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London event starring pro-settler group has rightfully sparked controversy

UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), which frequently smears Palestine solidarity campaigners and charities with false allegations of promoting “antisemitism” and links to “extremism”, will this Sunday host an official from a notorious Israeli organisation that believes all of the West Bank belongs to Israel. 

The event in London will see Israeli settler activist Naomi Linder Kahn, from the right-wing advocacy group Regavim, give a talk on “the struggle to preserve Israel’s land”.

On its site, UKLFI describes Regavim as “an Israeli research-based think tank and lobbying group”. In reality Regavim is a diehard opponent of Palestinian self-determination and international law.

Anti-Palestinian racism

This isn’t exactly a secret; the cover of its 2018 annual report depicts the entire West Bank as part of Israel. In 2012, the then-director of its international department Ari Briggs, stated: “The position of Regavim (is that) there is no (Israeli) occupation.”

Regavim is unsurprisingly a vocal advocate of expanding illegal settlements – indeed, the organisation was founded in response to a case brought by Peace Now against an unauthorised outpost. Regavim’s office is itself in a settlement southeast of Ramallah.

The bulk of Regavim’s work is focused on petitioning the state to issue and carry out demolition orders against structures built by Palestinians without the required permits – both in the West Bank and regions inside the 1967 lines, such as the Naqab.

Palestinians build “illegally” due to a notoriously discriminatory planning regime, and it is instructive that Regavim sees itself – as co-founder and now Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich put it – “as serving alongside the government of Israel” in its mission. It has also received public funds.

Regavim’s practical work – monitoring, legal petitions, parliamentary advocacy – is shaped by an anti-Palestinian racism that echoes the rhetoric of the European and North American far-right.

Shocking inversion

In one disturbing example from a 2017 document, Regavim rails against “Arab settlement and its spreading tentacles throughout Israel”. One of the group’s videos shows the mere presence of Palestinians as a threat, while another depicts Palestinians planting an olive sapling as a form of terrorism.

The inversion is shocking. Palestinians are living in their land – building, planting trees – and have the absolute right to do so. Settlers on the other hand are participating in a war crime by being there.

“Ever so quietly, without the roar of battle and clamor of war, the Jewish People is being robbed of the Land of Israel,” reads a piece called “The Silent Conquest” on Regavim’s website. “On this battlefield cement mixers have replaced tanks … and innocent-looking civilians replace uniformed soldiers.”

Aside from the depiction of Palestinian civilians as combatants, what’s striking once more is the inversion of the reality of colonisation. There are actual tanks in the West Bank – Israeli ones. The main cement mixers are Israeli and the civilians being moved in are Israeli settlers.

Fundamentally, Regavim’s anti-Palestinian hostility is driven by a belief that all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is “Jewish land”. As its website states: “Israel is losing its hold on the Jewish people’s lands. This is not happening only on the far side of the country, but here, in the very heart of Israel and in the heart of the consensus areas, in the Galilee, in the Negev [Naqab], in Jerusalem, in the coastal plain Triangle and in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].”

Combatting BDS

In a 2013 interview, Regavim stressed the need to “preserve a Jewish majority in Israel and to preserve the physical grip of that majority over the country’s land”, as well as to “prioritise Jewish agriculture and settlement of the land”. As Briggs put it, Regavim is “keeping Jewish lands in Jewish hands”.

So, why would UKLFI want to give a platform to such an organisation?

Founded in 2011 UKLFI is in its own words, an “association of lawyers” who “invok[e] laws in support of Israel and against Israel’s enemies”. In “combatting” the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, it “work[s] closely with other pro-Israel organisations in the UK and around the world”.

UKLFI has repeatedly launched smear campaigns against organisations, ranging “from academics to students’ unions, architects to local councils” who express support for Palestinian rights, “by lodging complaints with regulatory bodies and sending letters threatening legal action”.

UKLFI chief executive Jonathan Turner has attempted to dismiss concerns over the Regavim event by claiming that UKLFI hosts “speakers from the left and right of the Israeli political spectrum”. The UKLFI website says it “is not aligned with any particular political viewpoint or party in the UK or Israel”.

There are, however, signs of a convergence of views between UKLFI and Regavim – in particular, on efforts to normalise Israel’s discriminatory settlement enterprise.

A 2012 report co-written by UKLFI, claims that “under international law Israel has more right to that territory [the whole area between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea] than today’s Palestinian Arabs”. The report also rejects the status of the West Bank as “occupied territory”.

Promoting the occupation

In 2017, UKLFI tweeted at then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson: “Why do you buy into the false narrative that settlements are illegal and on occupied Palestinian land?” The same month, UKLFI tweeted: “Time to reframe. World has for too long been fed the lie that ‘settlements’ are illegal.”

But the settlements’ illegality under international law isn’t a “false narrative” to “reframe” – it is the longstanding position of the UN Security Council, International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, and practically every single world government, including the UK.

UKLFI’s hosting of Regavim has been slammed by liberal Zionist advocacy group Yachad, whose criticism was amplified by well-known Israeli lawyer and non-profit founder Daniel Seidemann.

“Yachad’s challenging of Regavim & its warm welcome by parts of the UK Jewish community very important,” he wrote on Twitter. “Regavim is directly responsible for implementing & promoting the most egregious aspects of occupation. Feting Regavim is to become actively complicit in an aggressive occupation.”

Publishes first by Middle East Eye.

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