Israeli journalist Amira Hass on the next Palestinian uprising and her attempts to cut through propaganda to get at the truths of the lives next door.
Photograph via Flickr by Yossi Gurvitz
When it comes to her coverage of Palestinians, Israeli journalist Amira Hass is one of a kind. Yet she blends right in at the Canadian bus station where I pick her up. Vancouver is the second stop on the nationwide speaking tour organized for her by the advocacy group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East. She greets me with a warm smile and lifts her small but heavy bags into the trunk of the car. Hass is used to taking care of herself while traveling, doing it weekly as she navigates through Israeli military checkpoints while tracking a story or simply trying to visit a friend. Before I can help her with her bag, in fact, she helps me with mine. When she sees me struggling with my bag outside her lecture venue, she takes it from my shoulder, laughing, “I know. I do it too.”
Hass has worked for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz since 1989. She left her academic roots during the First Intifada and started her media career there as a copyeditor. A few months later, she convinced the paper to send her to Europe to cover the Romanian revolution. In Romania she proved her skills as a writer, and in 1993 her editors assigned her to Gaza. She had become familiar with the area while volunteering with a group that had her visiting Gazans to deliver money they were owed from Israeli employers who’d withheld their pay. It was during this time that her “romance” with Gaza began.
No one encouraged Hass to live in Gaza; in fact, she was specifically told not to. But determined to learn about the occupation from the inside, she moved there in 1993 and made a permanent home in the West Bank in 1997. This initiative made her the only Israeli journalist to live and work among Palestinians full-time.
For the past seventeen years Hass has reported extensively on Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, exposing their devastating effects on Palestinians. But the divided Palestinian leadership has not escaped her scrutiny either, and both governments have tried to impede her reporting using various intimidation tactics. But the unrelenting Hass has continued regular critiques, which she has collected in two books. She is regarded internationally as one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, and in 2009 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Hass was invited to Canada to lecture about Israel-Palestine. But unlike others who speak on the subject, she gives a different talk in each city and resists flashy rhetoric in favor of hard reporting. Prior to the lecture, while searching for a restaurant, she tells me she will not talk about the region’s basic history because the audience will likely be informed. So for forty-five minutes she speaks about the Israeli policy of “closure,” the ongoing fragmentation of Palestinian territory and the severing of Palestinian control of governing activities such as changing addresses or registering newborns. “It’s not like killing, but it affects everybody,” explains Hass. “If a baby is born in Gaza and is not registered with the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, that baby does not exist, it does not count,” she tells the audience. “I get very annoyed when my Palestinian friends complain, ‘Why didn’t they give me a permit, I am not a terrorist,’ because it is not about the person, it is about a policy that people can’t articulate because there is no discourse to explain the political intention behind it.”
Hass doesn’t write with shock appeal in mind; her lectures lack the heart-wrenching photographs that Palestine-focused speakers use during talks. Instead, she offers audiences pieces from a written record she has been producing for almost two decades. During questions, a young Palestinian man angrily criticizes her lecture’s focus, telling her that the real issue for Palestinians isn’t about freedom of movement, but about getting their dignity and their country back. Another woman takes issue with Hass’s urging of Canadians to examine their own colonial history. “Are you suggesting Canada did the same thing that Israel is doing to the Palestinians?” the woman asks. There is only a hint of annoyance in Hass’s response: “Are you suggesting that I am defending Israel?”
No wonder Hass responds this way; she grew up absorbing her parent’s memories of the Holocaust as her own. In Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege, she describes her mother’s memory of people watching her being herded with others to the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp: “She saw a group of German women, some on foot, some on bicycles, slow down as the strange procession went by and watch with indifferent curiosity on their faces. For me, these women became a loathsome symbol of watching from the sidelines, and from an early age I decided that my place was not with the bystanders.”
—Jasmin Ramsey for Guernica
Guernica: Why do you live in the West Bank?
Amira Hass: If I were asked to cover Canada, would I live in Mexico?
