Why a young Israeli woman spies on Israeli settlements in West Bank
Hagit Ofran tracks Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank with a pocket-sized camera and a deep sense of mission, often making news well beyond Israel with her findings.
Alon settlement, West Bank
If Palestinians ever achieve the viable state to which they aspire, they will have a determined young Israeli activist to thank for its territory not being entirely swallowed by Israeli settlements.Skip to next paragraph
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Hagit Ofran, a former student of Jewish history, uses a four-wheel drive vehicle, pocket-sized camera, and a deep sense of mission to monitor the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank area captured during the 1967 Six Day War. Sometimes her findings make headlines well beyond Israel, translating into international pressure on the government to stop further encroachment on Palestinian land.
Ms. Ofran's official title is director of the Settlement Watch Team of the dovish Peace Now organization. In practice, she is a spy operating in hostile territory, snooping, sniffing, and piecing together bits of intelligence to gauge how much illicit building is going on.
On a recent scouting trip, Ofran spotted four new alabaster trailers spread like matchboxes on a hillside of the Alon settlement northeast of Jerusalem.
The prefabricated buildings are in effect helping to fragment the heartland of a future Palestine. ''It's not that one caravan will change the chances of Middle East peace,'' says Ofran. ''But another and another and another will determine whether we can have a two-state solution to the conflict or not.''
Fluent in Arabic – and well-versed in sleuthing
Israel's conservative government now faces a crucial decision over whether or not to extend a 10-month partial freeze on settlement building that expires in September. The Obama administration is pressing for the freeze to remain in place, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners want it scrapped to enable a wave of new building.
''If it is not extended then the freeze may have delayed a few hundred sites for months, but it will not have caused a real change,'' Ofran says.''If work is restarted it might mean that the chances of peace are doomed, at least with this government.''
A fluent Arabic speaker, Ofran sometimes is tipped off by Palestinians about new settler building. She pores over aerial photos commissioned by Peace Now, whose settlement watch unit is funded partly by the governments of Britain and Norway, and garners information from planning meetings and official documents.
In March, Ofran learned from the Jerusalem municipality's website that officials had given permits for settler building at the Shepherds Hotel site in East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab. She did not keep the information to herself – though she's tight-lipped about her exact role.
Embarrassingly for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, news of the new settlement project broke just before he was to meet President Obama at the White House, contributing to the frostiness of that encounter.
Ofran's detractors, challenges
Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council that represents most of the half-million Israelis who have moved to the West Bank, accuses Ofran of serving foreign interests.