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International Women’s Media Foundation Honors Israeli Journalist Amira Hass with 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award

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Amira Hass is a regular columnist with Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper and the only Israeli journalist to have spent several years living in and reporting from Gaza and the West Bank. On Tuesday, Hass was awarded the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour described Hass as “one of the greatest truth-seekers of them all.” Hass joins us to talk about covering the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Goldstone report on the Israeli assault on Gaza, and the need to understand the issue in the context of military occupation. [includes rush transcript]

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

ANJALI KAMAT: Israel has hardened its opposition to international calls for an independent inquiry into its war on the Gaza Strip last winter. Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday prevented a planned debate by the Israeli Cabinet on whether to launch an internal probe of the war. Instead, ministers created a lobbying team to fight a United Nations report which accuses the Israeli army of war crimes and deliberately targeting civilians in Gaza.

The report by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, which was endorsed by the Human Rights Council last week, also accuses Hamas of indiscriminate rocket fire. It recommends that the UN Security Council possibly take the issue to the International Criminal Court if both sides fail to conduct credible domestic investigations within six months.

At an international conference in Jerusalem Tuesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres reiterated that terrorism was the biggest war crime.

    PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES: [translated] Peoples that were not hit by car bombs and missiles that were launched at their civilian population are not aware to the damage caused by terror, to its price, and to the complexity that it creates. Preventing terrorism is saying yes to good neighbor relations. The war of terrorism is the biggest war crime which exists.

ANJALI KAMAT: Well, we turn now to one of Israel’s most powerful voices of dissent: journalist and author Amira Hass. She is a regular columnist with Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper and is the only Israeli journalist to have spent several years living in and reporting from Gaza and the West Bank. She is the author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege, Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land and Diary of Bergen-Belson, 1944-1945.

Amira Hass was awarded the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation at a ceremony in New York Tuesday. We’ll go to her acceptance speech in a moment, but first here is CNN’s Christiane Amanpour introducing Amira Hass, whom she described as, quote, “one of the greatest truth-seekers of them all.”

    CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Amira monitors power by following the lives of average people caught in its machinations, and she’s on the ground listening and collecting their testimonies. And as I said, she is often providing the material for those of us who don’t know the story as well or who sometimes are not able to go where she goes to be able to follow her leads.

    She writes what the Palestinian journalists think about their country’s leadership but dare not say themselves. She writes what she thinks citizens of Israel should know about their leadership but do not want to hear.

    Some call her a traitor. It is uncomfortable to hear the truth; it’s very uncomfortable to tell the truth. Some say that she is the only voice of truth in a polarized conflict. For twenty years, she’s paid no attention to either of these camps, choosing instead to follow her own path. Amira knows what Irena just said, that dictators do not like journalists, but more than that, democracies often don’t like journalists either.

AMY GOODMAN: CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, introducing Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. This is the acceptance speech that Amira Hass gave right after.

    AMIRA HASS: Shalom, marhaba.

    Allow me to start with a correction. “Ah, how impolite,” you’d rightly think. But anyway, we Israelis are being forgiven for much worse than impoliteness. What is so generously termed today by the International Women’s Media Foundation as my “lifetime achievement” needs to be corrected, because it is failure. Nothing more than a failure. A lifetime failure. Come to think of it, the “lifetime” part is just as questionable. After all, it is about a third of my life, not more, that I have been engaged in journalism. Also, if the “lifetime” part gives you the impression that I am soon going to retire, then this impression has to be corrected, as well. I’m not planning to end soon what I’m doing.

    What am I doing? I’m generally defined as a reporter on Palestinian issues. But, in fact, my reports are about the Israeli society and policies, about domination and intoxications. My sources are not secret documents and leaked-out minutes which were taken out of meetings of people with power and in power; my sources are the open ways by which the subjugated are being dispossessed of their equal rights as human beings.

    There is still much more to learn about Israel, to learn about my society and about the Israeli decision makers, who invent restrictions such as: Gazan students are not to study in a Palestinian university in the West Bank, some seventy kilometers away from their home. Another ban: children above the age of eighteen are not to visit their Palestinian parents in Gaza, if the parents are well and healthy. If the parents are dying, Israeli order-abiding officials would have allowed a visit. If the children are younger than eighteen, the visit would have been allowed, as well. But on the other hand, second-degree relatives are not allowed to visit dying or healthy siblings in Gaza. It is an intriguing philosophical question, not only journalistic. Think of it. What, for the Israeli system, is so disturbing about reasonably healthy fathers or mothers? What is so disturbing about a kid choosing and getting a better education? And these are but two in a long, long list of Israeli prohibitions.