Guernica: But you’re very different—
Amira Hass: Why?
Guernica: Because no other Israeli journalist lives there.
Amira Hass: So ask them why they don’t live there. Why ask me?
Amira Hass: Okay, this is one answer. I have different ones of course because I am often asked about it. When I moved to Gaza in ’93 I was there for two years, going a lot, staying with friends, staying in refugee camps, and I had an urge to stay longer and really feel this military occupation. What is it to wake up and have a curfew? What is it to walk in the street and stand in front of a soldier who aims a gun? I had this need to experience occupation first hand. And to know the society. Of course, it’s not the same as being Palestinian. But it brought me closer.
The notion that I am so privileged is disgusting. But this is what it means to live in a white society. You are white, so you are privileged.
Guernica: You’ve been there now for seventeen years, and have made a life there.
Amira Hass: Yes.
Guernica: How often do you go to Israel to visit family?
Amira Hass: It’s not about [real] distances. The distance is psychological. It’s social. The distance is not in kilometers. I can go to Jerusalem, I have my privileges. That’s one thing you have to understand. When I lived in Gaza it was more difficult because of the closure policy, because of this restriction of movement so you had to be checked. But I have the privilege that I am not restricted. As a Jew and a journalist I have my privileges, and if one doesn’t work I use the other one. Israelis are not allowed to be in Palestinian cities. But I am allowed as a journalist. I never asked permission to live there. I just moved there.
Now after seventeen years nobody can tell me it’s forbidden. I have privileges even in comparison to a Palestinian Israeli because Palestinian Israelis who live permanently in Ramallah risk their status, not as citizens but as residents. They might lose their social rights if they move to Ramallah. But I won’t, so I live with privileges. That notion is very difficult for me as a child who was raised in a left-wing family, a family of people who suffered discrimination as Jews abroad. The notion that I am so privileged is disgusting. But this is what it means to live in a white society. You are white, so you are privileged.
Guernica: You have spent much of your life living amidst war and occupation, and your devotion to your profession has left you with little time for anything else. If you could go back to the beginning, would you have changed anything?
Amira Hass: I think very seriously that I would have liked to have become a fashion writer.
Amira Hass: But no, of course not. I wouldn’t have changed it.
Guernica: When did you begin to question the official Israeli narrative about the country’s founding and its development?
Amira Hass: Luckily I was not born in Eastern Europe, because I might have been born into the communist establishment and I’m glad I was not. But in Israel, communists were dissidents. So you grow up in an environment which is very critical of Israeli policies. So of course you had the Communist Party and it had its closed mind. But as a child, I remember asking my parents when I was five years old, “How come if you are not Zionists, you came to the country?” I was surprised at myself that I asked this question. It means that it was always in the air. Then years later I understood it was because of the Holocaust, because they were refugees. They did not come as immigrants and, because of the illusions of the ’50s and the late ’40s, my mother said, “The world must be better.” She could not imagine that it wouldn’t be different.
They came separately. They didn’t know each other and they were sure that within five years there would be a socialist revolution in all of the area. Today we know this is as silly as [anything] one could think. But that was not the mood. And then they came and started to learn about ’48 and Nabka, though not immediately. But what I am very proud of is that both of them, like many others, were offered flats of Palestinian refugees and both of them refused to live there. They said, “We are refugees; how could we live in the homes of refugees?” So I am very relieved that they refused the beautiful Arab houses that many people would love to live in.
In the end there is a choice. And my choice is to be against the occupation, and not only the occupation but the whole system of discrimination and dispossession.
Guernica: And it was your upbringing, the fact that your mother was a communist—
Amira Hass: My father was too.
Guernica: Your father was as well. This was what compelled you to start asking questions?
Amira Hass: It’s not so much questioning. You grew up in a different environment. I grew up in this. I thought most people were communist. But then I went to kindergarten and I was singing songs against the prime minister, which I had heard at home and at the Party, and the kindergarten had to convince my parents to tell me to stop inciting the children against Ben-Gurion. So it was there. You just grew up in it.
