Peace Now's Settlement Watchdog

Once a week, Hagit Ofran granddaughter of the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz tours the West Bank as head of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project. Israel's policy in the territories, she says, is putting us all at risk.

Gitit Ginat
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Gitit Ginat

The scene: 500 meters from the road stands a Palestinian ghost town whose construction was halted during the intifada. Behind it stands a hill and beyond that is Bir Zeit. There are 20 houses, nearly complete on the outside and dark on the inside. Also there is a dirt road that leads from the main road to the half-finished neighborhood, which is closed off with a gate and iron padlock. There are also solar water heaters. Four of them. Perhaps settlers are hiding there?

Settlers rebuilding the Migron outpost in the West Bank after it was demolished by the IDF, April 27, 2010.Credit: AP

“There are boilers,” Hagit Ofran explains patiently. “But those are Palestinian boilers. The settlers’ boilers look different.”

How do you know?

Ofran: “You learn.”

Ofran has come here after receiving reports that settlers were squatting in the empty buildings. For now, from afar, she doesn’t spot any signs of them, however. She decides to go closer. On the way up the dirt road she stops and says: “A bullet casing. Soldiers come here. And here’s an old lightstick. Soldiers waited here at night for the settlers. If we find rubber bullets here, we’ll know there was a Palestinian demonstration and the soldiers shot at them.”

What else do you see here?

“I’m looking at the access roads. They tell all kinds of stories. Look at the dirt road that connects the main road with the ghost neighborhood. It’s closed off to cars. A settler would have to leave the car and go on foot. A family wouldn’t go on foot. Only young men and women would come here. All of this indicates that settlers would have a hard time maintaining a serious settlement presence here in a continuous and lasting way. My guess is that this ghost neighborhood will be a ‘summer camp’ for young people who keep coming and going here.”

Anything else?

“Sometimes it seems that settlers are creating new dirt roads. That can provide key information. But here I see that in the middle of the dirt road, where a car’s tires would pass, there is grass that is growing pretty high. Which means it wasn’t created recently.”
Doesn’t all this endless mapping get you down?

“No, because you can’t tell the whole story without all the details. It’s not that the Israeli public has to be interested in each and every olive tree or new trailer, but together they create a general picture of the expansion of construction in the West Bank, and about the support or lack of it from the army and the government.”

Leibowitz’s messiah

Hagit Ofran is head of the Peace Now Settlement Watch enterprise − the most comprehensive nongovernmental inspection project of construction in West Bank settlements. The DocAviv film festival that began yesterday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque will feature a film depicting Ofran’s work: Lea Klibanoff, the director, chose to call it “Hamashiah Tamid Yavo” ‏(“The Messiah Will Always Come”‏) to emphasize the future coming of the messiah in whom Ofran’s grandfather, the outspoken philosopher and scientist Yeshayahu Leibowitz, believed.

Ofran, 35, is the daughter of Mira Ofran, the third of Leibowitz’s six children. She vividly remembers the day her grandfather passed away, when she was 19: “I was about to go on a trip in the army. I was in uniform. Grandma Greta called and said she couldn’t wake up Grandpa. My mother went over and a while later called and told me that he’d died. When it happened I didn’t grasp the power of the connection between us. But the more time goes by, the more I examine my life, the more I see what an influence he was on me.”

Leibowitz was “the busiest man in the world, but he always had time [for us],” she continues. “We would laugh about it and repeat the saying, ‘In an empty house there’s no room for a broom,’ meaning someone who does nothing has time for nothing and someone who’s busy all the time finds time for everything. People of all ages would come up to him on the street to talk with him. In the middle of the conversation he would say, ‘You’re invited to continue this conversation at my house.’ There was always a guest in the house, but he always had a special place for the grandchildren. When we’d come over he would politely interrupt the guest and turn to us.”

Ofran is a very independent, ethical and determined person. At 15, she wanted to be equal to men in observance of the mitzvoth, or religious commandments. “I wanted to live in a world of equality among people, to put on phylacteries‏ and be counted in a minyan ‏(prayer quorum‏). I told myself that if the men in my community get up every morning to pray in the synagogue, then I’ll get up, too. Some female has to start.”

The memory makes her smile. “The light switch for the women’s section was located in the men’s section. Those jokers knew that I came every morning but only after I came in would somebody remember to flip the switch and turn on the light. Sometimes they didn’t remember and I would stand there in the dark.”

At 23, Ofran stopped being observant. A few years later, she joined a group of volunteers in the Settlement Watch project, which was launched in the early 1990s by Peace Now volunteers. They collected planning information and surveyed building sites, and over time became practically the sole source of information for the Israeli public regarding construction in the settlements. The project grew over the years; in the mid-’90s a permanent, managerial position evolved. Ofran says that Dror Etkes, her predecessor in the post and currently coordinator of the Lands Project for Yesh Din, an advocacy organization that fights for Palestinian rights, “contributed years of development and a lot of professionalism.”

