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"She who believes does not fear"

(Yedioth Ahronoth, 11/18/11, by Uri Misgav, p. B18 - Translation by Israel News)

Last Tuesday, Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now's Settlement Watch project, received a surprising visit.  Six settlers, members of the small "Eretz Shalom" [Land of Peace] movement, wished to express regret for the events of the day.  They were headed by Rabbi Menahem Froman, who despite his severe illness, insisted on holding the visit.

Supported by his son, the ill rabbi climbed the stairs to Ofran's apartment.  On the walls of the stairwell, the graffiti that had been smeared there the previous night could still be seen on the walls, in red and black, evidence of a much less friendly house call.  Froman and his supporters brought cans of paint with them and began to erase the graffiti, without much success.  Meanwhile, one of the group members stood at the entrance to the building, where the rioters had vandalized a car belonging to neighbors, which bore a sticker saying "Peace"--they punctured its four tires, sprayed the windshields with black paint and wrote "price tag" on the bumper.  With a brush and paint in hand, she tried to convince the car owner to permit her to turn the letters into flowers.

Ofran was moved by the gesture, and by phone calls voicing condemnation and shock, which came from settlers in Shilo and Efrat.  Just a few hours earlier, at 6:00 AM, a phone call from a neighbor woke her.  The call caught her at her brother's apartment in Tel Aviv, where she had spent the night.  "They scribbled on the walls again," the neighbor related.  Ofran received an update from another family in the building about the wording of the graffiti this time: "Givat Assaf's revenge," "Hagit Ofran, deceased," and "Ofran, Rabin is waiting for you."  The next day, the State of Israel marked the 16th anniversary of the prime minister's assassination.

I met her that morning at Rabin Square, leaning on a post, silently observing the new initiative of Peace Now Secretary General Yariv Oppenheimer: Gathering together ministers who served in the second Rabin government and laying a wreath on the memorial.

Ofran looked characteristically calm, composed, businesslike.  The cameras and the microphones paused near her.  This week, she said that "it was not pleasant, but mainly in the sense of being in the eye of the storm, at the front line.  I don't view these actions as a personal attack.  This is not an attack on my personality, but rather on my activity.  And I consider my activity a mission.  I bring the tidings: That the Zionist enterprise is in danger.  This is not something that is pleasant to hear, so people get angry at the messenger."

Q: Sometimes people also kill the messenger.

"I very much hope not.  I believe that most of the settler public is opposed to these things and condemns them.  The thing is that the discourse has become so inflammatory.  I see this as part of a general assault.  They are silencing people, trying to close organizations, passing insane laws.  What the hooligans do on the street with spray paint, the Knesset is doing with legislation.  This is a Knesset with spray paint on its hands."

Images from Arlozorov's funeral

On the first time the building in which Ofran was vandalized, several months ago, she requested not to reveal her identity.  The inscriptions on the walls at the time read "Migron price tag," "Revenge" and "Death to traitors."  This time, she saw no point in hiding and keeping things quiet.

In ordinary times she prefers to maintain a low profile, and is averse to publicity.  This is despite, or perhaps because, of her prestigious family lineage: She is the granddaughter of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a great Jewish sage, who immediately after the occupation of the territories in 1967 incisively foresaw the process of corruption and extremism that would overtake Israeli society.

She is 36 and lives in Jerusalem, a city that sometimes seems as if it has taken nine of ten measures of hatred and polarization [paraphrasing a saying from the Talmud, Kiddushin 49b: "Ten measures of beauty descended on the world--nine were taken by Jerusalem, one by the rest of the world"--INT].  Even on the way to the interview, in the taxi, the driver was listening to a current affairs program, and in response cursed Ben-Gurion, saying "may his name be blotted out in the grave."

Ofran's home is on Lincoln Street, which bears the name of an American president who was murdered by a political assassin.  The walls of the stairwell still bear the signs of the spraying and erasing.  There is no intercom, not even an entrance door.  A piece of printer paper is affixed to the door of her apartment, bearing her name.  If anyone is interested, it is not difficult to locate her.

