Israel: Spying on the Settlements

Ahead of settlement freeze decision, one woman documents their growth in the West Bank.

Jerusalem, Israel – With a practiced motion, Hagit Ofran hides her camera under the seat, bringing her white SUV to a halt in front of a checkpoint.

The Israeli guarding Migdalim, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, steps out of his house and looks into the car. Hagit holds his gaze, then the barrier opens and she steers her car into the settlement.

“It is much more important that I get out of here again,” she said.

The 35-year-old Israeli with the corkscrew locks works for the Jerusalem-based nongovernmental organization Peace Now. You could call her a settlement spy. Once a week she crisscrosses the West Bank to document the growth of the settlements.

Being the grandchild of Yeshayahu Leibovich, one of the earliest critics of settling the land that Israel captured in the Six Day War in 1967 from Jordan, Ofran brings a strong sense of mission to her work. You would be hard pressed to find anybody who could rival her knowledge in this field.

Needless to say, she has made not only friends in the process.

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The settlements issue is crucial to the ongoing peace talks between the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu. Last November, giving in to U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to a 10-month settlement building freeze. On Sunday, the Israeli Knesset will decide if the freeze continues. In case it does not, the Palestinians have vowed to leave the table.

“It will be disastrous if the peace talks fail,” Ofran says as she drives through the Migdalim settlement.

Slowly, she is inching through the quiet streets on a hot midday and quickly discovers several houses that had not existed on her last visit. She whips out her camera and shoots some pictures. A guard notices her. But before he can make a move, Hagit turns her car around and makes for the exit.

Hagit knows how obstructed the road to peace is. Places like Migdalim are already fragmenting the country in such a way that a viable Palestinian state seems impossible.

Some 300,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements and various outposts and 200,000 more in Arabic East-Jersualem, which, according to international law, is also Palestinian territory.

In addition to her work on the ground, Ofran acquires her information from Palestinians, settlers and aerial photographs. This info is then turned into maps, reports and into cases against illegal settlements.

Hagit, who holds a degree in Jewish history and has worked as a secretary for the former minister of justice, Yossi Beilin, is en route from Midgalim. As the hills pass by, she constantly points to the mountaintops, naming settlements and outposts.

Strung like pearls on a necklace, the settlements form a line of white houses with red roofs, leaving only few gaps — which soon could be closed, too. According to Peace Now, 2,000 housing units are ready to be built the minute the freeze expires.

Many Israelis are pessimistic when it comes to the peace talks. Too many of them have failed, they say. But what if they were to be successful and the settlements had to be evacuated?

“When the moment of truth comes,” Hagit said, “we will see riots.”

The settlers will not stand by idly, while they are about to lose their homes, she added.

However, their lobby in the government is a strong one. Aivgdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, who lives in a settlement himself, told news agencies that he is optimistic that the Knesset will not extend the freeze.

In her Jeep, Ofran approaches Kfar Tapuach, a settlement close to Nablus, deep in the West Bank. This is one of the settlements that are too dangerous for her to enter. If somebody recognizes Hagit, there could be bigger repercussions than just being shown to the gate.

It is mostly in the settlements that are fueled by ideology that dangerous situations arise. Her predecessor’s car was stoned in Kfar Tapuach, and as many settlers carry guns, an image of the Wild West comes readily to mind.

A short while later, Hagit suddenly stops her car at the side of the road. She produces binoculars from under the seat and spies up a hill. She discovers an agricultural structure, which often heralds a new settlement.

On her way back, Hagit explains why two states are the only solution to the conflict.

“When we continue to treat the Palestinians this way, we are not democratic. But if we grant the Palestinians citizenship, then we cease to be a Jewish state,” she said.

If you travel with Hagit through the West Bank, you involuntarily have to ask if it is not already too late. After all, how do you go about relocating half a million people?

But Hagit is unfazed by this logistical problem and remains starkly optimistic.

“Within five years we absorbed one million immigrants from Russia. They did not speak the language and had no jobs. We can do the same with the settlers,” she said. “It is not too late.”