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Israeli Journalist Amira Hass on the Start of the UN’s Probe into Possible Israeli War Crimes during Gaza War

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The actions of the Israeli army during its twenty-two-day assault on the Gaza Strip earlier this year are back in the spotlight with the arrival of a United Nations delegation in Gaza this Monday. The fifteen-member team will be investigating possible war crimes and other violations of international law during Israel’s military assault. It’s headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, who was the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Israel opposes the investigation and denied the delegation visas, forcing them to enter Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: The actions of the Israeli army during the twenty-two-day assault on the Gaza Strip earlier this year are back in the spotlight with the arrival of the UN delegation in Gaza this Monday. The fifteen-member team will be investigating whether possible war crimes and other violations of international law during Israel’s military assault. It’s headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, who was the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Israel opposes the investigation, denies the delegation visas, forcing them to enter Gaza through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York Monday and said the UN should investigate Hamas’s rockets and not alleged war crimes by Israel. He later told reporters Israel would not cooperate with the investigation.

    EHUD BARAK: From our experience, we well know that they will never be able to talk to the other side and to penetrate or to interrogate the series of terrorist operations along years, including thousands of rockets and missiles fell upon the heads of Israeli citizens, in order to get a unbiased conclusion. And knowing the procedures by which such operations are taken, I don’t think that Israel has to or will cooperate with this interrogation.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights groups and Palestinian officials say over 1,400 Palestinians, including over 900 civilians, were killed in what Israel calls “Operation Cast Lead.” Israel disputes the figures, claiming less than 300 civilian deaths. The Israeli Defense Forces-led investigation concluded last month there was no evidence of serious misconduct by its troops.

I’m joined now by the renowned Israeli journalist Amira Hass, regular columnist for Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper. She has spent more than a decade living in and reporting from Gaza and the West Bank, the only Israeli journalist to do this, and returned to Gaza this year a few days after the official end of Israel’s assault. She spent the next four months living in Gaza, documenting accounts of the war and its aftermath.

She is the author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land under Siege and Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land. Her latest book, out later this month from Haymarket Books, is a diary written by her mother, Hanna Levy-Hass, of surviving the notorious Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. It’s called Diary of Bergen-Belsen, 1944-1945.

Amira Hass joins us in the firehouse studio now.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. The latest news of the UN delegation, headed by the jurist Richard Goldstone of South Africa, being denied visas, so they’re going through the Rafah border controlled by Egypt.

AMIRA HASS: This is not the first delegation and the first investigation committee that has been denied Israeli cooperation. There was one by the Arab League that came in February and also did not receive any cooperation on the Israeli part. And it’s very strange. If they didn’t have anything to hide, if the Israelis didn’t have anything to hide, they would have gladly cooperated and given information to those very esteemed jurists, who have been — who have done a lot of important work dealing with other investigations all over the world. John Dugard led the other delegation, the first delegation of the Arab League. John Dugard is South African, just as Richard Goldstone is. And Richard Goldstone is also a Jew. And it is quite telling, or it is even incriminating, the Israeli refusal to cooperate with them.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think they’re hiding?

AMIRA HASS: The truth. The truth that it was not an attack against the military threat, because the military threat that Hamas poses is very minor. Israel, for years, has had the need to exaggerate the Palestinian military threat. It served not only Israeli needs, it very often served also internal Palestinian needs, to exaggerate their own threat to Israel, because that’s how they could maybe get more popularity in the Arab world, outside and inside the Palestinian community. So both — this exaggeration served both parties.

And, of course, Israel wants to hide — Israel built a presentation of the reality, not — it didn’t allow the reality to come out easily, the reality of indiscriminate attacks against civilians, mostly civilians. I was there for four months. I found it hard to find — I mean, the majority of people that I met, bereft families, people whose houses were destroyed, people whose houses were occupied by the army, people who were victims to missiles, attacks either by drones or helicopters, or bombs dropped, or being killed or wounded by bombs dropped by war jets. I found it hard to find Hamas — direct Hamas activists, let alone combatants or people who are known to be combatants. There is no way to hide this — there is no way that the Israeli figures about casualties is correct.

I mean, I asked the Israeli army to give me their list of — which they say about 700 casualties that they claim, or 1,000 — I don’t remember now. They refused to give me their list. I wanted the list to check name by name and then to compare with the list that Palestinian human rights organizations compiled and to see where the differences are. And they said they could not give me the list, because this would disclose their sources. In one specific question about two women who were killed in short — by short range from a tank, I asked, “Are these two women included in your list of casualties?” I didn’t get an answer. So, the Israeli refusal to cooperate with information is very telling.

It’s true that also Hamas are not telling much. But by being there, of course, you learn a lot. They don’t tell much, because I think they don’t want to tell that — or they don’t want to break the myth that they could stand up against the Israeli army. They could not the Israeli army. And this is not shame. I mean, the discussion is whether one should — whether if you want to get to liberate the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation, whether the armed struggle or the — I call it the symbolic armed struggle, is indeed the way. This is the discussion. They have not — when you look at their abilities, when you look at their — the weapons that were smuggled in, those who sent them weapons did not send them sophisticated weapons at all. And there is no way they could stand up against the Israeli army. And this is something that the Israelis — both the Israelis and Hamas, I think, want to hide.

