Kedumim, is the organizer of the joint forum of settler committees in the northern and central West Bank.
In January, Eliyahu was elected to the central committee of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Smotrich was a candidate for the far-right National Union party in Israel's 2009 elections.
The organization is well-connected throughout the settlements. In official documents, the group lists a professional connection to Komemiyut, a right-wing group, with which it shares a number of founding members.
According to Haaretz, one of Komemiyut’s board members is Kiryat Arba Rabbi Dov Lior, who was arrested in 2011 in connection to the banned book "The King's Torah," which justifies killing non-Jews under certain circumstances.
Meanwhile, Eliyahu also sits on the board of Amana, a company that grew out of the religious-Zionist movement Gush Emunim and sponsors Jewish settlements in the West Bank as well as communities in Israel.
The group’s lawyers are also prominent in the outpost movement. Regavim gives its main legal contact as Doron Nir Tsvi, based in the Havat Yair outpost and lawyer to another settler council head, Gershon Mesika, the chairman of the Samaria Regional Council.
Another Regavim lawyer, Amir Fischer, has also represented Migron in its fight against Palestinian land-owners, according to The Jerusalem Post newspaper. Re-branding and growing
The group has mushroomed in recent years. Legal costs rose 34-fold in three years, from 7,939 shekels ($2,114) in 2007 to 274,397 shekels ($73,075) in 2010. This excludes strategy and research costs which topped 495,566 shekels ($131,975) in 2010.
To date, the money has funded over 20 cases targeting Palestinian construction in the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Negev, including suits against mosques in Burin and a Bedouin school near Ramallah.
According to its vision statement, these cases aim to "prevent foreign elements from taking over the Jewish People’s territorial resources," but its remit is under development.
After a re-branding in 2009 -- the original name, "National Movement to Protect Lands," was deemed too controversial according to documents from the time -- the group has variously self-defined as an environmental protection and anti-corruption organization, and lately as a research institute and think tank.
This latest description appears in Regavim’s new English-language newsletter, part of its early 2012 drive to reach out to the world with an international department and an English website.
Its launch on the international scene looks ripe to bring fresh scrutiny of the group’s professed commitment to equality before the law.
Eliyahu "violates the law every day through his place of residence ... requesting the use of the law against others for the sole reason that they have a different nationality," Susiya's lawyers wrote in response to the Regavim petition.
The group posits a "false symmetry between the legal status of protected persons living on their own private land, and the Israeli residents of the unauthorized outposts on occupied territory," the response continues.
The strategy appears to be working.
Lawyers representing Palestinian communities slated for demolition say it is harder to get injunctions for demolition orders, and that court dates have been expedited to before August, the deadline prompted by one Regavim case.
Under international law, Palestinians living under occupation cannot be displaced, and all Israeli settlements built on occupied land are illegal.
But Regavim’s lawyers have twisted this on its head. Its legal petitions describe Palestinian villages as "outposts" and their residents as "trespassers".
"We are trying to spread the truth about the land in Judea and Samaria," Regavim northern director Meir Deutsch told Ma'an, adding that he was unable to discuss their work in more detail.
Nawaja, whose entire village now faces demolition due to Regavim’s petition, has a different analysis. “Wherever they find a Palestinian home, in Israel or Jerusalem or the West Bank, they ask the court to demolish it,” he says.Abdul-Hakim Salah contributed to this report.