Gaza and Israel: Interview with Amira Hass

By Angel Ricardo Martinez

This telephonic interview took place on December 12, when I spoke with Israeli journalist Mrs. Amira Hass from her house in Ramallah, the West Bank. Almost two weeks before, on December 1st, she was ordered to leave Gaza – where she had entered three weeks before on a boat – by Hamas. In this interview, we speak about the current state of Israeli journalism, the contradictions of Israeli society, life in the occupied territories, and the future of Palestinian politics.

What motivated you to dedicate your life to this conflict and becoming the only Israeli journalist living in the territories?

Let me correct you, I’m not the only Israeli journalist, I’m the only Israeli Jew journalist. But it’s not a decision, this conflict is our life. It’s not by choice, it’s there all the time. Also, before becoming a journalist I was very active in the Israeli left-wing and workers right advocacy groups. It has always been a part of my life.

Reading you and, for instance, Gideon Levy, and knowing Neve Gordon and Illan Pape, one might think that there’s a lot of freedom of press in Israel. Surprisingly, I learned it’s not like that at all. What’s the problem with self-censorship in the Israeli press?

It’s not that there is official censorship, it’s just that there is an unwillingness of most Israelis to know. So, we have to fight, because nowadays it’s more difficult because the papers used to understand their role in the past: to monitor the centers of power. The Israeli media did its role, and let journalists write about occupation. But now, because of changes in the press and political changes, the papers feel that they are not representatives of ideas and the idea of freedom of information, but that they represent the readers. And the readers are not interested, the average Israeli doesn’t want to know about these things. You have to fight for everything that you publish, and there is much more space for leisure and "light" information, but nothing concerning the occupation. It’s like writing in South Africa during the apartheid, but not about the apartheid.

I noticed a big indifference from Israelis to what happens in the territories. What could be done about it?

Look, people are interested when there are Palestinian attacks, but only interested in the form of "Oh, see how Palestinians attack us", but they don’t pay attention to the permanent attack that is involved in occupation. This goes largely unnoticed. You know, this is not a question of journalism. Is a question of activism, a question for the world.

You have been accused of ‘becoming’ a Palestinian and having lost objectivity. How do you react to such allegations?

Of course, it’s nonsense. So they are objective because they go to the army, and they write the military point of view? There is no Israeli journalist that is criticizing Palestinian internal issues the way I do. It’s ridiculous. It’s true that I’m against the occupation, that’s true and I don’t hide it, I never did. I also think that objectivity is a very cynical and hypocritical term. None of us is without opinion, we all come from a certain place, and Israeli journalists that write about a Palestinians are never objective, never ever, and the opposite is true. Like a woman journalist who writes about rape, it’s never objective. She will write about rape and she will hate it and hate the rapist. The thing is if you write fairly, if you measure all the information you have in order to convey a picture, if you don’t lie, if you check your quotes. But objectivity, there’s nothing like that.

Tzipi Livni said recently that Israel’s Arab citizens should go to a future Palestinian state. Are democracy and ethnicity even compatible?

They are incompatible in any state. Same with democracy and religious purity, like in Saudi Arabia. There, Jews or Christians cannot enter. They need a special permit to do so. Not to mention what women are going through there. But of course, Saudi Arabia doesn’t claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, while Israel does. Look, there are reasons why Israel was established, and it’s very connected to the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and the Nazi industry of murder in the 40s of the last century. It’s very dangerous and, of course, I think many Jews believe that they prefer to have a Jewish state than a democratic state.

Seeing Israeli domestic issues, do you think that external conflicts are the glue that hold Israeli society together?