    Also, when I write about the progressively decimated and fragmented Palestinian territory of the West Bank, it’s not just about people losing their family property and livelihood that I write. It’s not only about the shrinking opportunities of people in disconnected, crowded enclaves. It is in fact a story about the skills of Israeli architects. It is a way to learn about how Israeli on-the-ground planning contradicts official proclamations, a phenomenon which collectivizes the acts of all Israeli governments in the past as in the present.

    In short, there is so much to keep me busy for another lifetime, or at least for the rest of my lifetime. But, as I said, the real correction is elsewhere. It’s not about achievement that we should be talking here, but about a failure. It is the failure to make the Israeli and international public use and accept correct terms and words which reflect the reality, not the Orwellian Newspeak that has flourished since 1993 and has been cleverly dictated and disseminated by those with invested interests. The peace process terminology, which took reign, blurs the perception of real processes that are going on: a special Israeli blend of military occupation, colonialism, apartheid, Palestinian limited self-rule in enclaves, and a democracy for Jews.

    It is not my role as a journalist to make my fellow Israelis and Jews agree that these processes are immoral and dangerously unwise for all of us. It is my role, though, to exercise the right for freedom of the press in order to supply information and to make people know. But as I’ve painfully discovered over the years, the right to know does not mean a duty to know. Thousands of my articles and zillion of words have evaporated. They could not compete with the official language that has been happily adopted by the mass media and is used in order to dis-portray the reality, official language that encourages people not to know. Indeed, a remarkable failure for a journalist.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli journalist Amira Hass, speaking on Tuesday after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Amira Hass joins us here in our firehouse studio in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, again, Amira. And congratulations on your award.


AMY GOODMAN: What do you think it’s most important for people to understand right now about Israel, about Gaza, about the West Bank, where you live?

AMIRA HASS: That we’re not talking about symmetric powers here, Israelis versus Palestinians or Israeli state versus a Palestinian state. We’re talking about a regime of occupation that uses all methods in order to force on Palestinians an arrangement of surrender, which is far away from internationally accepted, or at least in the past or at least proclaimed, internationally proclaimed solutions for the conflict, which is a two-state solution based on the ’67 borders.

And this Israel has been doing for the past twenty years very successfully by economical attrition, by economical temptations, by separation, disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank, by military —- vicious military attacks against Palestinians both in the West Bank and Gaza, by all sorts of means, by restrictions on movement which sometimes we feel are far worse than those restriction on movements put on blacks in South Africa, apartheid South Africa.

ANJALI KAMAT: Amira Hass, the big issue right now is the reaction to the Goldstone report, within Israel, around the world. The Israeli prime minister has repeatedly said that the report will negatively impact the peace process.


ANJALI KAMAT: This is something Judge Goldstone has refuted.


ANJALI KAMAT: But what’s your take on this? How will the -—

AMIRA HASS: Lieberman said it, right?

ANJALI KAMAT: Yes, Lieberman, and this weekend, Benjamin Netanyahu said it, as well, I believe.

AMIRA HASS: Yeah, and just a few weeks — a week or two weeks ago, Lieberman said that nobody should expect a peace solution in the near future. So what kind of — I mean, does he — will it obstruct from twenty to thirty years? I mean, what does he mean here?

Look, there is a joke. I mean, the peace process and the negotiations have been a joke for the past almost fifteen years, and certainly for the last ten years. We don’t expect that Israelis will change now their course in the peace — in the negotiation process and agree to things that they did not agree so far: dismantling all settlements, not just the unauthorized outposts; stopping the scandalous ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem, East Jerusalem; bringing Gaza back to the Occupied Territories, by — of allowing Gazans to connect back to their brothers in the West Bank. So I don’t see that this — that there is a change, such a change in Israeli society and in Israeli policymaking that will give the negotiations the essence that they have lacked so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who Judge Goldstone is, the significance of his history, a South African —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- judge heading this report, known as a Zionist. His daughter did an interview on Israeli radio —-

AMIRA HASS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: —- saying, “My father loves Israel. He is a Zionist.”

AMIRA HASS: Yeah. He’s Jewish — I mean, Zionist. But for me, what’s important is what he said about himself. As a Jew, he felt compelled to relate to the facts, to those facts, and to denounce what he saw as crimes, or to alert, to alert fellow Jews in Israel. I think this is much more — what is a Zionist if he still lives the — I mean, still lives — instead of going to Israel, he moved, I think. Now he lives in New York, or at least part time. So, what sort of a Zionist he is? But he supports the state of Israel, OK, the existence of the state of Israel. But he remained a South African, so he did not choose Aliyah, immigration. But for me, the fact that he’s Jewish is very important. And he takes from Jewish tradition the sense of alarm at such gross violations of rights, of human rights.

