Americans for Peace Now hosted a conference call today with Hagit Ofran, head of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program. The main focus of the call according to APN was:

reviewing the chain of events that led to Thursday’s eviction of settlers who were squatting in the Palestinian-owned Hebron property. [Ofran] will also offer her insights regarding the threat of rising settler violence, and will take questions from the audience.

Hagit joined the call from Jerusalem. I kept up with most of the call, but my hand cramped up while she was talking about Gaza. I sent what I transcribed to Hagit to clarify any points I may have missed, and since I’m not working with the recorded material to fully transcribe. Below is the result. Also, I stopped in the Q&A, but APN said that they will be a putting up a full recording of the call available on their website for those interested in listening.

___________________________________________________
OFRAN:
What really happened in Hebron and broader context:

The story of the house started in March 2007 when a group of settlers broke in. Only after they broke in, they asked for a permit to enter.

The Minister of Defense said no, that the government did not want to establish a new settlement in Hebron. There’s already a settlement in the center of the city of Hebron, and over the past ten years, the Palestinian life of Hebron has been shut down by the Israeli military to protect Israeli settlers. [Here’s a map of restrictions by year from B’Tselem]

The settlers appealed, and kept appealing to almost every court they could, confusing the Israeli public, claiming that they purchased the house. So the dispute in Israel, was moved from the principal question of whether we want to have another settlement, to the technical question of whether they bought the house and should they be evicted. In that way, the settlers did well in confusing the Israeli public.

About three weeks ago, the Supreme Court decided that regardless of who owns the house, they don’t have a right to be there, and that they had three days to evacuate. This alarmed settlers and they organized people to come to the house and protect them from eviction. Last Monday, there was a rumor that they were going to be evicted, and 1500 young settlers came to their help. While sitting, waiting, they started to attack Palestinians.

The big violence we saw started before the eviction. They were waiting for the police, they wanted to make it harder, they wanted to make a mess, and they did. I think that the Minister of Defense only decided to evict them because they were so violent, pouring chemicals on police and soldiers, damaging Muslim graveyards and mosques. I think the eviction came because of the violence. The violence continued, not only in Hebron, but all over the West Bank, the stonings of Palestinian people and cars, spraying graffitti on mosques with curses to Mohammed, and other horrible things, all over the West Bank by those settlers.

How did we come to this point that this violence takes place, and why does it take place?

The settler movement was always based on holding land and properties by force. The very presence of Israelis in the West Bank was possible due to the Israeli aggressive occupation. The violence has always been there. However the extent of violence and the massive amount of youngsters attacking together is a relatively new phenomenon. The disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and the failure of the settlers leadership to prevent it, left many of the settlers, and especially the younger generation very frustrated. The Yesha Council leadership along the years was based of a threat on the government, from the one hand, a political threat and the threat of violence, and from the other hand constant contacts with the government, cooperation and engagement with the State organs. This policy had worked for many, many years. This failed them in the disengagement. The frustration in the settler movement made many of the settlers question the tactics of cooperation with the government, and they argued that instead, the leadership should have fought against the government more strongly in order to prevent the eviction of Gaza. The extremist, younger, and some Rabbis said they should fight against the government and the state, and they’re the violent group we see today, trying to change the rules of the game in the West Bank. So they say: if you’re planning to evacuate any settlement, we’re going to retaliate by attacking Palestinians and attacking soldiers so that the state will become afraid of dealing with them, and it is a true threat for the government. For so many years, there have been violations of the law, and the government did not take care of it seriously, and now it’s getting out of control of the older leadership on the young generation of the settlements.

Where does that lead us?

Paradoxically, it has some positive aspects. When most Israelis see those horrible pictures of what really looks like a pogrom, Israeli people are saying: we don’t want these people doing what they’re doing anymore. We don’t like the settlers, we don’t see this as a good move, and I think this is a positive development because this has been one of the biggest obstacles for peace. It is very hard to decide to give up what we fought for, what we invested so much in, and to give up land for peace. I think more Israelis are seeing this now. Most Israelis see in the television what we all see, and say, it’s horrible. We in Peace Now are trying to take this anger into action, into some message. We had a very big demonstration in Tel Aviv in front of Ministry of Defense last Saturday night, calling for evacuation of all Hebron.. As long as settlers sit in the middle of the city, such violence is inevitable. In order to stop the violence we see, we have to make the move. We wanted to do something about it, not just say how horrible it is. The demonstration was decided Thursday morning, and only by email and phone calls, we had 500 people demonstrating Saturday night.

This is also important in upcoming elections, where the first time in a number of years, there will be a dispute on the very question of giving a chance for peace or preventing it. For so many years, we had a unity government that actually said that right and left are doing the same because there is no alternative. I believe that in this election, there is some kind of choice between a chance for peace, or closing the door in front of peace.

_____________________________________________

This also seems like a good moment to plug an op-ed written by Michael Manekin of Breaking the Silence before the evacuation in the Jerusalem Post titled, “It’s Only One House.” Here’s an excerpt:

It is important, though, to keep in mind that we are not talking about the evacuation of the entire settlement of Hebron (which consists of fewer than 1,000 extremist settlers in an area of some 500 square meters), but of one building deep inside the city that has been considered illegal almost from day one.

It is also important to remind ourselves that if the settlers are evicted (and that is by no means a certainty – there is already talk of postponing the evacuation to a much later date), Hebron will continue to be a place that embodies the worst of Israel’s occupation policies. Hebron will still be a place where Palestinians are prevented legally from walking on their own roads, a city with sections that have become virtual ghost towns as a consequence of Israeli policies.

Palestinians will continue to suffer daily from harassment by soldiers and from the fact that the Israeli authorities do little to prevent settlers from attacking them, destroying their property and harassing their children.

As soldiers who served in Hebron, we at Breaking the Silence have long been aware of how things work there. We have seen firsthand how the policy of separation, paired with the absence of law enforcement vis-a-vis violent settlers, has affected the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians. We, too, have become subject to regular harassment and abuse from these settlers as we guide tours in the city. This will not change if and when the building is evacuated.