During the second intifada, when it was more dangerous to roam about the area, the movement hired light aircraft and its personnel would fly over the settlements at a low altitude. Ofran, who worked with Etkes then as a volunteer, recalls joining one of the flights: “The plane looked like the car we’re sitting in now, except for the fact that it had wings. We would open the window and take pictures. These aerial surveys were very efficient. In three or four hours you could photograph everything that was going on in the field.”

However, about six years ago, the air force ordered a halt to all low-altitude flights in the West Bank because of the security risk. Peace Now found another solution: aerial photos supplied by a private company.

Ofran, who replaced Etkes in 2007, goes out for a tour of the West Bank once a week. “Why won’t you let me in?” is one of the questions that is repeated frequently on these outings − when she meets guards at the gates to settlements who recognize her, or have heard about her or seen her photograph. In “The Messiah Will Always Come” these scenes become even more dramatic: Klibanoff’s video camera has made those it captures in the lens act like vampires exposed to the light of day. The camera was actually stolen by a settler in Upper Modi’in, while being used to film Palestinians who’d been badly beaten; it was later returned.

For her part, Ofran says she has experienced “unpleasant moments, and even some spitting and cursing” on a number of occasions, but never felt she was in any real danger.

On other days, in the office, she assembles a portrait of the construction in the territories from all of the sources of information she has: field surveys, aerial photos that are compared to earlier pictures, phone calls from similar organizations, rarer calls from Israelis whose consciences are bothering them, and more frequent calls from settlers embroiled in disputes with their neighbors or their local council.

Ofran: “Aside from publishing updates and reports, we report to the authorities on illegal activity, on a case-by-case basis − to the Defense Ministry, the Civil Administration, the Israel Police, government ministers and other organizations. Only in a very few instances, when there is no other way to get the authorities to pay serious attention, do we appeal to the High Court of Justice.”

Bureaucratic obstacle

The picture pieced together by Ofran is more revealing than any picture Israelis are likely to get from any government institution.

“The Civil Administration is responsible for inspecting construction in the settlements,” she explains. “In addition, all the ministries are involved in the construction − each in its specific field. Therefore, the government should have very clear and comprehensive information, but it is not interested in putting this all together and revealing a clear picture. It would rather leave [the information] as it is, all scattered and disparate. The immediate obstacle is bureaucratic: In the wake of several inquiries from us, we found that government functionaries didn’t have access to documents that gave a detailed account of the investment in the settlements. Of course, the information could be found.The data might be in an Excel chart and just need to be extracted and organized.”

And there’s also the obstacle of the “security risks” argument. In 2006, Ofran and Etkes formulated the “One Violation Leads to Another” document, which appears on the Peace Now Web site. At the time, this was the most thorough report ever issued concerning the status of the lands in the West Bank, whether state lands ‏(whose status is a matter of controversy‏), privately owned Palestinian lands, or other properties.

“As a basis for writing the report, we wanted to have a map, but the Civil Administration refused to give one to us for fear, it said, of harming Israel’s foreign relations and security,” Ofran explains. “We went to the High Court with the claim that this was a violation of the law of freedom of information, and the court ordered the Civil Administration to provide us with the material. Up to that point, Israelis could not find out on how much private Palestinian land the settlements were built. From that point on, Israelis could learn that about one-third of the settlements are built on such land.”

The more important question is, do more than a third of Israelis care, and will those who do care do more than just click their tongues upon hearing this information.

“True, when the report was published I waited for a media and political earthquake to follow. Haaretz did publish it on the front page, but it wasn’t mentioned in Yedioth [Ahronoth] at all and there was just a very brief item in Maariv. Reshet Bet radio contacted us only after learning that an item in The New York Times about the report was making waves. It’s very frustrating when the real target audience you’re aiming for is the Israeli public and not the American public. Because no [President Barack] Obama is going to make the difference. If Israelis don’t want to return the territories they won’t be returned.

“I guess I’ve learned that the issue of legality in the territories really doesn’t interest most Israelis. This is why it’s so easy for the outposts to get built. I’ve scaled back my ambitions. I’m less interested in showing Israelis how terrible the occupation is − because that only makes them come up with justifications and defenses − and more interested in showing what Israel’s interest is in returning territory. I’m focusing on exposing how badly the government is serving the public, how it is misleading it, and the risk at which it puts us.”

In your grandfather’s time, there wasn’t such direct access to the kind of information you’re supplying, but he was someone who created an ethos for mapping out a path. Today it seems that the “prophets of the left” have been replaced by lawyers and cartographers, people like you. How much do you miss his voice when you’re investigating construction in the territories?

“His voice flows in my veins so I don’t miss him. But it’s true that in the public discourse, this voice has difficulty being heard. I also gave up on ethical discourse and instead deal with what is happening in the territories as being a kind of ‘lousy customer service.’”
Have you ever thought about the peculiarity of the secular left’s attitude toward your grandfather? Some who defined themselves as thoroughly secular accepted the moral authority of someone whose entire outlook was religious.