Like in every other place, not only Israel, an external problem is glue, which fixes all sort of internal contradictions. There are many contradictions in Israeli society, and some of them are very healthy. I think this is often underestimated. You have a society which can be violent but is very often welcoming and generous and warm: an oriental society. And you have an army which imposes itself or penetrates into so many aspects of life, but also so many folks who challenge, in different ways, this monopoly of the army. I think that the role of us journalists and Israeli activists that are against the occupation is to deepen this contradictions, and I hope that in doing so strengthen the healthy part. But it’s not enough to describe this society in one sentence, or two sentences, you need much more. And I think that Palestinians really underestimate the strength of Israeli society, and the feeling that Israelis, especially those who are not originally from Europe, don’t have a place to return to. I think that a lot of the talk about fear of the past, that existential fear, is manipulated. But we have to pay attention to this role, after all I think most of the Jews that came to this place in the 40s and afterwards would not have come if not for the Holocaust. I don’t think for moral reasons, I think is a very practical historical explanation of the state of Israel, and this cannot be underestimated.

How’s life in Gaza?

It’s a big prison, and it has been so for the last 18 years, because this policy is not new, it’s only accumulative. Just imagine that you are confined to a place and not allowed to leave . . . ever. When you are in prison, you know you have five years, 20 years, you have a date. Even if it’s forever, but it’s clear. Here people don’t know how long will this last and this is, I think, the main feature that dictates people’s lives, and the feeling of despair and being suffocated. Nobody can really live like this. The life of a human being in the sense of building expectations, making plans, building a future, is all confined to this place. Then, of course, the fact that so many people cannot work, because Israel controls the economy by having a closure, and the Palestinian Authority helps Israel by ordering people in Ministries and not giving them work, they get the salary but don’t work. So, many people don’t work and feel useless, they feel nobody needs them and it also adds to the kind of despair and the feeling of being not alive, but vegetating. These are the main features, but there are also environmental hazards because of the closure and the water problem. People live in a permanent fear of existence, a very basic fear of existence. This is very much stronger than the issue of food, because there is food, very often not healthy and not nutritious, there’s problem of malnutrition, but the main issue is being in prison.

How is it different from life in the West Bank?

In the West Bank you have now, not five years ago, a little bit sense of having horizons. People can go, not out, but through Allenby (bridge) to Jordan, or elsewhere. So there’s a little sense of feeling less encaged. Also now, because the world supports the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, there’s a bit more money and a little bit more of economical activity but very little more, because the whole Israeli prohibition of movement doesn’t allow a normal economy to develop here.

Do you fear a Sharon-style disengagement from the West Bank when the wall is finished?

The separation of Gaza was meant since 91, it’s not an issue from the last years. Disconnecting Gaza from Israel and the West Bank has been an old Israeli plan which is successful in many ways. In the West Bank they want something else, I think the aim is to create enclaves with Palestinian entity, and these enclaves will be connected to each other and somehow connected to Jordan, but not connected to Gaza.

According to journalist Shlumi Eldar, whom I met in Tel Aviv, only around 25% of Gazans support Hamas. What’s the situation there?

I’m not sure about that. I think many more voted for them, and had their reasons. Not all of them support their political-religious platform, but they support them for other reasons. Something made me think –it was not enough since I was only there for three weeks and then got kicked out by Hamas– that first of all now you have some economical activity connected to the tunnels that makes people connected to Hamas, because they encourage this tunnel economy. So you have a great number of people whose economic interest is connected to the new regime, this is one. Second you have people who out of despair turn to religion and go to the Al-Qassam brigades, their armed wing, in growing numbers. I know people who are Fatah and their children go to the Al-Qassam. I think that there are many loyalists in Hamas who still support them but might be disappointed with some things, but still vote for them. But I think is more than 25 percent, but I wouldn’t know how much.

With Abu Masen’s (Mahmoud Abbas) mandate coming to an end, what are the prospects for the upcoming elections and the future of Palestinian politics?

I am very reluctant to give future predictions, but it seems to me very unlikely that they can have new elections, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

I heard repeatedly in Israel about Mourid Barghouti being the "Palestinian Mandela". What do you think?

