American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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Reporting in the Flesh
A review of Amira Hass's Reporting from
Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land, edited
and translated by Rachel Leah Jones. Semiotext(e).
A longtime political reporter on Middle
East politics, Lesley Hazleton is the author of the
books Israeli Women, Where Mountains Roar, and Jerusalem, Jerusalem.
Her most recent book is Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the
Virgin Mother (Bloomsbury 2004). This review, reprinted with the
author's permission, appeared originally in the May 2004 issue
of the Women's Review of Books.
Amira Hass describes herself as "an expert in Israeli occupation." The recipient of numerous awards, (including the Press Freedom Hero award from the International Press Institute in 2000, the Bruno Kreisky Human Rights Award in 2002, and the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in 2003), she is the Palestinian affairs correspondent for Ha'aretz--the "New York Times of Israel," as it were.
There have been other Israeli reporters on Palestinian affairs over the years, but Hass is both the only woman and the only such reporter to live in the community she reports from. She lived in Gaza form 1993 to 1997, and since then has lived in Ramallah on the West Bank.
To her, this seems entirely unremarkable. As a journalist, she says she needs to experience the occupation "in her own flesh," as they say in Hebrew. "If I were asked to cover French affairs, I would go and live in Paris and travel a lot in France, not write about France from Germany," she said last year in a session of Conversations with History at the Institute of International Studies in University of California-Berkeley. "This is basic in this sort of journalistic work."
She's right, of course--if she were in Western Europe. But imagine a Tutsi reporter living among Hutus and reporting for a Tutsi newspaper, or a Belfast Protestant reporter doing the same in a Catholic stronghold, or a Serb in a Bosnian enclave. Then, multiply by nearly 40 years of occupation, annexation, and repression. For an Israeli Jew, to live in Israeli-occupied Palestine for well over a decade, and to report from there for the leading Israeli newspaper, is to place oneself at the very heart of conflict.
This is what makes Amira Hass' voice so extraordinary. Her deep, inside knowledge is reflected in every word she writes. She is indeed an expert in Israeli occupation: in its brutality, its random acts of sadism, and its repression of every aspect of Palestinian life. This is no doubt why so few people in the United States have read her: They don't want to know. They are not alone. Many of the people most directly affected don't want to know either.
When I was last in Jerusalem, two years ago, the West Bank and Gaza were hermetically sealed off not only from Israel itself but from the rest of the world. Nobody could go in or out except by special permission of the Israeli military. But Hass' dispatches in Ha'aretz continued, detailing what life was like for Palestinians under Israeli occupation, siege, and closure. It was painful reading -- she pulled no punches -- but essential.
"Did you read Amira Hass today?" I'd ask friends. Inevitably, the answer would be along the lines of "Oh no, I can't stand reading her any more. I don't want to know. It's too much already. Whatever we're doing to the Palestinians, they've called it on themselves."
These are not bigots or settlers. They are good, liberal people who detest Ariel Sharon and everything he stands for but are battered, as they point out, by too many suicide bombs. They also seem to be battered by something else -- a loss of the sense that there's anything they can do to stop the escalating violence. In this I believe they are devastatingly wrong. This is a conflict that cannot be resolved by self-imposed blindness. Understanding is essential. And one way to begin understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to read Amira Hass.
Her first book, Drinking the Sea at Gaza, was written in 1996 and published in the United States three years later. It is an extraordinarily detailed account not only of the occupation and its brutalizing effects, but also -- Hass plays no -favorites -- of the pervasive corruption and brutality within the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA may have the nominal right to rule but, in fact, Hass points out, it cannot so much as lay a water pipe without permission from Israeli military authorities.
Steel yourself when you read Hass. Her friends and neighbors are well acquainted with both Israeli and Palestinian jails. They have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, beaten, and tortured. Their lives are entirely controlled by Israeli soldiers. Sick infants die at checkpoints as ambulances are held up; five-year-olds are shot by stray bullets ("In Gaza they do not believe in stray bullets," she notes acerbically). Farmers are shot trying to get to their fields, which wither and die. Teachers cannot go to their schools; doctors cannot reach their clinics. Houses are demolished not only as collective punishment, but to clear free lines of fire for the Israeli military. A nature reserve is uprooted to make way for a "bypass road" to be used exclusively by Jewish settlers.
One of the most chilling pieces in her second book, Reporting from Ramallah -- 37 dispatches culled from over 500 between 1997 and 2002 -- is a long interview with an Israeli sharpshooter who explains to her why it's okay to shoot children. In an army that once prided itself on its rule that soldiers do not have to obey orders they consider illegal, this young man finally falls back on "Twelve and up you're allowed to shoot. That's what they tell us."
The children get the message. "If you're a Jew, where's your gun?" a ten-year-old boy asks Hass in Drinking the Sea at Gaza. In Ramallah, a 12-year-old arguing with his mother yells that she'll be sorry because "I'll go to the border, a Jew will shoot me, and I'll die." A girl shot in the back asks "Didn't the soldier know I just went out to get some bread?" A three-year-old asks his father "Are the Jews born like us, little babies, or are they born already big with uniforms and guns?"
Just as effectively, Hass details the enervating, soul-eroding, everyday details of life under occupation: the constant power failures; the phones that don't work for months at a time; the frustration of never knowing how long it will take you to make what was once a five-minute drive -- it could be five hours or more, depending on the checkpoints -- or even if you'll be able to get where you want to go at all; the cars confiscated at whim; the homes searched and gratuitously vandalized; the insults hurled by soldiers at checkpoints; the bureaucracy that would put Kafka's imagination to shame; the impossibly repressive taxation; the trickle that passes for a shower; the foul-tasting water from the kitchen faucet, contaminated with sewage. And all the time, literally a stone's throw away, are the lush, spacious homes of Jewish settlements.
