Colonel Richard Kemp is one of the most regular commentators on military issues in the UK news. His claimed expertise is broad, ranging from commenting on Prince Harry’s memoirs, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to Ireland’s defence budget, to his impassioned claim that frontline female soldiers would ‘put lives at risk’. He’s the sort of retired officer that journalists go to when on deadline, knowing he’ll perform a certain role.
But when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Col Kemp is in a field of his own. In the last month alone at least 80 national and international news outlets have cited his opinion on the unfurling horror of Gaza and Israel, ranging from the BBC to The Telegraph, Newsweek to the Daily Mail. Throughout he is unrelentingly pro-Israel.
Why is this a concern you might ask?
Because, when interviewed, Col Kemp is routinely presented as an independent military expert, giving his opinion from the position of a retired British Army colonel. For example, on 30 October, BBC’s Newsnight introduced him as ‘former army officer and terrorism expert who sat on the government’s joint intelligence committee’.
What is not made clear to viewers and readers – and may well be unknown by those interviewing him – is that Col Kemp is also the director and trustee of an organisation which directly raises money for – and appears to be simultaneously funded by – the Israeli Defence Force.
He is also a man who, in a recent interview, described how he “cannot stop marveling (sic) at the ingenuity and bravery of the Israeli defense (sic) establishment.” In Israel, the report claimed, “all he needs is a long gun” and that “he’d love to pick up a weapon and join (the IDF)”. He describes himself as a Zionist.
Kemp has every right to raise money for and support whoever he wishes, but news consumers also have the right to know that he is not commenting as an impartial observer.
When you look at his commentary and past, it is clear that Col Kemp could be called a quasi-spokesperson for the IDF. Certainly he is a big fan.
This should be made explicit. Indeed, to ensure balance, news outlets that are governed by the OFCOM code of impartiality that interview Kemp for his military perspective (like the BBC) might also need to present the views of a military expert who is not a cheerleader for the IDF (in the case of BBC’s Newsnight, they did offer up an alternative voice).
The trouble is, these broadcasters might not know how embedded Col Kemp is with Israel. Yes, his website highlights his role as a board member of Friends of Israel Initiative, and NGO Monitor (a Jerusalem-based organisation focused on countering NGO criticism of Israeli government policy at the UN). But what it does not mention is that Kemp is also a Director and Trustee of the UK Friends of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers (UK-AWIS).
AOAV asks: why not?
Our concern is, we believe, valid. UK-AWIS is one of several international ‘fellow’ organisations of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers (AWIS). AWIS is an Israeli organisation managed by the IDF and currently headed by General Yoram Yair. Since 2015, AWIS has also incorporated the LIBI Fund, the ‘official’ fund of the IDF established in 1980 by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin and IDF Chief of Staff Rafel Eitan. Today, AWIS-LIBI is the direct and only avenue for public and charitable donations to be made directly to IDF units and individual soldiers. ‘Donation recruitment’ (aka fundraising) for AWIS is entirely funded by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and public donations are allocated according to ‘pre-set targets and the IDF’s priorities’. The IDF Human Resources department approves and handles the implementation of all donations to AWIS. AWIS is, essentially, part of the IDF.
Although it is a registered not-for-profit organisation ostensibly devoted to the well-being of IDF personnel (specifically, IDF combat soldiers), AWIS appears to blur the boundary between individual soldiers’ welfare and IDF institutional benefit. It is notable that the AWIS website describes itself first and foremost as an avenue ‘through which donations can be made directly to IDF soldiers and IDF units’. Its role ‘conducting activities for the well-being of Israel’s soldiers’ is listed second.
UK-AWIS, the charity part run by Col Kemp, has the same mixed purpose. According to its articles of association, its mission is to ‘relieve need and suffering of Israeli soldiers and their families’ as well as to support their education and provide recreation facilities. However, once again the line between individual soldier welfare and IDF central funding appears to be blurred.
Potential donors visiting the UK-AWIS website can make donations for various ‘welfare’ items for combat soldiers including the construction of gyms and the provision of scholarships.
The main splash of the website home page, however, is more explicit. It invites visitors directly to ‘Donate to the IDF NOW!’, with a button linking directly to an IDF ‘wish list’ of core medical equipment. Other donation options which appear directed towards the IDF as a whole include ‘Adopt an IDF combat unit’ (£75,000) or contribute to the ‘IDF Enlistment Festival’ (£140,000).
Looking closer into its accounts, however, one might question who is really benefiting from Kemp’s charity’s money. UK-AWIS started the financial year 2021-2022 sitting on £468,018 and received a further £262,242 in donations.
UK-AWIS accounts state that its income comes from ‘donations, legacies and grants’. However, in response to our enquiries AWIS Israel confirmed that the Ministry of Defense pays for all overheads, including those of UK-AWIS, ‘as they are basically our fellow organization’. This means that as well as raising and transferring funds to the IDF, UK-AWIS also receives funds from the IDF. In fact, assuming it is correct that the IDF pays all of UK-AWIS overheads, UK-AWIS may receive more from the IDF than it gives back in donations. That is not an efficient fundraising model.
Over the year to 31 March 2022, UK-AWIS spent £157,638 – 53 per cent of its expenditure – on governance and fundraising. For comparison, in the same year the British Red Cross spent 26 per cent of its expenditure on equivalent fundraising and governance costs, and Cancer Research UK spent 20 per cent. Many smaller charities spend much less: Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), for instance, spent 5 per cent of its funds on fundraising in 2022.
Just 47 per cent of UK-AWIS expenditure went towards its stated charitable purposes in 2022 (£110,202 was given directly to AWIS in Israel, £11,620 to scholarships for former IDF combat soldiers, and £16,930 on unspecified ‘consultancies’).
The organisation’s annual Trustee report and financial statements declare that the directors and trustees did not receive any financial remuneration for their time. There is, however, no information identifying the ‘consultancies’ benefiting from £33,859 of UK-AWIS governance funds or who spent the £8,974 on ‘hotels and travel’. We know from his media appearances, that Col Kemp is a regular visitor to Israel and Palestine, touring IDF units and conducting speaking engagements.
Who is paying for this? We do not know.
Moreover, UK-AWIS ended the year 2022 with £464,942 unrestricted funds in the bank. Typically, a UK charity is expected to have a maximum of 12 months’ funds held in its reserves. Based on its governance and support costs in 2022, UK-AWIS holds the equivalent of five years’ worth of reserves. Or to put it another way, enough to adopt six IDF combat units for three years each.
Overall, Col Kemp has done nothing illegal. This is not the claim of this article. However, questions remain about his transparency and that of his organisation.
The BBC, in response to such concerns, told AOAV: “Colonel Richard Kemp was invited to talk on Newsnight to talk about security concerns in the UK. Although the discussion wasn’t directly about conflict in Israel and Gaza, it took place within that context and as such we should have made his connections with Israel clear in the interview.”
But other questions remain outstanding.
Why does the IDF give more in funding to UK-AWIS than it receives from UK-AWIS in donations? And why isn’t the IDF named as a source of funds on UK-AWIS accounts? Is Kemp one of the consultants being paid by UK-AWIS, and therefore, by the IDF? Why doesn’t he mention his role at UK-AWIS on his website or in interviews?
And, most importantly, do bookers and newspaper editors know about Col Kemp’s ties to the IDF and shouldn’t this be included in the way he is described in editorials and commentary pieces?
AOAV believes these questions should be answered.
We approached Col Kemp and UK-AWIS for comment but they did not reply to our request for a right to reply.
A version of this article was published by Open Democracy.
Watch the BBC Newsnight interview with Col Kemp on the 30 October 2023 below:
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