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Israeli Journalist Amira Hass Reflects on Reporting Under Occupation

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Amira Hass, the only Israeli journalist living in the Occupied Territories, joins us in our firehouse studio to discuss the current withdrawal from Gaza and expansion of settlements in the West Bank, the “apartheid system” in Israel and life in the “prison” of the Occupied Territories. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush cautioned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday against expanding the number of settlements in the West Bank. Israel has plans to build 3,500 new settlement homes in the West Bank and to build a corridor connecting one of the area’s largest settlements to Jerusalem. The construction is illegal under international law and violates the so-called road map to peace. On Tuesday, Bush held a press conference with Sharon at his Texas ranch.

  • President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, news conference, Texas, April 11, 2005.

After the meeting, Sharon defended the expansion of settlements and vowed to continue building a corridor between the large Maaleh Adumim settlement and Jerusalem — which will in effect permanently redraw the map of Israel.

Meanwhile, opponents of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip have chained shut 167 (one hundred sixty seven) schools and nurseries in and around Tel Aviv. It is the latest in a series of actions by protesters who have vowed to sabotage the pull-out from Gaza, due to begin in July. We are joined right now by one of Israel’s leading journalists, Amira Hass. She is a longtime correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. She has spent much of the last decade living in Palestinian communities of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and is the only full-time Jewish Israeli journalist living amongst Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. She is the author of “Reporting from Ramallah : An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land” and “Drinking the Sea at Gaza : Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege.” Amira Hass joins us today in our New York Studio.

  • Amira Hass

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday President Bush held a news conference with Sharon at his Texas ranch.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I told the Prime Minister of my concern that Israel not undertake any activity that contravenes Roadmap obligations or prejudice final status negotiations. Therefore, Israel should remove unauthorized outposts and meet its Roadmap obligations regarding settlements in the West Bank.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharon responded to Bush’s warnings about the settlements.

ARIEL SHARON: I wish to reiterate that Israeli society governed by the rule of law. As such, I will fulfill my commitment to you, Mr. President, to remove unauthorized outposts. As for settlements, Israel will also meet all its obligations under the Roadmap. As I said also in Aqaba, we accept the principle that no unilateral actions by any party can prejudge the outcome of bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: After the meeting, the Israeli Prime Minister, Sharon, defended the expansion of settlements and vowed to continue building corridor between the large Maaleh Adumim settlement in Jerusalem, which will in effect permanently redraw the map of Israel. Meanwhile opponents of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip have chained shut 167 schools and nurseries in and around Tel Aviv. It’s the latest in a series of actions by protesters who vow to sabotage the pullout from Gaza, due to begin in July.

Well, we’re joined right now by one of Israel’s leading journalists, Amira Hass. She is a long-time correspondent for the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz. She is the only Israeli journalist who has spent the last decade living in Palestinian communities of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. She’s continuing now on a tour of the United States, talking about her latest book, Reporting From Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land. She joins us now in our New York studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Amira Hass.

AMIRA HASS: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, can you comment on the meeting of Ariel Sharon and President Bush at Crawford, the significance of it?

AMIRA HASS: I could, of course, comment only on what was said to the cameras, not what was going on indoors of which we have no idea, and I think it was — I guess that it was much more to do with security matters and security cooperation between Israel and the United States than it was to do with the settlements themselves. I’m surprised because it sounds like — it sounds like déjà vu or déjà heard. Every now and then we hear an American official, an American president, saying something about the outposts and about their illegality and Israeli obligations and — but the core of the issue is not the outposts. The core of the issue is the settlements themselves. The core of the issue is what kind of a future we want in our region. Do we want a future where third world villages will — maybe will be termed a Palestinian state, but still they will be third world condition — in third world conditions, live next to a first world Israeli settlements and towns? And they are third world because these Israeli settlements and Israeli cities took all their land and all their resources from them all over the years. This is about our future. It is not about Bush’s concern with one comma or another comma in the Roadmap.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the process that’s about to happen? I mean, why the pullout from Gaza and not the West Bank?