Guernica: So there were many Jewish communists who went to Israel after the Holocaust. But what happened to that critical way of thinking? Did many of them come to accept the official Israeli narrative in the end?
Amira Hass: Yes, I mean some still, many have, yeah. But of course there is the choice. In the end, there is a choice. It’s not just because I grew up in such a family that I became so and so. In the end there is a choice. And my choice is to be against the occupation, and not only the occupation but the whole system of discrimination and dispossession. I am lucky that I can write about it and that I can live in a way within the two communities. So sometimes it’s not really a gift, sometimes it’s more navigating, it’s more lonely; sometimes it’s more reassuring that I can be in the morning with Palestinians from a village that fights against the wall and some Israeli activists as well, the anarchists. And then in the evening I go and spend it with Israeli women who are in the Machsom, the grassroots movement against the checkpoints.
Guernica: You have a large following among Palestinian activists and those critical of Israeli policies in the occupied territories. How do average Israelis react to your work? Do you feel that you connect to them?
Amira Hass: I had a lecture at Middlebury called “Translating Occupation to the Occupier.” I think it says it all. I think most Israelis prefer not to know. So for them, texts about the occupation are like something that’s been written in a foreign language that they can’t understand. If they want, you can translate it to them. But it is their choice. In general, though, I think Israelis don’t want to know. Very few do. Basically, I write to the converted.
Guernica: In Gaza, how did Hamas treat you when you lived there?
Amira Hass: When I lived in Gaza between 1993 and 1997 Hamas was not yet in power, and I used to meet quite a few Hamas activists and people, just members or supporters, and it was no problem. Then Israel stopped allowing Israeli journalists to enter Gaza after December 2006. At first there were reasons; there was a wave of kidnappings in Gaza. But these were mostly sponsored by people who were close to Fatah. That was the year the Israeli soldier Gilad Shilat had been kidnapped, so we were not allowed in. The first month after the Hamas victory I was allowed in. I had some interviews, and it was normal, and they knew me. But then after it was forbidden I came by boat to Gaza in November 2008, and after three weeks Hamas kicked me out.
Guernica: November 2008 was just before—
Amira Hass: One month before the onslaught, the Israeli attack. I had intended to be there until January 2009, so if they hadn’t kicked me out I would have been there. Imagine.
Guernica: Why did Hamas kick you out?
Amira Hass: They cannot stand free media. They said it was a danger to my life, but Arafat used the same protest when his people tried to kick me out of Gaza and then Ramallah. But with Arafat I had Fatah people who came and told him, “You are nuts, you cannot kick her out.” But with Hamas it didn’t work. There were some Hamas people, friends of mine who tried to dissuade them from this decision, and it didn’t work.
Guernica: Hamas was acting just like the Israeli government in trying to keep you out of Gaza.
Amira Hass: There was one prominent former Hamas member who fell out of grace because he was critical of the military trend within Hamas. But in the early ’90s he was a leader. He told them, “You just kicked her out because you don’t want your shameful things to be known,” or something like that. I cannot forgive them for this. They knew I wanted to stay until January. Of course no one knew about the Israeli attack, and I’m sure I would have been frightened to death if I was there during it. But it was very important for me to be there. Really, I cannot forgive them.
Guernica: Mads Gilbert, the Norwegian doctor who was one of only two non-Arab doctors there during the attack, had footage and horror stories of his experiences working with Palestinian doctors in Al-Shifa Hospital. He had not seen it personally. But the issue around the use of white phosphorous by the Israelis during the attack made it into a leading medical journal.
Amira Hass: The phosphorus was used after [Mads Gilbert and his colleague] left. The white phosphorous was used after they started the land invasion. I remember because I was talking to my friends and they were fleeing from their homes and were saying, “We don’t understand, there is some strange fire, some strange chemical clouds that ignite and then you pour water to quiet the fire and the opposite happens.” I remember very well that it was on the 4th or 5th of January, so it was after they left.