“Among the secular who admired my grandfather were people who knew quite a lot about Judaism and could understand the deep meaning of his words, but there were also many others who knew nothing about it, which was always surprising and also disappointing. Secular Judaism is only about 200 years old. It doesn’t yet have enough content, it’s still in the process of taking shape. In the past 100 years it was concerned with building the state. Now it’s focused on the occupation. I agree that there is a fear that it could get to a point where it will not have a real identity any longer.”

A lot of secular people today talk about the loss of trust in the Palestinians.

“The solution is to work with the lack of trust. The thinking about a lack of trust should be the other way around: How is it possible not to place trust in the Palestinians and yet at the same time to go on living this way? You have to defend yourself against people you don’t trust. You have to make a pact with them in order to block them out. I think that most of the public still understands this. Surveys show that more than 60 percent of Israelis are ready for a peace agreement even though they don’t believe in it. If [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu were to hand over the territories tomorrow, the public that doesn’t believe in an agreement would support him.”

Large-scale deception

While these lines are being written, dozens more housing units are being built in the West Bank in this era of construction freeze. Indeed, Ofran keeps discovering all kinds of creative and surprising developments. For example, the freeze prohibits the construction of new projects, but permits the continuing construction of buildings whose foundations were already dug. A few months ago, she discovered a new phenomenon: fake building foundations. So far, she has counted 170 such examples.

Ofran: “They pour a thin layer of concrete on the ground to make it look as if the foundations were already dug, or they place iron bars over thin concrete surfaces as if a pillar was dug underneath.”

She calls this kind of ploy “child’s play” and reported on another, similar kind of game in late 2007. Then, the government had prohibited the transfer of new mobile homes to the settlements. In response, the settlers imported parts of such “caravans” ‏(walls, floors, windows‏) − and assembled them in the field. In six months they managed to build more than 100 new housing units in this fashion. In early March of this year, Akiva Eldar reported in Haaretz about another type of such “child’s play”: quarrying work in the middle of the night when there are no inspectors around. Ofran says that in some cases, as when Rabbi Avi Gisser of Ofra gave permission, work is even carried out on Shabbat.

She’s also developed sensitivity regarding land where there are no outward signs of construction, but this phenomenon is too serious to be called “child’s play.”
“A lot of the investment in the territories in recent years has been going into ‘agricultural occupation,’” Ofran explains. “Instead of building an outpost, they take over land and cultivate it. In terms of land grab, it’s the same as building an outpost, but it’s less noticeable to the eye, hard to quantify, and the freeze orders do not apply to it. A vast amount of territory is involved and I’m still in the initial stages of investigating and mapping it.

“This is deception on an enormous scale, but it’s self-deception,” she declares. “We are an independent and sovereign state, and therefore we are deceiving ourselves, and not the British, as with ‘tower and stockade’ maneuvers. The settlers, as I see it, are the real post-Zionists. In the name of the Land of Israel they are prepared to lose the state of Israel which is no longer important. The only important thing is land, the legacy of our forefathers. They won’t give that up even at the cost of having to live as a minority under foreign rule.”

Is that why you stopped being observant?

“No. That was an internal process. My grandfather had a big influence on my concept of faith. When I was a little girl, I might have thought for a moment that there was someone up in the sky, but as a teenager I understood there is no dialogue with this entity − only a dialogue with one’s self, in which I ask myself whether I’m ready to dedicate my life to observing the mitzvoth. I answered myself that I want to keep the mitzvoth in order to belong to the community, not merely for the sake of observing them. When I came to feel that this value was empty of meaning, I couldn’t go on living as someone who keeps doing empty things.”

Your grandfather could have used his charisma and knowledge to try to limit your opportunities to choose.

“But that’s not who he was. He taught me that a person is free and needs to make his own choices. At home, we were raised with questions, not answers. And in terms of answers, he was always ready to give a long and thought-provoking explanation that was rich in possibilities, which also had many questions interwoven in it, too.”
Still, it was hard for you to find another way, something that would be outside your grandfather’s circle of influence.

“Yes, though now I’m starting to see it. To a certain extent, it came from the encounter with the secular world. I realized that Judaism is a very central component of my life and that secularism hasn’t learned enough. In order to learn, the occupation must be ended. We’re investing all our spiritual and intellectual energies in controlling this thing [the occupation]. This is what elections in Israel are about, it’s what people talk about, fight about, and it’s taking the place of really developing and understanding what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century in a sovereign state. So a new and more moderate definition of the religious world and of Judaism was also born. A Judaism in which a person who travels on Shabbat and calls himself religious can call himself religious, as far as I’m concerned. It’s an understanding that came with time, an inner process that’s hard for me to put into words.”

Perhaps it’s hard to describe because it’s irrational.

“Yes. I guess my decision to leave the world of mitzvoth was not a rational decision.”

You talk about Judaism and Jewishness in the 21st century. Does this include God?

“I believe in something that is beyond my existence as a person, that obligates me in regard to the rest of the world.”

Not an entity that takes aerial photographs and compares them and finds how far you’ve fallen morally.

“No, it’s not something external. It’s something that exists within me.”



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