The modest two-room apartment in which she lives on her own holds a bicycle and bookshelves laden with Jewish texts, including a full edition of the Babylonian Talmud.  On the old refrigerator, for some reason, hangs a photograph of the funeral procession of Haim Arlozorov, the victim of the first political assassination in the history of the Jewish Yishuv in the Land of Israel.  Masses of mourners can be seen in it, filling the streets of Tel Aviv.

Since her release from the IDF, she has been active in Peace Now.  From an early stage, she was drawn to dealing with the settlements, and in the past five years she has been in charge of this area, which in the absence of a real peace process has occupied a central place in the movement's activity.

"The job requirements are integrity, diligence and a great deal of courage," says Oppenheimer.  "Hagit and the volunteers in the project constitute the last barrier to the settlers, and put themselves on the line day after day, in order to leave any chance of ever separating into two states.

"Hagit fills a thankless but important and essential role, particularly in light of the situation in which the settlers feels that they are the bosses.  She comes from a background of strong values, succeeds in penetrating deep into the territory, communicating with the settlers, getting into their head and predicting which hilltop the next neighborhood will be built upon.

"The threats against her and other activists are worrying but not deterring.  The settlers have become accustomed to being the bosses in the territories, and now they are also trying to employ terror within Israel.  This is the face of the new generation in the territories.  After people grew up on the knees of Wallerstein, Levinger and Zambish, it is no wonder that they adopted violence and law-breaking as part of a legitimate method of action."

Ofran asserts that "monitoring the settlements means monitoring the chance of the Zionist enterprise to exist.  It is gradually being buried among the hilltops in Judea and Samaria, and in the end we will be too deeply immersed and will not be able to maintain a Jewish state here.  Instead of two states for two peoples there will be one state here, and this is the end of the Zionist enterprise.

"Construction continues all the time, and in the past two years it has been in the more isolated settlements.  Since the freeze they have become alarmed and have launched a boom of quick starts.  It is almost only religious people who move today from within the Green Line to settle.  The story of quality of life settlers does not exist anymore.  Even Ariel is no longer attractive to a public that does not consist of ideological settlers.

"I see secular settlements that are becoming empty, and instead of those who leave a religious group enters.  Along with this, there is a trend of governmental focus on Jerusalem.  After all, this is the heart of the conflict, and a compromise will have to be found here, but the government is investing a great deal of effort to prevent the possibility that this will happen."

Every week, in a Sisyphean effort, she tours the West Bank, but refuses the obvious photo-op, armed with a map and binoculars on a rocky hill in Samaria.  "This strengthens the image that people want to create for us," she explains, "as if we are standing against some kind of Israeli 'us.'  But a majority of the public says today what Peace Now was saying 20 years ago.  So perhaps people should listen to us now instead of 20 years ahead?  Our positions are very accepted, but the image is harsh, because we are subject to delegitimization."

Q: People say that you are informers.

"The right wing saw during disengagement that most of the public was not with it, and concluded that the route to returning to the center passes through delegitimization of the left wing.  If they depict the left wing as anti-Israeli, they will be recognized as Israelis.  This is a strategic attack.  There is almost no opposition in the Knesset, so who can the right wing shout at?  It is in power.  So it argues with civil society: Left wing organizations, peace movements, human rights NPOs."

Q: Speaking of NPOs, isn't there some sense to the foreign funding bill that the coalition is trying to pass?

"I would prefer for the government to make peace by itself, and then there would be no need for organizations.  It is preferable to promote peace through donations of friendly governments, than not to promote it at all.  And between you and me, it is not a problem of funding.  The MKs who introduced the bill simply don't want to hear different positions.  So let them pass a law against the existence of organizations and be done with it.  The preoccupation with funding is hypocrisy."

Sorry I worried them

On the previous Saturday night, Ofran addressed the participants of the rally in memory of Rabin.  A few days after the incitement reached her doorstep, the connection seemed natural.  "The organizers turned to me," she recreates.  "At first I reacted like I always react: 'Can't you find someone else?' But I don't want to strike a pose.  There is something very pleasant about all this support.  I was received in the square with great warmth, there was a lot of applause.

"I was very excited, I'm not using to giving speeches.  I didn't know how the words would come out of my mouth and whether I would find the right tone, but it came out all right.  I surprised myself.  In general, for every hateful online comment I received five supportive emails.  I discovered that we are a much larger camp than we tend to think.  Sometimes I believe the media that I am ostracized, but I can't let this take over."

