Tracking illegal Arab construction, one EU-funded house at a time
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Tracking illegal Arab construction, one EU-funded house at a time

Regavim, the right-wing equivalent of Peace Now, says Europe is using an impoverished Bedouin population to create political facts on the ground

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

An outhouse funded by the EU in Arareh, east of Jerusalem, April 29, 2015. (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
An outhouse funded by the EU in Arareh, east of Jerusalem, April 29, 2015. (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Two biblical verses look down from the conference room wall of Regavim, an Israeli NGO that monitors and reports on illegal Arab construction in Israel and the West Bank. The first, taken from the book of Genesis, sums up the organization’s motivation, iterated in the words of God to Abraham: “All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring, forever.”

The second, epitomizing Regavim’s modus operandi, quotes from the first chapter of Isaiah: “Zion will be delivered with justice.” Regavim – Israel Independence Fund was founded in 2006 by newly elected Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich and Yehuda Eliyahu in response to a September 2005 Supreme Court case brought by Peace Now against the illegal outpost of Harasha in Samaria.

Today, with a staff of 10 working from offices at the Sha’ar Binyamin Industrial Zone southeast of Ramallah, Regavim defines its mission as “setting a Zionist agenda for the State of Israel, with an emphasis on the land and its management and preservation.” In practical terms, that means deploying dozens of volunteers to the field and using sophisticated aerial footage to track Arab building violations.

Most recently, the group has chosen to focus on the European Union and its massive funding of illegal Bedouin construction in areas east of Jerusalem, commonly known as E-1. According to a report published in January titled “Illegal EU building in Adumim Region,” over the past two years the European Union has helped erect hundreds of illegal structures in area C of the West Bank, administratively controlled by Israel, in violation of Israeli building laws.

Illegally-constructed structures in the hamlet of Arareh, east of Jerusalem, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Illegally constructed structures in the hamlet of Arareh, east of Jerusalem, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“One could never imagine that Germany would fund the building of thousands of illegal dwelling places in the suburbs of Paris as a ‘permanent solution’ for the Roma living in France, in complete opposition to the policy and laws of France,” claimed the report’s introduction.

Beyond its genuine concern for the well-being of the poorest Palestinians, the EU is politically motivated to entrench the Jahallin Bedouin on the strategic tracts of land they currently settle in order to maintain Arab contiguity between the northern and southern West Bank, Regavim argued. But the organization takes issue not only with Europe, but also with Israel’s bureaucracy and legal system which allows the situation to continue unabated.

“Europe has decided to go it alone, and Israel has decided to allow it,” said Ari Biggs, Regavim’s director of international relations. The EU did not submit a response to Regavim’s allegations by time of publication.

Water pipes from France, solar panels from the EU

In the Bedouin hamlet of Jahallin-‘Ar’arah, just off Highway 1 leading from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea, raw sewage streamed between makeshift tin shacks and animal pens. On Tuesday, many outhouses and other structures in the village displayed prominent EU stickers.

The Jahallin migrated from the area of Arad in the northern Negev after being driven out by Israel in the early 1950s. Deifallah, 65, a shepherd and community leader, said that while Israeli restrictions on new construction continue to be imposed, a new water pipeline donated by French NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF) two years ago has ended the need to travel long distances to filling stations. Water is provided for free by the Palestinian Authority, which then compensates Israeli water company Mekorot.

Six months ago, Palestinian organization Arij provided solar panels to the entire community, fulfilling its energy needs. Deifallah said the panels were donated by the EU.

Deifallah, 65, the village elder of Jahallin-Arareh, stands next to his makeshift home east of Jerusalem, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Deifallah, 65, the village elder of Jahallin-Arareh, stands next to his makeshift home east of Jerusalem, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“The purpose is to make life easier for the students studying at night,” he told The Times of Israel. “Every two or three homes received a panel.” The only regular interface between the Bedouin tribe and the Palestinian Authority, Deifallah added, is the school bus that arrives daily to pick up students studying in Jerusalem.

A cynical foundation gone serious

In its daily routine, Regavim mirrors Israeli left-wing NGOs such as Peace Now, Ir Amim and Bimkom, who for years have been documenting illegal Jewish construction in the West Bank and bringing their findings to Israel’s High Court for redress. That’s a comparison which Meir Deutsch, Regavim’s director of policy and government relations, feels uncomfortable with.

“We react to reality, not to other organizations and people,” he said, though he acknowledged that Regavim has adopted the left’s modes of operation. “The left would go to court and paint a picture as though all the illegal construction in Israel is done by Jews in illegal outposts in Judea and Samaria. Regavim was created to display the entire picture, and say ‘let’s talk about illegal construction.’ Let’s talk about 70,000 illegal structures in the south, let’s talk about 40,000 illegal structures in the north. According to Peace Now’s statistics, there are approximately 3,000 illegal structures in the [Jewish] outposts. So let’s keep things in perspective.”

Meir Deutsch, director of policy and government relations at Regavim, at the organization's office in Sha'ar Binyamin, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Meir Deutsch, director of policy and government relations at Regavim, at the organization’s office in Sha’ar Binyamin, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Deutsch said Regavim emerged with the understanding that Israeli courts are increasingly defining policy on cardinal issues to Israel’s existence rather than interpreting it.

“It doesn’t matter what you put in the ballot box, reality is determined in court,” he said. “The Supreme Court has stopped being only the judiciary and has become the executive as well.” Although Regavim was created to highlight the courts’ left-wing bias on land issues, it soon began taking its own alarming findings much more seriously.

Ovad Arad, director of field operations at Regavim, surveys a map of the West Bank provided by the Israeli Civil Administration, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Ovad Arad, director of field operations at Regavim, surveys a map of the West Bank provided by the Israeli Civil Administration, April 29, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

“At first, we went south as a means to help Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, to say ‘look what’s they’re doing over there,'” Deutsch added. But we quickly realized that there’s a serious problem that needs solving. There are strategic issues at hand, irrespective of the [Jewish] outposts. We’ve changed our mindset; now we believe that anything illegal should be dealt with.”

That treatment is being undertaken by Regavim with increasingly sophisticated means. The organization has access to the Civil Administration’s database, regularly tracking illegal construction using detailed maps provided by the government on CDs. A small drone owned by the organization and equipped with a Go-Pro camera flies over Arab communities across the country on a daily basis, documenting any change on the ground. In addition, Regavim periodically purchases high-resolution aerial footage from a commercial Israeli company. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIel8nK9SyE

“We aren’t here to replace the state, but rather to bring it to the places it refuses to go to,” said Ovad Arad, Regavim’s director of Field Operations. “We want to put a mirror in front of it and say ‘this is the situation.'”

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