This week in Israel/Palestine news everyone's talking about the Levy Report, which argues that the West Bank is not, in fact, occupied territory. (See Validate Settlements, Israeli Panel Suggests in the New York Times. For more context, see Bombshell for the settlement enterprise in Levy report in Ha'aretz and A Tale of Two Reports in Open Zion.) I recently sat in on a conference call with Hagit Ofran in which she offered some thoughts on all of this. Ofran is the director of the Settlement Watch project at שלום עכשיו / Peace Now. I've heard her speak before -- at the first J Street conference in 2009 -- about the settlements and the peace process. The call was moderated by Peace Now's Ori Nir.
Some part of me wondered whether attending the call, and writing it up for Velveteen Rabbi, was a good use of my time. The internet is so often an echo chamber in which like-minded folks agree with one another, and those who disagree often engage unkindly with one another if at all. But I really did want to hear what she had to say. And I figured, as long as I was listening to her speak, I might as well share some notes here. What follows are some notes from her prepared remarks; then some information from the Q-and-A; and finally, information about Peace Now's 4% program. (Did you know that settlers make up only four percent of the Israeli public?)
Ofran noted that Netanyahu nominated this committee to provide recommendations to the government. Their recommendations are not obligatory, but rather advisory; the government can accept or reject, and that's in the hands of the Attorney General and the government.
"In my view [the report] could be potentially a challenge for us," she acknowledged, since the committee was officially nominated by the government and it includes former a Supreme Court judge. But the assertion that Israel's presence in the West Bank is not occupation "sounds absurd," and therefore people may not take the report very seriously. "If it's not occupation, what is it -- annexation? If it's annexation, how can you explain the discimination, why Jews are citizens and Palestinians are not citizens?" These questions will be opened if these findings are accepted.
Within the details of what the committee reported, she explained, one can see that its authors are trying to frame the issue of land disputes as a normal civil issue between equal citizens. "If I have a dispute with my neighbor, I go to court, and that's it." The situation in the West Bank is not so simple, however. "We have the responsibility of the occupier to protect the local citizens, and to make sure that their lands are not taken and their property is not taken." Saying that it's an ordinary civil dispute between equals is spurious -- it's more like a situation in which one person goes to the police to say 'somebody took my land,' and the police say that they don't need to act unless the person in question can prove ownership, and then refuse to accept their documentation.
An interesting detail: Netanyahu received this report three weeks ago and kept it quiet. He didn't want the media or the international community to hear about the report. When it was leaked, then he said, yes, it happened. But it appears to Ofran that Netanyahu is trying to bury some of the report's recommendations.
"It would be very hard [for Netanyahu] to accept it," she notes. Still, even if he doesn't accept the report officially, its existence will pose "a challenge to us in public debate and in the courts, because of some of the phrasing of the ownership issues and obligations of the state [which is] different than what we believe and how we interpret the laws."
After Ofran's official remarks there was a Q-and-A; here are some tidbits from that part of the call. What's the worst-case scenario, someone asked. "If Palestinians come to feel that there is no chance at all in the Israeli legal system, with no legal paths to take, they are only left with political or violent paths," Ofran noted. "Political paths, that would be okay, but violent would be a problem."
Is the report retroactive? Ofran indicated that the report doesn't change anything which has already been ruled-upon, but if there are new hearings, or cases which are not closed yet, the State could use this report to come up with new answers, and then the courts would have to decide whether to accept the State's position.
She noted that of course there have always been some Israelis who argue that Judea and Samara are part of Israel. But people are increasingly realizing that it's not so cut-and-dried. "People are realizing what we are doing, that we are taking other peoples' land, that we are occupying." This is one of the positive results of the work of Shalom Achshav / Peace Now. She added:
When we went to court, we didn't expect to quickly end settlements; we wanted it to be more in the public debate, the ways that the government has been establishing those settlements, using public money for this kind of land grab without any care for the rights of the Palestinians, and that is now exposed. There are no new outposts established since 2005, except for very small shacks that youth would put up and the army would take down -- but it's not the same as the settlements which had been built before. And there's been almost no new construction on Palestinian land. I believe that it wouldn't have stopped unless we went to court and made the government face the consequences of allowing this to go on. The settlers are trying to push back [in this report] with their way of looking at the occupation, and they are exposed in that.
It's fascinating to me to hear her articulate these small victories as victories: at least the question of settlements is in the public eye, and at least the land-grab aspect of how settlements came into being is being exposed. On the one hand, this seems to me like a pretty low bar to set, and on the proverbial other hand, I understand that these are battles which have been hard-fought and that these changes make the situation less awful than it would otherwise be.
From the Israeli perspective, considering Israeli interests, Ofran said, the best thing to do is to stop the settlements. Everything built now is going to cost us when we seek to evict them; and it makes the Palestinians less ready to compromise, and more ready to give up on the chance of two states. That's the real threat to Israel.
Someone else asked about Palestinian response to the report; Ori Nir indicated that an official PLO response from Washington was entirely dismissive of the report and called it a joke.
At the end of the call, Ofran was invited to talk about the Peace Now 4% campaign. "We have now in the public atmosphere around the issue of Ulpana and Migron that suddenly even mainstream media, who usually are not so much talking about this issue, are writing things which are very critical of the settlers." The idea that so many million shekels will be given to settlers who chose to inhabit a place illegally, that they will receive public money in order to help them move -- people are starting to feel anger and frustration at the way in which money and attention and time are being devoured by this issue. She went on to say:
Settlers are only four percent of the Israeli public. That's a number we believe people don't really realize, because on the radio and television you hear about them so much, there are so many of them in the Knesset -- but they are only four percent. What we are trying to say is, "Go back to proportions." They cannot run the state of Israel, those 4%. We're going to publish a report about how much money the settlers are getting from the Israeli public money, from taxpayers; it's not so much of a bottom line of how much money it is, but we will show that they are four percent in the society but in the budget of the ministry of housing they get a much larger percentage of that budget! In terms of education, if every pupil gets X thousand shekels from the government, they get 3X... You will hear about it and the Israeli public will hear about it. Today social justice issues are more on the agenda, there's more openness, and because we have good data which could be used well, I believe we can get public attention and hopefully support for that.
Another comment about the 4% issue: "Everywhere you go today in Israel, people are saying, well, the two-state solution is dying -- people are feeling despair -- and the settlers are trying to say, we are so many, you can't ever evict us. We want to try to give some other proportion. They're 4%. If you take the Geneva Initiative line of land swap, those who would need to be evicted are about 1.5% of the Israeli public. It's not impossible. It's not so many."
I look forward to seeing the materials Peace Now is going to release soon -- that report is not yet published, but it's in the works, and they're hoping in the next few weeks to get it ready for release.
The final question was, what can we in the Diaspora do? Stay informed, we were told. "Our voice is echoed in America," Ofran said. "Americans play a very important role... we are in the same family. Things that happen in Israel have an effect in America too, and vice versa. The partnership between us is really important for us." Ori Nir encouraged us to write letters, to publish op-eds, to talk to people, to keep abreast of the action alerts at the Peace Now website. A recording of this call will be posted there soon, too.