AMY GOODMAN: And Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, meeting with Ban Ki-moon Monday, saying the UN should investigate Hamas’s rockets, not the alleged war crimes by Israel?

AMIRA HASS: I think that they have — I mean, everybody was talking about the rockets, and I think that the — let me ask you, you know the city of Sderot, right? You are familiar with this. Do you know Ben-e Have you ever mentioned in your program the village Bani Suhaila? How many people know about Beit Hanoun? How many people knew about Abasan? All these — how many people know — knew about Zeitoun? All these Palestinian neighborhoods and villages which were a victim of Israeli attacks. We only know about Sderot.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting. Journalists could get to Sderot.

AMIRA HASS: Exactly, yes, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli military let them get to Sderot, but not to Gaza.

AMIRA HASS: Exactly, and not to Abasan in order to see and not to — yeah. So it’s a chutzpah. I mean, really, it’s even tiring to discuss it. So, everybody knows about the rockets, Hamas rockets, on the country. People had the impression that the whole thing — that history started with the rockets, that the history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict started with the rockets, which is, of course — which doesn’t mean, you know — there is a lot of criticism, internal criticism, within the Palestinian society about the rockets, the use of rockets. It’s obvious that rockets did not liberate Gaza, did not liberate Palestine, and they cause more harm to the Palestinians than they even cause to the Israelis.

I asked once two activists of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, of the Hamas armed wing, I asked them, “Why do you do that?” I mean, it was back in 2003, 2004. And they told me, “We want to teach the Israelis a lesson. We want them to be afraid, just as we are, just as — not we, but just as our women and children are afraid.” This was very interesting. So it is a competition about who can instill more fear. I asked this time when I was in Gaza, I asked an activist in the Islamic jihad, I said, “So, who is more afraid? You or the Israelis?” And he admitted that in this competition over fear, also the Palestinians are the losers.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, there’s an article in the New York Times that says, “According to […] newly disclosed data, about 58,800 housing units have been built with government approval in the West Bank […] over the [past] 40 years. An additional 46,500 have already obtained Defense Ministry approval within the existing master plans, awaiting nothing more than a government decision to build.” We’re talking about a doubling almost —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- of the settlements in the West Bank.


AMY GOODMAN: This as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says there will be no new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and illegal outposts there will be dismantled.

AMIRA HASS: Look, all settlement is illegal. So when we use the term “illegal outposts,” it’s misleading. It’s unauthorized illegal settlements, while you have the authorized illegal settlements. This is the real distinction.

And the real problem is not these outposts. They are tiny. Most of them are tiny. And they just distract our attention from the real construction. Yeah, this has been Israeli success. And this is, by the way, one of the things I ask the Palestinians, and that’s a problem. Neither the Palestinian so-called armed struggle — I call it symbolic armed struggle — and suicide — and terrorist attacks, both guerrilla and — guerrilla attacks and terror attacks against civilians, both these and Palestinian negotiation strategy have not stopped the settlements. On the contrary, the settlements grew in parallel, in tandem with the Oslo process and with the process of negotiations.

So, actually, Israel — you know, I asked once a Peace Now activist, and it was in ’95 or so, I asked him, “Why did you drop the slogan that you had before ’91 or before ’93, the slogan of ‘no peace with the settlements’?” And he said, “If the Palestinians accept the settlements, actually, if Abu Mazen accepted some settlements, who are we to oppose him or to say differently?” It’s true that with the Oslo agreement, Palestinians gave the impression that they could live with the settlements. And then you had the Geneva — Geneva talks or whatever, not talks, but the convention of some groups, that accepted the existence of two major settlements: Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev. So, indeed, the Palestinians gave an impression that they will tolerate these settlements. And we — no, some Palestinians, not all, of course. Others say that it’s too late now to dismantle the settlements. So, actually, it is — any solution which is based on the two states is obsolete.

AMY GOODMAN: Your evaluation, assessment of President Obama so far on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as he heads now to the Middle East, first to Saudi Arabia, then to Egypt?


AMY GOODMAN: And then to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

AMIRA HASS: Yeah. My evaluation, it’s -— so far I see more hope invested in him than I see real inclinations to pressure Israel. I mean, all the statements that were said so far are encouraging, in the sense that he understands or his administration understands that there must be a way out of this deadlock. But there must be measures taken, such as freeze of sales of arms to Israel, freeze or stoppage of all support, financial support of Israel as long as it continues to build in the settlements. So these things are yet to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: Amira Hass, I hope this is part one of our conversation this week, that when you come back to New York City, you’ll be with us later in the week, because I particularly also want to talk about your mother’s book that’s out posthumously, Diary of Bergen-Belsen, as President Obama visits a concentration camp, as well. This is Democracy Now!, Our guest, Amira Hass, columnist for Ha’aretz newspaper, renowned Israeli journalist.

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