AMIRA HASS: Yeah. I think it fits into a general plan of Israeli’s governments, both Labor and Likud, to fragmentize the Palestinian community, Palestinian people, and actually to make it live as communities, not as one people in its — on its territory with its rightful self-determination, but as groups of communities in fragmented, disconnected chunks of territory, enclaves, bantustans, you name it as you want, and each such territory, each such enclave will be treated according to the behavior of its population inside. If Palestinians in Gaza behave well, they will get some permits to go to work outside, to work in Israel, to work in the West Bank. If Palestinians in Nablus, for example, the enclave of Nablus, will not behave well, the siege around them will be tighter in order for the Israeli settlements to prosper around — to prosper without hindrance around Nablus. I think this is the general plan. And then the world might term it a state, but I don’t think we are — this will be a real state deserve of the word.

AMY GOODMAN: As you come to this country for a brief trip, how do you compare the coverage you see here (if you’ve had a chance to see it) with what is covered by the Israeli press in the Occupied Territories?

AMIRA HASS: Actually, since I watched — until I watched your news this morning, I was hardly aware of the world here in the few days that I’m here in the States. Because I was — okay, I was in a hotel and the cable — the stations were busy mostly with all — I guess important home news. So I know everything about fires that broke out, but I don’t know anything about the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What about your decision to live in the Occupied Territories, the only Jewish Israeli reporter to do this over the last decade. Can you talk about just the process that you came to to do this, and where you’ve lived?

AMIRA HASS: First, I would like to say that there are many Israeli journalists who have been working for different papers, and especially for Ha’aretz, for years and did not live in the Occupied Territories, but still their coverage of the Israeli occupation was very meticulous, very accurate, very courageous 'til today. For me, it seemed like — I guess it fits my temperament. I guess it fits my curiosity. I wanted to experience life under occupation day by day and night by night, not just on visits here and there. And it was when I — I never was satisfied with what I learned from Palestinians in my short visits; and that's how ten years ago, almost ten years ago, when I started going to Gaza, I — before I became a correspondent, I stayed more and more overnight at friends’ place, first in Gaza City, then in refugee camps. Then I wanted to know more, and the more you know more, the more you realize that you want — you need to know more.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Amira Hass. She joins us in our New York studio. I’m in Salt Lake City. She is a reporter for Ha’aretz newspaper. We’ll continue our discussion with her in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: we continue our conversation with Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, long-time correspondent for Ha’aretz newspaper. She is the only full-time Jewish Israeli journalist living among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, has lived in Gaza, has lived in the West Bank. Her books, Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege. Her most recent book, just out, Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land. She joins us in our New York studio. Can you talk about the influence of your family, of your parents, of the Holocaust, and why you have chose to report from the Occupied Territories?

AMIRA HASS: I grew up in the houses of survivors and left wing activists since before the Holocaust and afterwards. This was like — the things, this quest for justice, the anger with power, the being dissidents, it was a way of life. It was as natural as you waking up in the morning. So, that’s why I say it wasn’t — all my decisions later on, my — related to work and then going to Gaza were not such a revolutionary — they were not so revolutionary as it might sound. You could say I’m even conservative. I follow the suit of my parents.

AMY GOODMAN: Your parents — one of your parents in the concentration camps?

