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Settlements in Focus - Vol. 3, Issue 4: "Interview with Hagit Ofran, New Settlement Watch Director"

After two years on the staff of Peace Now's Settlement Watch, Hagit Ofran earlier this month was appointed the team's director.

Hagit Ofran - New Settlement Watch Director

Settlements in Focus

Interview with Hagit Ofran, New Settlement Watch Director (Vol.3, Issue 4)
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

After two years on the staff of Peace Now's Settlement Watch, Hagit Ofran earlier this month was appointed the team's director.

Ofran, who grew up in a religiously observant family in Jerusalem, is not a typical Peace Now activist (although she has been one for more than ten years). She loves the West Bank for the same reason that the settlers love it: She's as religiously and emotionally attached to it as they are. She is as well-versed in the scenes that the bible says took place on the hills of Judea (in the southern part of the West Bank) and the valleys of Samaria (in the northern part). In fact, if you ask her why she took this job with Peace Now, one of the reasons she gives is that it gives her a chance to immerse herself in these very special parts of the Land of Israel. Another reason she gives, however, is her deep conviction that "the only way for the state of Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic is to pull out of the territories. It's as simple as that." Love for the land of Israel, she says, ought not blind one to the best interests of the state of Israel and to the moral values on which it stands.

Ofran, age 32, combines her work for Peace Now with political activism in the Meretz-Yahad party, led by longtime leader of the Israeli left, Knesset Member Yossi Beilin. Ofran is a member of the party's directorate and was president of its Youth Council. Her focus, for years, has been fighting to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Ofran is the granddaughter of Hebrew University Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the famed philosopher and theologian, who is widely known for his prophetic views regarding the occupation of the West Bank. Leibowitz was the first public figure to warn, immediately after the 1967 War, of the severe demographic, moral and political repercussions of Israel's ruling over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. "My grandfather was very important for me. He had a very strong influence on who I am," she says.

To welcome Hagit as the new leader of Peace Now's Settlement Watch and to introduce her to readers of Settlements in Focus, SIF interviewed Ofran earlier this month:

SIF: What brought you to Peace Now and Settlement Watch?

Ofran: Although I joined the organization when I was 21 years old, I can say that in many ways I grew up in Peace Now. Peace Now gave me many opportunities to take part in organizing events, in thinking about how we can make a difference, and taught me a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the political system in Israel. When Dror Etkes, the outgoing director, asked me to join him in the Settlement Watch Team, almost two years ago, I was very happy for the opportunity. I truly feel privileged to have been given this task and I hope to perform in the best way possible.

SIF: What makes you feel passionate about your work?

Ofran: First of all I love to travel in Eretz Yisrael. At Settlement Watch we have to travel quite a lot. I am Israeli. I don't see my life in any other place than Israel, and here is where I want to live. I know it might sound a little bombastic, but I truly believe that the only way to guarantee our future in this country (and in many ways our present, as well), is if we end the occupation and end the conflict between us and the Palestinians. I believe it is possible. I feel strongly that it is my obligation to do what I can to get there.

SIF: Given your religious upbringing and your emotional attachment to the land of the Bible, do you ever feel ambivalent about fighting to reverse the settlement enterprise?

Ofran: I do feel attached to this land. Many times I think how lucky I am to have a job that sends me to travel and explore these beautiful views of the Holy Land, in which every hill and every stone holds a story of my people's history and therefore a part of my identity. I do not feel ambivalent about my connection to this land, but I do feel very sad and sometimes frustrated to see every day what the occupation is doing to the Jewish values that I grew up on.

SIF: What are your future plans for Settlement Watch?

Ofran: Dror Etkes had taken the Settlement Watch project to new fields of influence. He brought us to a stage where we can put significant pressure on the system through legal action. That includes not only the petitions to the Supreme Court but also the constant "bugging" of the authorities with letters and questions which sometimes force them into action. With time, we became more and more efficient at this work. I am planning to continue doing that. I also see protest activities, on-the-ground in the West Bank, as a central task. It is very hard to bring up to public awareness what is going on in the occupied territories. Collecting information and writing reports - important or interesting as they may be - is not enough for mobilizing public opinion. Luckily we have an excellent team in Peace Now. Our coordinators in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva are doing a great job in bringing more and more activists, especially young people, to the movement. I hope that we will manage to capitalize on this advantage and increase our protest activities in the territories. Another very important task is to bring the political parties to be more involved. It is very hard to make a significant influence if you don't have the political level to echo and strengthen your activity. Another issue which I consider as very important is to strengthen our cooperation with other organizations. We have very good connections with human-rights groups and other peace organizations. We gain a lot from their knowledge and contacts. I hope to strengthen these contacts to benefit our joint objectives.

SIF: When asked why they don't do more to stop settlement activity and to remove the illegal outposts, Israeli politicians often say that reversing the settlement enterprise is not what would really bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians and therefore it is not such a key issue. Peace Now obviously doesn't agree. Why does Peace Now view the settlements as such a cardinal issue?

Ofran: True, I don't know if freezing settlement activity while doing nothing else could bring about a political breakthrough. However, it is impossible to have any such breakthrough without freezing settlement activity. I think that on this matter, many Israelis fail to understand how significant the settlement activity is in the eyes of the Palestinians. For many Israelis, in Oslo "we gave the Palestinians everything." Israelis often say that as part of the Oslo process, we withdrew from the main cities of the West Bank, we let the Palestinians established the Palestinian Authority, and what we got in return was another intifada. However, in the eyes of the Palestinians, all Oslo did was let Israel rid itself of the obligation to meet the civil needs of the Palestinians. Israel never gave up the expansion of the settlements. Since 1993, when the Oslo agreements were signed, the number of settlers in the West Bank has doubled. More Israelis moved into the settlements after the Oslo agreement than before it. The message that the Israeli government's policy sends to the Palestinians is clear: we have no intention to withdraw from the occupied territories and this is why we are building there.

The settlements, therefore, are truly one of the main reasons for the continuation of the conflict. Many of the harsh measures of the occupation (mainly restrictions on the movement of Palestinians) are a direct outcome of the need to protect the settlers. The price that Israel is paying every day for protecting the settlements, and the price it will have to pay in future measures that will be needed for the evacuation of the settlements, is getting higher every day. This is why we have to fight against the settlement activity.

Produced by Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now; and Ori Nir, Spokesman, Americans for Peace Now