ANJALI KAMAT: Amira Hass, can you trace for us the status of the Goldstone report and also talk about the role that Mahmoud Abbas played a few weeks ago that was widely condemned by a lot of Palestinian factions and the public in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza? The US condemned the report, but the Human Rights Council endorsed it last week.


ANJALI KAMAT: Can you trace what happened and what the status is now and what’s expected to happen next?

AMIRA HASS: I’m not so good at status things, but I think now, after it has been adopted by the council, it has to be forwarded to the UN Security Council, or first — I don’t know if first for the assembly and then to the UN council, which is supposed to vote. And we assume that America will veto it or that it will not accept the recommendations of the Goldstone report to ask Israel to open an independent inquiry to the allegations, and if, within six months, there is no sufficient or satisfying response from Israel — and Hamas, for that matter —- it can be transferred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. These are the recommendations of Goldstone.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the significance of this, to refer it to the International Criminal Court?

AMIRA HASS: The significance is that the sense of impunity of Israel, with all its conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians, can be ended. This is the first -—

ANJALI KAMAT: And what’s the likelihood of an internal investigation?

AMIRA HASS: You know, the truth, I cannot guess. I cannot guess. I don’t — we hear conflicting remarks by several Israeli officials. But you see how the Goldstone report is important, because for six months there has been a lot of information going on about the attack, and I’ve been publishing in Ha’aretz for — since January, almost — since January, when I got to Gaza, I’ve been publishing, and Ha’aretz was publishing my reports, because it’s still so much I could not finish it in a week time or two weeks. I stayed five months in Gaza after the attack, after the onslaught. By the way, I don’t use — I don’t think that the word “war” is correct. There was no war between two symmetric parties. I see it as a war — as an attack, as a — and this is, by the way, what Breaking the Silence people noticed from the — when they spoke to soldiers, a massive, wet — what we call wet training exercise of the Israeli forces.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean, “wet”?

AMIRA HASS: With live ammunition. So a massive exercise. And I see it as a massive exercise for wars to come, not for wars that were, but for wars to come, using all the sophisticated, almost science fiction weapons, weaponry that Israel has against, what I see, Native Americans with their arrows. That’s — if I’m asked to make a comparison, this is mine. That’s why I cannot use the term “war.”

AMY GOODMAN: So you’d say the —-

AMIRA HASS: I say “onslaught,” “attack” and -—

AMY GOODMAN: The rockets of the Palestinians?

AMIRA HASS: Look, I think that the rockets of the — this is where I differ from the human rights language. My argument with them is about indeed morality and about usefulness for the struggle for liberation. Is it useful or not? I think that the whole rocket thing is a theater, is a make — pretend for internal use, for the Palestinian internal use, to say, “Oh, we are fighting against the occupation.” It’s putting people in total misconception, because Hamas has not delivered in improving people’s life, so they go to the realm of imaginary fight and imaginary struggle for liberation, comparing themselves to Hezbollah, based on no fact, I mean, only out of lies, which doesn’t mean that I —-

But the thing here that we -— when we concentrate so much about the rockets, we think — we forget, we completely forget, the daily — what daily? — minute-by-minute violence that Israel is exercising against the Palestinians. When borders are closed, when all exits to Gaza and out of Gaza are closed, this is violence. This is daily violence. When children do not have pens and pencils and paper to use in schools, this is violence. Everybody is talking about food. Food is not the problem. The problem is the right of Palestinians to produce, to create, to export, to travel, and this has been violated for ten years already, before the rockets were launched from Gaza.

So this is — but the Goldstone report forced Israel to look at testimonies and evidence that was there all the time, but it was very easy to ignore, because they were saying, “Oh, it’s just all these journalists and these marginal journalists, and so far our soldiers have not told anything, so everybody believes our version.” All of a sudden, the scope of the attack against Goldstone report shows that they take it seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Amira Hass. She just won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in New York before about 500 people, mainly women, at the Waldorf Astoria yesterday.

You land in the United States in the midst of a big battle within Human Rights Watch —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- the human rights organization. Its active chairman for twenty years, now founding chair emeritus, Robert Bernstein, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- that is very critical of his own organization. I just wanted to read a quote of it to you. He says, “Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.”

Bernstein goes on to say, “To be sure, even victims of aggression are bound by the laws of war and must do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties. Nevertheless, there is a difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally.”

Those the words of Robert Bernstein, criticizing his own group, Human Rights Watch. Your response, Amira Hass?