AMIRA HASS: My mother was a survivor of Bergen-Belsen. In Bergen-Belsen, she wrote a diary, which was, of course, very dangerous. She would put — she would be killed on the spot if the Germans discovered her writing the diary. She also ran a clandestine school for the little children, Yugoslav children, in her barrack. This needed, of course, a lot of cooperation with the other inmates. While she was writing in her diary, other inmates were watching around and making sure that no cop or no collaborator, no other — no German approaches or gets closer to the barrack. And teaching the children was without books, of course, without anything, just to keep them busy and maybe to let them — to let their curiosity go across this terrible reality where they were all of them. I don’t know how many of them were left alive afterwards. My father was in a ghetto in Romania for three, four years, in the Ukraine. And I lived in this — I grew up in this environment where one never shied about what happened to the Jews as victims. One always — I learned to ask from my parents how the Germans could kill like that, not how the Jews could have died like that. And I think it was a very important message for me. Later on, I knew that my parents came as refugees to Israel. They were not Zionists, and they chose to come to Israel, even not really understanding why they chose to come to Israel, but later on with the years, I realized, and I might have even given this answer myself, there was such a vacuum — such a vacuum was created in Europe after the Holocaust, not only because of the 6 million, not only because of the murder of the 6 million, and all of the graves and unknown graves that were there, but the fact is that Europe did not know how to accept back the Jews who remained alive. In so many countries, in the east — in east Europe and west Europe alike, the people who returned from concentration camps were seen almost as strangers, as if it wasn’t their place. This was one of the reasons why my parents as refugees chose to go and maybe to try to live a better world in Israel. Then they are on — then they were so very frustrated with the knowledge that while coming and becoming refugees — seeking for refuge in Israel, and the establishment of the state of Israel was involved with the terrible dispossession with another people, of the Palestinians. And this life in this contradiction, I think, has determined our lives all of these years long and until their death a few years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass is our guest. What is the reaction of the Israeli population to your writing from the Occupied Territories, and of Palestinians to what you are doing?

AMIRA HASS: There are many — Israeli society is very, very, variated, and you would hear a plethora of reactions. Some would say I’m a traitor. Some would be very proud of me. I have heard quite often from military officials that they know that I’m very accurate in the details that I bring. I think it has been proven that these details, this information that I gather, because I’m there on the ground and because I talk to people and collect testimonies, it has been proven how accurate it was. Things that were written, not only by me, but others, by others who go and speak directly to Palestinians, not through the channels of Israeli intelligence, so things that we wrote and said at the beginning of the Intifada are common knowledge today, about the Intifada being a spontaneous outburst of Palestinians, about Arafat not planning it. In a way, he was very scared by the Intifada, by the uprising. Testimonies about the behavior of the Israeli army. Now there are so many testimonies being exposed by Israeli soldiers in a group called Breaking the Silence, Shovrim Shtika. So, these are also some of the reactions I get. People do know that I — do remember that I wrote about it three, four years ago. Then as for Palestinians, I think, I have often also criticized and I am the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian leadership, I am able to write things that maybe other Palestinian journalists think, but do not dare to write or do not have the right — the place to write this criticism of the leadership, and I do hear people saying that this is good that at least I can write and express their criticisms. I don’t think that the Palestinian Authority always likes what I write, and I wouldn’t expect them to like. I mean, I would have been worried if they liked everything which I wrote. As a whole, and it’s true about me, and it’s true about other journalists, and it’s true also about Israeli activists who fight against occupation, that we turned out without planning to be the good messengers of Israel. Because it’s through us that Palestinians know that Israelis are not only settlers and soldiers of occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Amira Hass. Her latest book is called, Reporting from Ramallah Before that, Drinking from the Sea at Gaza. Why that title, Amira?

AMIRA HASS: Drinking the Sea at Gaza? “Go and drink,” an expression in Arabic, “Go and drink from the sea” means go to hell. It’s like “jump into the lake” in English. When I looked for a title, Arafat was saying a lot that, oh, we’ll reach — in 1995 and 1996, he was saying in public, public meetings, public gatherings, 'and we'll get our state, and whoever doesn’t like it, go and jump into the lake or go to hell.’ And people were laughing because he made — sometimes he said, go and jump into the — go and drink the water of Gaza, and sometimes he said, go — he said go and drink from the water of the Dead Sea. Depending where he was talking. Now in Hebrew slang, hell, azazel is hell. And then, in Hebrew slang, it was shortened into 'Go to Gaza,' which means 'Go to hell.' So, it was sort of a pun.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, you have said there has been a form of apartheid for 33 years, talking about Israel and the Occupied Territories, and the Oslo Accords did nothing to change that. You said the Israeli army is used to Pravda-like reporting. It resented your articles, but your editor told you, get up their noses — you get up their noses, so you must be doing a good job. Can you talk about what you mean by an apartheid-like system?

