Settlement watcher


A new film, Lea Klibanoff’s “The Messiah Will Always Come," chronicles the work of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch director, Hagit Ofran. Gitit Ginat writes about Ofran and the film in Haaretz:

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 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.

JTA profiled Ofran in 2006, after Peace Now released a report charging that 40 percent of Jewish settlement territory in the West Bank is built on privately owned Palestinian land.

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