There is a decision not to be exposed. People can live like five minutes away from it all.
Guernica: Do you think your parents would have stayed in Israel if they were alive today?
Amira Hass: They were too old to leave. But, actually, my mother tried to undo her immigration. She lived ten years on her own in France when she was around seventy. But it was too difficult. She was too alone. She was not healthy. I think she had to admit that it’s easier to be near her daughter.
Guernica: And you were very close with your parents?
Amira Hass: With the children of Holocaust survivors, there is always a very close relationship. You grow with the sense that you are parenting your parents and—with this kind of responsibility to protect them. That’s what makes the children of Holocaust survivors strange.
Guernica: Do you find the Israeli press are critical on the Palestinian issue?
Amira Hass: No, it’s not critical. There is Haaretz, but other papers will not provide a clear picture of the issues.
Guernica: Do other Israeli journalists go into the occupied territories?
Amira Hass: Yes, that’s not the question. Many Israelis can get to know what’s really happening. I mean, you have soldiers who go and see things. It’s not like France and Algiers or, I don’t know, England and Kenya or Belgium and Kenya. It’s in your backyard. It’s much more about willingness, indecision, the inability, or exposure. There is a decision not to be exposed. People can live like five minutes away from it all.
Guernica: For people who don’t live there, the short distances between those who live with occupation and dispossession and those who don’t can be easily overlooked.
Amira Hass: But tell me, how many people beyond the activist community think about the aboriginals here in Canada? Many people just won’t connect the social problems with the history of dispossession of the aboriginals. There is one problem with pro-Palestinian activists in Europe and the U.S. with the way they portray Israel as though it were an island of evil in an ocean of goodwill. Unfortunately we are not. This world is not made of benign, progressive states with Israel as the one exception.
Guernica: You had expressed prior to this interview that you don’t want to talk about how you think things are going to play out.
Amira Hass: I am a very conservative journalist and prefer to write about what happened, and not what will happen. I think these questions about what will happen are questions for activists and about the agency of people in the course of events. This is not a question for a journalist, but for activists. And we’ve seen it with the Arab Spring that people have a say. People have shown that they intend to have a say. Palestinians have done this several times, they’re just not listened to.
Guernica: But from your constant monitoring of events on the ground, can you tell me what direction things seem to be going in?
Amira Hass: The ingredients for another Palestinian uprising are always there because as long as there is so much violence it is bound to explode. How, I cannot tell. But people will not accept it forever. Will Hamas use it in one way? Will Fatah use it in another way? Will there be a new generation that demands no Fatah, no Hamas? I cannot tell. Also, you had in the summer a very interesting and in some ways inspiring social movement for change. I know there is a lot of cynicism about this movement. But in a very short time tens of thousands of young people focused their criticism not on marginal issues, but on neoliberalism, on super-capitalism, on the privatization of the state. Matters of principle. Of course, I say that they did not develop the understanding that occupation is a huge wrong that is connected to Israel and its regime. But on the other hand, I know that Israelis profit from the occupation. So why would they see that occupation is wrong? Still, things happen in a way that surprises. That’s why I’m reluctant to predict. You cannot predict. We are seeing that some patterns of the past twenty, thirty years are being broken. Now what is our way to deepen the cracks? I always talk about the cracks. The cracks are very healthy.
Guernica: Do you plan on writing about Israel-Palestine for the rest of your life?
Amira Hass: Not much remains of it, I’m fifty-five.
Guernica: You have at least another forty years!
Amira Hass: Sure! I don’t know. The sense of failure is very strong.
Guernica: Your own sense of failure?
Amira Hass: Not personal, but what are you writing for? I mean, when you write about these things, it’s not about career, or about the salary; you want to have an impact. And you see how futile the writing is. I envy lawyers. There is always the sense of what am I doing this for. And then you know, I cannot leave it. I cannot allow myself to stop writing about it.
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