Palestinians wait for hours for exit permits, only to be turned away by the Israeli Civil Administration -- a name that seems straight out of George Orwell. Even those who have such permits can get turned back at checkpoints at a soldier's whim. "You can get an exit permit if you're about to die," Gazans joke, and even then, Hass shows, not always.
She has an eye for the sharp, painful detail: She notes the smell of decaying bodies buried by bulldozers during the attack on the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, and the sight of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture littered with urine and feces after Israeli forces have gone in and trashed everything in sight: "Someone even managed to defecate into the photocopy machine."
Sometimes the psychological sadism seems even worse. A young man on his way to his wedding was stopped by soldiers at a roadblock. When they asked why he was all dressed up, he told them.
"'So what will you say if we keep you here for an hour,' they asked. 'Nothing,' he said. 'And two hours?' Also nothing. 'And three?' Here he went silent. When they reached 'Seven?' he said he would kill himself. Finally, they detained him for four hours" (p. 127).
What it all adds up to, Hass said in her Berkeley talk, "is total strangulation." What she did not say, but what I couldn't help thinking, is that this seemingly incomprehensible, slow destruction of Palestinian society, culture, and everyday life has a deliberate political purpose: Not to stop terrorism, as the Israeli administration claims, but to induce what is politely referred to in Israel as "population transfer." The phrase was once restricted only to the extreme right wing, but since Ariel Sharon's government has been in power it has become part of the national political debate. Make life impossible enough for Palestinians, the reasoning seems to be, and they will move elsewhere -- Jordan, Lebanon, anywhere but the Occupied Territories -- "of their own accord."
Again and again, as I read Hass, I ask myself how she continues. Why hasn't she burned out, as so many others have? Where does she get the moral fortitude and determination to continue despite the ever-escalating violence and despair? Typically, she down plays her courage. The only death threat she mentions -- and there have to have been dozens, from both Israelis and Palestinians -- comes at the very end of her first book, and then only to make the point of how welcoming most Palestinians have been to her. Although she never mentions hate mail in her writing, she did say in an interview last year with Robert Fisk in the British newspaper The Independent, "I get messages saying I must have been a kapo [a Jewish concentration camp overseer for the Nazis] in my first incarnation. Then I'll get an email saying 'Bravo, you have written a great article -- Heil Hitler!' Someone told me they hoped I suffered from breast cancer there are thousands of these messages."
Hass has no illusions. She continues to work in what she sees is a highly patriarchal society, where access is accorded her as a kind of honorary man. She watches bleakly as Palestinian women, who had begun to organize and take active political roles in the first Intifada of the late 1980s, have been relegated back to the kitchen and the veil with the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism.
And she continues to write knowing that the people who most need to read her do not. In Drinking the Sea she wrote, "I had hoped that my reports would wake Israelis up to what was happening in Gaza, but while readers have a right to know, they do not have an obligation, nor are they required to translate knowledge into action." And in Reporting from Ramallah:
"Israeli political consciousness has refused, and continues to refuse, to grasp the sum total of the details, characteristics, actions, and consequences of ongoing Israeli rule over another people . Today, reports on 'Palestinian suffering' are perceived as national treason. Israelis conclude that the suicide bombings are the result of a murderous tendency of the Palestinians, their religion, and their mentality. In other words, people turn to bio-religious explanations, not socio-historical ones. This is a grave mistake. If one wants to put an end to the terror attacks in general, and the suicide bombings in particular, one must ask why the majority of Palestinians support them [and this is] because they are convinced that they, their existence, and their future as a nation are the real targets of the Israeli regime" (pp. 173-174).
Hass has no intention of making herself the center of the story -- her subject is the occupation, not herself -- but there is at least an indication of where her determination and purity of perception come from in the introduction to Drinking the Sea at Gaza, where she talks about her parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors.
continued on page 22, column 3
Her mother, Hanna Levy-Hass, was a Sarajevo Jew who joined Tito's partisans and was forced to surrender to the Nazis when they threatened to kill every woman in the Montenegrin town of Cetinje. Taken to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, she gathered every scrap of paper she could find and, at great risk, wrote down what was happening in minute handwriting (her book, Inside Belsen, was finally published in 1982). Her father spent four years in the Transnistria ghetto, escaping a typhus plague only to lose his toes to frostbite. Hass describes her parents' legacy as "a history of resisting injustice, speaking out and fighting back." But what really stuck in her mind was her mother's memory of a group of German women watching "with indifferent curiosity" as she and others were being herded from a cattle car into Bergen-Belsen. "For me, these women became a loathsome symbol of watching from the sidelines, and at an early age I decided that my place was not with the bystanders." In the end, Amira Hass says, "my desire to live in Gaza stemmed neither from adventurism nor from insanity, but from that dread of being a bystander, and from my need to understand, down to the last detail, a world that is, to the best of my political and historical comprehension, a profoundly Israeli creation."
The recent Sharon-Bush deal is no less profoundly
an Israeli creation. It swaps military withdrawal from most of
Gaza and dismantling of the Israeli settlements there for a permanent
Israeli claim to large swaths of the West Bank. This territorial
shell game gives Sharon what he has been working for all along
-- superpower-blessed annexation of much of the West Bank
-- in return for giving up the losing proposition of occupying
Gaza, which will be left in a territorial, political, and economic
vacuum. Chaos seems inevitable in Gaza; "population transfer"
looms in the West Bank. More than ever, we will need to rely on
journalists like Amira Hass simply to find out what is happening
-- if she, and her newspaper, can stay the course.