AMIRA HASS: It’s very Orwellian, very Orwellian. It’s Israel which attacks the Palestinians. I mean, I read the article. The word “occupation” does not appear there even one time. He says that Israel is a democracy of seven-million-point-something Israeli citizens. He forgets four million Palestinians, who have to be registered in the Israeli population registry in order to exist. All the Palestinians are registered. He forgot the four million. So what kind of democracy it is, where four million who are in the Israeli Ministry of Interior have to be registered and Israel decides if they are — if they exist? How can you call it a democracy, when half of — when one-third, not to mention the one million Israeli Palestinians, don’t have rights, the same rights? What kind of democracy it is? It is really twisting all facts around. I was surprised to read this article, because it very much sounded — much of it sounded like propaganda of Israeli officials. Parts of it, not all.

Also, it’s true — it’s true that Human Rights Watch was established back in the — when, in the ’70s, end ’70s, as part of the human right — human rights discourse against the Soviet Union or against the East and “unopen societies,” as he calls it. But things have changed since then. And it doesn’t mean that if it was recruited in the Cold War, it was not justified to criticize those societies for lack of democracy. But now we have developed. We know that attacks on democracy cannot — and on rights, do not only happen in the closed societies, in the unopen societies. And we also have learned that we should come with more demands to societies which claim to be democratic.

Every American Jew has more rights in Israel, potentially has more rights in Israel, than any Palestinian who was born there, who lives there, or who was born to Palestinians who were expelled. Every American Jew. I mean, this gives — this gives an obligation to Human Rights Watch to monitor Israel. I mean, there are no Americans who have a potential right to become automatically Saudi citizens or Chinese, or I don’t know what. Only Israel. So you have an obligation to monitor in what — to what extent it protects or abides by internationally accepted obligations and human rights. So these things are completely forgotten, and many more. I mean, it’s — factually, I mean, there are many things to argue with him, I think, and also value-wise many things to argue. And maybe — I’m sure that people will answer.

ANJALI KAMAT: And finally, Amira, can you comment on your vision of the future in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza? And there’s murmurs in the press of a third intifada. What’s your view from living in Ramallah?

AMIRA HASS: You know, Israeli journalists who are connected to the military always talk about the third intifada like the broadcaster, weather broadcaster — you know, like, “OK, there is some clouds. There will be rain. There will be no rain” — completely devoid of any real sociological analysis, not to mention analysis of which — which is based on understanding of what occupation is and what oppression is. This is, I think, almost a natural law, that when you have oppression, sooner or later there will be explosion against this oppression. Will it be successful? Will it be clever? Will it be intelligent? Will it be stupid? We don’t know.

The Second Intifada was a disaster, was a disaster for many reasons, and we don’t have the time, but the main reason is that it was a reflection of people’s anger with this discrepancy, terrible discrepancy, between open — the official language and the reality, the reality of no rights, of no — and, by the way, economically wise, it was good, it was not bad. It was not for strict economical reasons. But it was for this — you are promised liberty. You’re promised freedom. You’re promised a state. You’re promised independence. And what you get are bantustans and growing Israeli settlements and disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank. So there was an explosion. But then, for internal reasons, there was the militarization of this uprising used by Arafat in order to hush criticism against Arafat, escalated by Israeli excessive use of power, lethal power, to disperse demonstrations that were very benign, before the shooting to the air. And then Hamas used this, and others, to show that they are — for their internal Palestinian struggle, a competition over popularity. So they were competing over who can kill more Jews. So this, for me, was a very big failure. But the uprising started for genuine reasons.

And so will the next uprising, because this discrepancy, this Israeli control over every step of Palestinian life, still goes on, and it’s even worse. And the world doesn’t know. People do not associate now the Israeli regime with the terrible restrictions on freedom of movement, like it was in South Africa. Everybody knew during South Africa, during apartheid, that there is pass system. Now people do not know about. I was asked by a very nice Jewish woman, close to Peace Now — she asked me, “Are there any Palestinian journalists doing like what you are doing, living in Israel and reporting about Israel?” I said, “They wish they could, but Israel would not allow them even to go and cover a press conference in Jerusalem, let alone live in Israel.” We mean Palestinians who are residents of the West Bank or Gaza. She was surprised. So people do not grasp the extent of the restrictions of movement, which is the worst of all. I mean, it completely shrinks people’s life, not to mention how Gaza is a huge, how would I say, detention camp for one million and a half people who could not move more than thirty kilometers or forty kilometers in the past ten years or twelve years.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Amira Hass, regular columnist with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, just won the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Her last book is about her mother, who survived a Nazi concentration camp and moved to Israel. Her book is called Diary of Bergen-Belson, 1944-1945 —-

AMIRA HASS: So it’s my mother’s book.

AMY GOODMAN: —- written actually by Amira’s mother. And that does it for this segment of the show. Thank you, Amira.

AMIRA HASS: Thank you.

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