MIGRON, West Bank — As head of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Project, Dror Etkes is charged with taking note of everything that happens in the territories: the expansion of every existing settlement, the paving of every new road and, especially, the placement of every new shipping container or trailer on a new piece of land, signaling the beginning of an illegal outpost.
Etkes — who testified last week before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee — is very good at his job. Indeed, it can be said that he knows more about the settlements than anyone does, except a handful of settler leaders and government officials.
“It sounds arrogant… [But] when it comes to details, I know it much better than Sharon,” Etkes said during a recent expedition into the West Bank. “My knowledge of the area is down to the container level. If tomorrow there will be a container here on the hill where you are standing, I would know because it wasn’t here last week.
“Some settlers know the area very well as well. The only difference is that they are initiating, and I am always acting when things already happen. They are always one step ahead of me. This is their built-in advantage in this stinking game. Nothing I can do about it — I am not sitting in their meetings.”
Etkes does stand on their land, however. Here, in front of a 42-family hilltop settlement six miles north of Jerusalem, Etkes surveys a patch of earth that has recently been flattened by bulldozers in preparation for future apartments. He takes a picture that he will register in his computer back in his Jerusalem office.
He turns left and points to the fence at the entrance to Migron. “What’s going to happen is that this fence will be broken down and then moved to include this future neighborhood. That’s how it works,” he said, referring to settlement expansion.
The view is spectacular, and it shows quite clearly the complexity of the situation on the ground in the West Bank. Consider a chess board, with alternating colored squares, and you have some idea: Looking straight out from Migron is the Arab village of Burqa; on the next hill you can see Psagot; Michhmas lies in the distance, and so does Al Bireh, and beyond that, Ramallah. Further south is Kochav Ya’acov. Arab village, Jewish settlement; Arab village, Jewish settlement, and so on.
Etkes, 35, rides from one settlement to the other in the West Bank, a cross between Tonto and the Lone Ranger — part scout, part man with a mission, but not, he says, answering his critics, a traitor to his own people.
“I’m doing what I’m doing now not because I’m in love with Palestinian society, or I’m in love with Yasser Arafat himself,” he said. “Charity is not involved here. I’m doing what I’m doing first of all because I’m a decent human being and, second, because I’m an Israeli and I have an Israeli interest.
“The fact that the Palestinian society is a nice society or is not a nice society has nothing to do with the fact that apartheid should be abolished and occupation has to cease. And Israeli society should make a decision about what kind of a society it wants to become. All those things are true, whether Arafat is a nice person or not. And we are saving our own ass when we are doing what we are doing.”
As he moves farther north, Etkes dons a bulletproof vest because he is crossing into “a more conflicted area, so it would be good to have it on us.” The irony is not lost on him — he shares with the very settlers he despises the same danger they do, traveling their roads, taking the same risks.
“Those are the rules of the game,” he shrugged. “If you want to take a patriotic act against something which you think is demolishing your own homeland and prospects for your kids to live in a decent place, then you have to take a risk sometimes, and this is the risk that I’m taking. My aim is not to be killed.”
Sometimes he feels anxious and afraid, and so he will decide not to travel on a particular road that day. There are rules: He never drives at night, or even at dawn or twilight, because he cannot see much, for one, and because it is easier to shoot at passing cars at night. Once he heard shots fired; not knowing if they were directed at him, he backed up immediately. But he is sure they came from Palestinians.
“Problem is, right now I am exposed to risk from both sides,” Etkes said. “The Palestinians have no idea who I am, and I have to travel with Israeli license plates if I want to go in and out of the settlements. That’s the only way of doing it. You cannot have a different plate, and you cannot have ‘TV’ stuck on your car, because you won’t be able to pass through [the settlements]. They will start to hassle you.”
Some of the settlers, who view him as being as much their enemy as the Palestinians, know Etkes by sight, and have been known to stand by the side of the road and throw rocks bigger than baseballs at his passing car.
Etkes continues north through the heart of the West Bank, past the Jewish settlements of Ofra, Shilo, Eli, Kfar Tapuah and Ariel, and the Arab villages of Silwad, Ein Yabrud, Silwad, As Sawiya and Yasuf.
The dynamic on the ground changes day to day, and Etkes has to be on top of it all the time, both in the West Bank and in Gaza. He rides around four or five times a week, beating up his car on the rock-strewn back roads he’s forced to travel.
But he cannot be everywhere, he said, “and that’s why we have to fly once in a while, in order to see the big picture.” The next day Etkes will take along a journalist and a guest in a rented four-seat Cessna to photograph from above.
“Every now and then there are surprises, like in-between a valley which you can’t see from the ground,” he said. “Then we go on the ground and get more information.”