In Israel, concerns about stifling of dissent (The Washington Post, 26 November 2011)

By , Published: November 26

JERUSALEM — The writing was on the walls.

Death threats, spray-painted in red letters, covered the stairwell leading to the apartment of Hagit Ofran, an activist who monitors Israeli building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for the anti-settlement group Peace Now.

“Hagit Ofran, R.I.P.,” said one message. “Ofran, Rabin is waiting for you,” said another, referring to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing extremist opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians. The graffiti were discovered on Nov. 8, a day before Israel commemorated the Jewish calendar anniversary of Rabin’s death.

Ofran, 36, who prefers to work quietly in Peace Now’s unmarked office, was thrust uneasily into the limelight. The graffiti threats, following a similar incident at her home in September, generated intense media attention and were seen as emblematic of the extremist challenge to Israeli democracy and the unlearned lessons of the Rabin assassination.

Responding to a question in parliament this week about the threats against Ofran, the Israeli minister of public security, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, acknowledged that the authorities were worried about the possibility of another political killing. “The concern exists,” said Aharonovitch, who is from the rightist Yisrael Beiteinu party. “The concern is about the whole political spectrum.”

Yet much of the political violence in recent months has come from the extreme right, in the form of what militant Jewish settlers call “price tag” attacks on Palestinian mosques, cars, olive groves and fields in the West Bank in response to moves by the Israeli authorities to raze or remove unauthorized settlement outposts in the area.

The attacks have also spread to Israeli targets. A dozen vehicles in an army base in the West Bank were damaged in September, a mosque in an Israeli Arab village was torched in October, and a day before the defacing of Ofran’s apartment building, a bomb threat was made against the Peace Now office in Jerusalem. In all three cases, the words “price tag” were spray-painted on the targets.

The threats have come as rightist members of parliament are working to advance legislation that would restrict or heavily tax donations by foreign governments to Israeli non-profit groups. Critics call the move an attempt to cripple human rights organizations and leftist groups such as Peace Now that challenge the policies of Israel’s right-leaning government, particularly in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Another proposed bill would impose restrictions on access to the Israeli Supreme Court by human rights groups seeking to challenge alleged violations by the authorities.

This month, a dovish Israeli-Palestinian radio station broadcasting into Israel from the West Bank was taken off the air on the grounds that it was illegally transmitting on an Israeli frequency. Mossi Raz, the Israeli co-director of the station, All for Peace, asserted that the motive was political. Danny Danon, a conservative lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, accused the station of “incitement” and said that he had pressed the authorities to shut down its broadcasts.

Addressing a rally in Tel Aviv marking the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, Ofran said that the latest rightist initiatives in parliament were part of an attempt “to silence public debate,” and had inspired violence and threats against dissenters.

“What some people do to us on the street with spray paint and threats, parliament and the government are trying to do to us by legislation,” she said.

Following expressions of concern from foreign diplomats, Netanyahu has stalled cabinet endorsement of the bill limiting foreign funding of non-profits. He has also declared his opposition to legislation restricting the ability of rights groups to petition the Supreme Court.

Addressing parliament this week, Netanyahu dismissed as overblown charges by opposition leaders and liberal activists that the government was trying to stifle dissent. “No one seriously thinks there are going to be any ‘thought police,’ ” he said.

“Exactly the opposite is happening,” he added, citing Israel’s robust public debate.

Ofran says her mission is to keep Israel’s settlement policy at the forefront of that conversation.

As director of Peace Now’s settlement monitoring effort, she collects data on new building in settlements and on wildcat outposts that have been set up by settlers without government authorization on West Bank hills. In drives across the area, she documents sites of settlement expansion, and also uses aerial photography and government announcements of building plans and construction bids to compile her data, which are publicized by Peace Now.

Working solo for years and now with a lone assistant, Ofran says Peace Now’s settlement watch project is the most systematic effort in Israel to monitor settlement growth, activity that is not listed under a separate heading in government plans and budgets.

When the Israeli Housing Ministry recently announced planned bids for new residential construction across the country, Ofran discovered that nearly half of more than 5,000 homes to be built are slated to go up in East Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements — the highest number cited in such an announcement in years, she said.

“Our focus is Israeli public opinion, to constantly raise the issue for debate, so that journalists will report it and people will talk about it,” Ofran said. She added that while the graffiti threats against her were unsettling, they had not intimidated her from carrying on with her work, though she is keeping a more watchful eye on her surroundings.

Aharonovitch, the public security minister, told parliament that the threats against Ofran and Peace Now were under “vigorous investigation” and that a suspect had been arrested.

While Ofran is concerned about the threat of rightist violence, she sees her main foe as public indifference to the settlement enterprise, an attitude she says stems from disillusionment with the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.

While Israelis of most political persuasions have come to realize that settlements will have to be evacuated as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, there is little faith that such an agreement is possible, Ofran said. In the meantime, she argues, settlement expansion makes a two-state solution to the conflict progressively more difficult.

“Most of the Israeli public is apathetic about this issue and has despaired of peace,” Ofran said. “This terrible despair enables settlement to continue. It’s not that the public supports it. The public just doesn’t care enough.”


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