AMIRA HASS: An apartheid-like system is when we are talking about two peoples who live in the same territory, between the sea and the river, the Mediterranean and the River of Jordan, two peoples. And there are two sets of laws which apply to each separate people. There are two — there are privileges and rights for the one people, for the Israeli people, and mostly for the Jews among — within — of the Israeli people, and there are restrictions and decrees and military laws which apply to the other people, to the Palestinians. The Palestinians, as a people, are divided into subgroups, something which is reminiscent also of South Africa under apartheid rule. You have the Palestinians, the Israeli Palestinians who are citizens, but — of Israel, but seventh-rate citizens. You have the Palestinians of Gaza, and you have the Palestinians of the West Bank, and now you have Palestinians in every different enclave. There are different restrictions and different decrees which apply to these different enclaves. And you have the Jerusalemites, East Jerusalemites. So all these subdivision of the other people, which disconnects them, which fragments them as a people. And then you have one government, which is elected, which actually decides about the future of both peoples, the scope of development of both peoples, but it is being elected only by one people. For me, this is a form of apartheid, of demographic separation which is meant to improve the conditions and the well-being and the future of one people on the account of the other.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe a day in Ramallah, your latest book, Reporting from Ramallah, what it feels like to be there?

AMIRA HASS: Ramallah is an easy place. I call it prison — five stars prison. This is the easiest — that’s where occupation is the most lenient in terms of closures, invasions, attacks, economical siege. It has to do with the fact that there are more diplomats in Ramallah, more Palestinian Authority officials, NGOs, foreigners who work for NGOs. So, it is like — it’s a sort of a vitrine, the show window which doesn’t reflect what is really happening anywhere else. Also, the people with most — Palestinians with money are concentrated in Ramallah. So, you can get — so, I’m — I have easy — it’s not difficult life. I could not complain about life in Ramallah. It’s going from Ramallah to Nablus, to Jenin, to Hebron, to Gaza, which is so difficult because the differences, the contradictions are so striking, and also going from there to Jerusalem, West Jerusalem, where I have friends and things to do, or going to Tel Aviv, this is very difficult. I live in permanent jetlag when I go to these places. It’s a half an hour distance or 20 minutes distance, but it’s the difference between third world and first world. Life in Ramallah — and also, I mean, everything I said, it is prison, Ramallah, good as it is, it is prison for the Palestinians. It is not for me. So I also have this — the bitter — the bitter taste — I also live with a bitter taste of being free and being privileged to move around.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you deal with the Israeli press attacks —

AMIRA HASS: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the beginning of your question.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you deal with the Israeli press attacks on you? For example, the Jerusalem Post and the issue of being objective. What is your response to that whole line of criticism?

AMIRA HASS: I doubt if anybody can be objective. All of us who are Israelis, we are part of this conflict. We cannot be objective. This is a myth, and it’s a myth always taken by those who support the official policy. All of us have opinions. All of us have certain angles of — from which we view the situation. The thing is, if you report correctly, if you bring facts, if you allow different voices to be heard in your reporting, or to determine the reporting, and I think I have been trying to do this as much as I can and as much as my work requires. And, you know, Jerusalem Post, I’m not — I don’t follow it. It’s not — it has not determined my writing.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, my last question to you is what do you think it’s most important that people in this country understand about Israel and Palestine?

AMIRA HASS: The two most important things is that these two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, could very easily come to an agreement, to a fair agreement and to a fair peace solution. Fair. Israelis have to prove that they are ready to cut this link of dispossession, this chain of dispossessions that started in 1948. This is what Palestinians have expected us to do, to show that we do not just add another link of dispossession to another link of dispossession, and they would have replied by their willingness to live side by side the Israeli state. Also what is important, that Israel insists now to get its benefits or to get its way, thanks to its military superiority. Now this is very dangerous for the people in Israel, for the Israelis, because this feeling of military superiority or this situation, this state of being military superior will fire back in after 20 years, 30 years, I don’t know how long. But if this is the only guarantee for our remaining, of our living there in the region, this guarantee might be changed in some years. Maybe we won’t be able to give the services we are giving now to the United States. Maybe there is a change in Egypt or in Jordan, different regimes will emerge there, which will weaken the position of Israel in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, we are going to have to leave it there, but I hope to speak with you again before you leave the United States. Amira Hass. Her latest book is, Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land. She writes for Ha’aretz.

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