Her first circle of support is the family.  Her parents, Nira and Avi, are retired academics.  The attacks on her worry them.  She also has six concerned brothers and sisters, some of whom are known.  For example Yanai Ofran, a doctor of information science at Bar-Ilan University.  Or Dr. Yishai Ofran, a physician at Rambam Hospital, who in the wake of the latest incident published an article in Makor Rishon that began with the words: "My sister's murderer walks among us.  I don't know his name or his address, I don't know his age... my sister's murderer is a quiet and unobtrusive young man... imbued with strong faith in his path.  His world is clear and simple, there is one truth in his world, he knows it and will not be limited in the means to its attainment."  Alongside this article, on the same page, appeared an article by Moshe Feiglin, who came out against the "hysteria" regarding price tag actions and their perpetrators. [...]

"I had a hard time with the fact that I placed them in the front lines," says Ofran, the only sister of seven who is non-religious.  "We all maintain a good relationship, and I feel bad about worrying them."

Q: Aren't you afraid?

"Personally, I don't feel the fear.  He who believes does not fear [alluding to the refrain of a popular Eyal Golan song].  In fact, write: She who believes does not fear.  This may be repression.  But I see how my surroundings worry about me, and because they are intelligent people, apparently there is cause for concern.  An encounter with hotheads could be dangerous for me.  I should be careful."

Q: So what do you do?

"Inside the apartment I feel safe, probably because they haven't gotten inside yet.  On the street I have become more alert and I look much more behind me and to the sides.  I also check the car before I get inside and look around to see if there's anyone around.  One thing is certain: I won't go on tours of the territories alone as I have done until now."

Q: Did you turn to the police?

"Of course.  They are investigating.  I know that the GSS is also involved.  They take this seriously.  They told me that more attention was being paid to my street.  They instructed me not to open my door to strangers, to close my windows.  They gave me a phone number to report any developments.

"The police have an important role, but the leadership and the public have a more important one.  In an atmosphere in which it has become illegitimate to say certain things, the activity also becomes unlawful.  This creates an opening for violence."

Q: Did you expect condemnations from the leadership?

"When this first happened, there was nothing.  This time I heard statements from the right wing too.  By Gidon Saar, Ruby Rivlin, even Limor Livnat, who immediately added, 'but you have to understand the right wing' and so forth.  I'm glad that they took the trouble to respond, but in a situation in which the public discussion is so polarized and there is an attempt to suppress opinions, decent people on the right wing should stand up and oppose the delegitimization, and certainly oppose violence.  And decent people on the left wing should present our position in a clear voice.  This is the responsibility of each and every person."

Q: Do you encounter violence on your tours?

"Sometimes.  In general, it is becoming increasingly frightening.  I try not to make direct contact, not to create a provocation, but I also want to know what is happening.  Sometimes they don't open the gate if they recognize me.  Not long ago, we traveled with a police escort to the settlement Neriya, near Talmon, and they didn't even let the police in.  They are violent not only against leftists, but also against the police and the IDF, and of course the Palestinians.  It is not personal against me.  There is a great deterioration in the level of violence.

"I recently saw pictures from a demonstrative tour we held in 2004 in Yitzhar.  Demonstrators are standing there, MKs are standing there, raising signs and flags, and the police are standing guard.  It wasn't so long ago.  Today there is no way that such an event would take place.  The police are afraid to go in there.

"They never let us demonstrate inside a settlement, and there are no more freely conducted tours.  When the guys from the Solidarity movement wanted to demonstrate in Anatot in response to the lynching that was done against them there, they had to go all the way to the High Court of Justice.  We live this reality every day, and we forget that once it didn't used to be this way."

Today we are buying you a book

When the conversation reaches her memories from her grandfather's house, it seems as if a different spirit rests upon her.  "The truth is that after the first incident, my immediate association was about my grandfather," she relates.  "He too had people spray paint graffiti on his house a few times, they wrote 'Leibowitz the PLO's darling' and 'A rope for traitors.'  I was in high school.  I was alarmed.  My grandmother was terribly worried.  Only he was unmoved.  He didn't seem to care.  He said to us: 'I am indeed betraying what they believe in.'" [...]