I think maybe Israelis are looking for a saviour, I don’t know (Laugh). Look, Mourid Barghouti is a very sane person, very rooted in this society, and he has a great sense of humor. He’s certainly not a Mandela in the sense that he’s not the thinker and organizer that Mandela was. But he’s connected to a group of people in Fatah leadership that was pushed aside by Arafat and now by Abu Mazen, and maybe if they could reunite, they can offer a different type of leadership. But, for this, the old leadership of Fatah has to understand that it’s time has gone, but they don’t want to understand it because they get big support from Israel and America. Mourid is not a person that can make a big change by himself, but he can represent a group of Palestinians who still genuinely believe in a fair solution and coexistence with Israel. But, of course, it depends on many other things. You can’t make miracles if Israel continues its policy of colonization.

What would a Likud government entail for this conflict?

Maybe more honesty (Laugh), I don’t know. Because with Labor and Kadima, the left and many Palestinians –because of what they talk not what they do—saw them as "parties of peace." While with Likud, especially with its ultra right-wing members, there maybe will be more international scepticism. It’s a rule of Israeli establishment to pursue similar policies toward Palestinians and the territories regardless of who’s in power.

In my opinion, the classical two state solution would probably be good for peace but not for justice. The one state solution is being more and more discussed. Do you think it’s possible or a mere utopia?

I don’t understand how we can reach a one-state solution if we can’t agree on a two-state solution. I think that instead of admitting the defeat of the proposals for two-state solutions, people run away with all kinds of dreams. I also think that there are many Palestinians who would not want to be in a same state with the Jews. I think you’re right, the two-state solution would not be just, it won’t undo history and the damage done to Palestinians, but if we look at the future, no solution is eternal and permanent. No phase in history is final, they all lead to another phase. The question is what we do now to facilitate and advance ourselves to a better phase. This is the question and I do believe that the Israeli government never wanted a two-state solution because they realized it could lead to something else. I think the whole discussion about solutions distracts us from the fight against occupation.

So what’s to be done?

I think the most important think is for Israel to withdraw to 67 borders, and this is possible if they are forced to do it. I don’t accept sayings that it’s technically impossible. It is possible. Half a million Jews are settlers, they will be compensated somehow and move to Israel. And who knows, maybe Palestinians will decide they don’t want a state, because they don’t like their leadership, maybe they’ll decide to unite with Jordan, I don’t know. But what’s important is to end this occupation and then work for Israeli democracy, meaning, of course, equal rights for both Palestinians and Jews. It’s a continuing progress. Look at America, would you say the US is a democracy? It’s not.

Do you think Israel hasn’t realized that time and demography are on the Palestinians’ side?

The discussion about demography is very dangerous, because then we return to your question about ethnicity. Palestinians want to express their rights for self determination in a state. It doesn’t mean that all Palestinians want to live in a state or not with Jews. Jews in Israel have historical reasons to cling to this "Jewish state", but they have to understand that this becoming more and more contradictory to democracy. The thing is how we work a solution with the reality, to fix the concerns of both peoples in a just way. This is very difficult, and that’s why I say it’s impossible now to speak about one state. And of course I struggle here against anti-democratic tendencies, which are connected to this issue of demography. Jews of world were persecuted as a minority, but in some cases, being a minority did good for Jewish people’s thinking, culture, and philosophy. So it’s not a must that we have to have a majority in order to prosper, but for this we need a guarantee from Palestinians that we will not be persecuted because we are Jewish in a state without a Jewish minority. So all this talks about the future, thinking that Israel needs a Palestinian state because of demography, it’s a bit frightening, because they could then think of other solutions.

Are you planning to return to Gaza?

I was kicked out of Gaza by Hamas, and I don’t know if they’ll allow me back. It was a shock for me, and they used the pretext of security, just like Israel uses the pretext of security all the time, but for me the thing is they don’t tolerate independent journalism.

Is Hamas benefiting from the whole situation in Gaza?

I think it allows them to build a little regime of their own and prove that they can do it better than Fatah, and I think in some ways they actually do it better than Fatah.

– Angel Ricardo Mart

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