A revulsion for repression: In conversation with Amira Hass

| October 5, 2011
Ha'aretz journalist Amira Hass speaking in Tel Aviv, Dec. 2010.

Amira Hass, the award-winning Ha'aretz newspaper columnist, brings the hardships and repressions experienced by Palestinians to her readership in Israel every week. As a resident and correspondent reporting from the West Bank, she is in a better position than most Israeli journalists to paint an accurate picture of life there. She has been on a Canada-wide speaking tour and will appear in Toronto tonight. For more information, click here.

The discomfort or alienation that journalist Amira Hass experiences as an Israeli journalist towards her country and its treatment of indigenous Palestinian inhabitants comes out of her family's DNA. In an exclusive interview with rabble.ca, she describes how her background has informed her work.

Both her parents, Holocaust survivors and Communists but not Zionists, moved to the new state of Israel as Jewish refugees in 1949. Initially, they were ignorant of the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 during the state's founding and the takeover of their homes by the Jewish Agency.

But by the early '50s, when one of these seized residences were made available to them, Hass's parents understood the implications, saying no and expressing the sentiment: "We are refugees; we cannot take a house from another refugee."

"So, it was very natural." Hass recalled. "This revulsion for the privileges and the repression [in Israel]."

As a columnist for Ha'aretz and the only Israeli-Jewish reporter stationed in the occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank, she has been doing this since 1993, originally living in Gaza. She has been on a cross Canada speaking tour since last week, sponsored by the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and KAIROS.

An intense 55-year-old with hard-rimmed glasses, Hass has been unrelenting in her reporting of injustices, whether they are committed by the Israel Defense Forces, Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, or the separate Hamas-led Palestinian government in Gaza.

In doing this, she has upset all sides.

She was once physically attacked in Hebron by Jewish settler women while questioning an Israeli police officer about the failure to stop their breaking of car windows on the street. "They took away my glasses and my pencil and notebook," she remembers.

At the same time, the PA government under Yasser Arafat attempted twice to have Hass, based in Ramallah, kicked out of the PA administered territory because of her reporting. In both situations, members of Arafat's political party, Fatah, intervened "to unsign" the decrees to allow her to stay and continue her job.

Nonetheless, today the PA is less than forthcoming when it comes to providing internal information on their administration in the sectors of the West Bank that it controls, she said. 

And while staying with friends in Gaza, her former home, in 2008 on a temporary pass, Hass was equally kept on a short leash by the Hamas government. "I was under a 24/7 surveillance with escorts. But they were not there for my protection."

She was expelled in the end, which, she said, was too bad because had Hamas had allowed her to stay, she would have been there to witness firsthand the impact of the controversial Israeli assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.

Hass describes the bid at the United Nations for a state of Palestine based on the occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem alongside an Israel behind 1967 borders, as "very sane move," on the part of the Palestine Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The PA is seeking to regain lost credibility among the Palestinians; especially those living under the PA in the West Bank, and the U.S.-trained Palestinian security force working in co-operation with the Israeli Defense Force, she says.

But in taking the word of U.S. president Barack Obama of a promised Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution in 2012, Abbas has run up against the reality of U.S. politics, where there seems to be an unwillingness or a reluctance to pressure Israel to stop its illegal building of Jewish-only settlements on the occupied Palestinian land.

The PA president naively assumed that the Israelis would symbolically freeze settlement construction to facilitate a return to Israel-PA negotiations, said Hass. "Abbas took Obama on his word and miscalculated."

Revelations from internal Israeli and PA government documentation in Al Jazeera and other news sources have indicated that Israel has been using the status quo of an interim agreement between Israel and the PA to permit the expansion of Jewish settlement construction and thereby impede any possible two-state solutions in Israel/Palestine.

"There was a lot of criticism [among Palestinians] of the leniency of Abu Mazen and PA towards Israel trickery over the past 17 years," Hass said.

Like her journalistic colleagues Uri Avnery and Gideon Levy on the anti-occupation side, Hass finds herself marginalized inside Israel where the nationalistic right-wing has held sway over the government and much of the Jewish population.

"We are read much more outside than we are by Israelis. It is like a foreign language to Israelis," Hass said.

Ironically, Hass, who relies on Palestinian sources for her stories in Ha'aretz, does have readers within Israeli military intelligence. "Yes, I am useful [to them]."

She recounts a rare occurrence of an Israeli military commander who investigated one of her articles which reported a cover-up of the "cold-blooded killing" of five Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers in one village. "He started to check the behaviour of the soldiers and realized that I was right. That they were hiding things."

Hass is convinced that despite the control exercised by the PA security force another uprising or intifada will occur among the Palestinians in the West Bank, possibly as a result of a settler pretext to spark further turmoil.

There is already ongoing violence by the Jewish settlers against both local Palestinians and anti-occupation Israeli-Jewish activists, she relates.

"What is typical is that the Israeli military does not intervene and the settlers know they are secure, they are safe."

Hass cites, for instance, an incident where 23 Israelis and Palestinians received injuries, including broken bones and bloody gashes, at the hands of settlers from Anatot, just outside Jerusalem, in the West Bank. The confrontation occurred after the Israeli activists were accompanying a Palestinian land owner, also an Israeli citizen, on a tree planting exercise.

The journalist recounts in her foreword to her mother's published diary, Diary of Bergen-Belsen, 1944-1945, that Hanna Levy-Hass became almost mute in face of the Holocaust, the failings of Israel and the decline of socialism. "All my worlds were destroyed," her mother asserted.

But Hass cannot stay quiet about what lies in her gut.

She does not feel "connected" to the whole country of Israel, even though she is not likely to move to Europe or North America to retire.

"To tell you the truth I cannot see myself living in a purely Jewish environment. I will not be able to move back to an Israel if I had to, and to live in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.... I told my Palestinian friends, who are Israeli citizens, okay if I am kicked out of Ramallah, I will go and live in a Palestinian neighborhood, in Israel itself."

Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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