Peace Now activist: Israel must evacuate settlements

Last year, Hagit Ofran went to the West Bank to discuss a legal matter with a Palestinian bureaucrat.

It was on a delicate subject — Israeli settlements — so she thought she’d start the meeting with small talk.

Her Palestinian host beckoned her to sit, then said, “You are with Peace Now? I am Hamas.”

Ofran, an Israeli, nodded and replied teasingly, “So, you want to kill me, right?”

The Palestinian countered: “Do you think if I wanted to kill you, you would be invited to my home?”

She tells the story to illustrate the complicated nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Yet one thing remains uncomplicated in her mind: More than anything else, Israel’s West Bank settlements stand in the way of peace.

Ofran wrapped up a U.S. speaking tour last week, which included a stop at U.C. Berkeley on April 23. Americans for Peace Now, the Union of Progressive Zionists and the Foundation for Middle East Peace sponsored her trip.

As director of Peace Now’s settlement watch program, Ofran is a thorn in the side of Jews living in the West Bank. They often accuse her of being anti-Israeli, even anti-Jewish.

Ofran believes she is in the right.

“The Palestinians can agree to a final-status agreement, and the two peoples are ready for the concessions they need to pay for such an agreement,” she said in an interview. “We [Israelis] lack the faith and confidence. Despair is very strong in Israel today.”

As part of her job, Ofran monitors settlement budgets, construction and land deals. More than a year ago, she helped write a Peace Now report proving many Jewish settlements had been built on privately held Palestinian property.

Ofran expected a media and political earthquake in Israel following the report’s release. Instead, she got chirping crickets. No TV news coverage and barely any mention in the nation’s newspapers. The Knesset wouldn’t even bring the report up for discussion.

“It was kind if disappointing,” she said. “On the other hand, it was published worldwide. From the world we got the buzz we wanted.”

Before the Rabin assassination, Peace Now enjoyed a fairly wide following in Israel. But subsequent events — the second intifada in 2000, the rise of Hamas, the 2006 Lebanon war — sapped much of the organization’s momentum.

Yet Ofran and Peace Now soldier on, insisting on complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and even opening up a dialogue with Hamas.

“We thought if you isolate Hamas, then the Palestinians would understand Hamas is bad and go back to the moderates,” she said. “But it didn’t work. Our interest today is to make Hamas part of the game, [so it will] take upon itself some of the rules of the game.”

She cites recent hints that Hamas leadership may be open to a lasting cease-fire, and hopes Israel will take advantage.

“I wish we could have land for peace with the Palestinians, but if I can have land for a cease-fire, this is something we can start with.”

Ofran even challenges the notion that Hamas wants to kill Jews as part of its mission. “It’s not where they started,” she added. “There is dispute within Hamas on many things. It is true they cannot agree to admit to say Israel will be forever side by side with Palestine. But I think the Palestinian people are not with this.”

To those who point to the constant rocket fire from Gaza as proof disengagement doesn’t work, Ofran has a ready answer.

“Rockets were there when we were in Gaza,” she said. “Gaza is not really liberated now. It’s still under Israeli occupation. We control the entrances, the fuel. Now they have three more roads they can drive on freely without checkpoints, but they have no fuel for the cars.”

Even with so many seemingly intractable problems facing her nation, Ofran refuses to sink into the despair she sees around her.

“I cannot feel despair,” she said. “I’m Israeli. I love Israel, I want to live in Israel. I need to have this hope, so that my future is in Israel. The only future we can have is with a two-state solution.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.