An interview with Amira Hass (italian version published by Galatea, november 2010)
by Giulia Bondi
Amira Hass is the only Jew Israeli journalist who lives in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. From what she defines “the five star prison” of Ramallah, she denounces the absurdities of the occupation and tells stories of palestinian everyday life, for Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz and Italian magazine Internazionale.
Should we believe to peace talks, or it’s again just another comedy?
It is what it has been for 20 years. Israel makes voices that it is part of the peace process, but when you look at acts on the ground they are the opposite of a peace process. All Israelis policies of the past 20 years are actually aimed at foiling the only solution that is acceptable by the whole world and the Palestinians, which is the two state solution. The settlements, the restrictions of movement, the Israeli policies about Jerusalem, kicking Jerusalemites Palestinians out of Jerusalem, all these are parts of these policies. My advice is always not to listen to the talks, but look at the acts and facts on the ground.
American Administration has been very strong in proposing the 2-states solution.
But when US talk about 2 states they don’t talk about the 67border, they don’t talk about Gaza and the West Bank being both part of the Palestinian state, they don’t insist about East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian. So, it’s very much like Tzipi Livni and even Netanyahu are talking about the 2 states. Israelis are talking about the 2 states only when they are sure that the land allocated to the other state is fragmented and much smaller than Israeli’s. There is an Israeli hope to impose surrender to the Palestinians.
Israeli government receives huge contributions from the United States, and you defined this “a form of payment”. For which kind of services?
I have no doubt that the great majority of donations are given because of the security ties. I don’t know the exact amount, but a lot goes to military equipment and security know-how. Israel has a security role in the region, a role that America designated. Israel is not forced to do it. It’s a choice. Donations are not for free, for us they go for security cooperation, for the Palestinians they are meant to pacify them. Egypt and Turkey also get strong donations, but not has much as Israel.
Is this Us-Israel an unbreakable boundary?
Israel won’t break its boundary with the States. It could break only due to external reasons. Arab states, right now, are not punishing America for its contacts with Israel. But they could tell America “either – or”. So far they don’t do it, but they could say they don’t sell petrol any more. But at present Israel will not do much against the will of the States.
Who profits from the current situation?
I think people should realize that there is something abnormal about the occupation, but this doesn’t happen. Israelis feel this situation is normal. They feel quite comfortable. The Oslo agreement gave the illusion that a Palestinian state exists. Since Israel is not responsible for education or sewage, since Palestinians have a prime minister and a president, people – also in Europe – think Palestine is a free state.
Before Oslo, Israelis knew there was something wrong. And since Oslo, more people went to live in settlements. There were some years of terror – I think we can define it terror – but Israelis didn’t see it as a fight for freedom, they saw it as Palestinians rejecting all good offers Israel made to them.
Now, there is also the security industry, developed thanks to the fact that we have occupied territories. Territories are a laboratory for security industry development. There, we can experiment high-tech security equipment we sell to the whole world. Very important strata of the population – not big, but important – are connected with security development. Today’s politicians and future politicians are connected to this apparatus and they benefit from continuing this situation.
Then, there are other issues, for instance control of water resources. Now, people behave as they live in Switzerland, but if there is peace we will need to divide water evenly. Israelis, as a society, have a short-term interest in the occupation. They are blinded by this interest, unfortunately, as many colonialist societies of the past, and they don’t see the future disasters.
And why did the Oslo process fail?
Always, Israel had two characters: colonialist and refuge, answer for persecution. But colonialist side took over. After Oslo, Israel had the opportunity to cut itself from colonialism, but it did the opposite. This was due to the narrow interest of some people, to the strong connection we have with the Us, to an ideology that allows to suppress popular movements. There are many answers and I am not aware of all. Visible strata – not large, but powerful – of Israeli society have this short-term interest. This pains me so much, and it is suicidal for Israel. We cannot expect to live in this region surrounded by Arabic Muslims who see us as the delegates of the Crusaders. This is the short sight of today’s Israel: instead of using the complicated background of Israel in order to tell that we want peace, we do the opposite.
Israel is not a peaceful neighbour, you say. But does the threat to Israel’s existence depend only on this?
I think that, in general, if Israel behaved totally different, there would have been fewer reasons for being in danger. I don’t portray the Muslim world or the Arab world as quiet and peace loving. They have their own interests, so far. But for 60 years Israel is acting like a foreign agent. In 2002 the existing elites in most of these states accepted Israel, because most of them depend on America. I think they are even more afraid of fundamentalist Islam than Israelis are, and they are so tied up with the West that they would rather have Israel as a normal neighbour, and not as a foreign agent, which always agitates.
So, is Israel just a colonial presence in the Middle East?
Zionism has colonialist roots; it’s 19th century European movement. It was normal to think that the white concerns were supreme. But at the same time, Zionism was expression of the threat for Jews in racist societies. It is double. Most of the Diaspora Jews did not adopt Zionism as a solution to anti-Semitism. Zionism became the movement of the majority only after the Holocaust. We cannot separate the state of Israel from the history of the Holocaust. This is one of the things that are difficult for Palestinian to understand. It’s not a matter of fault; it’s history. There was a historic necessity of creating Israel. Not as a Jewish state, but as a state for the Jews. You cannot separate Israel creation from the Holocaust and you cannot treat Israel only as a colonialist phenomenon like French Algeria or British Kenya. This makes everything more complicate, than if the Jews had some place to go back. We have not. Shall I go back to Bergen Belsen? Where shall I go back?
Do you ever see a risk of anti-Semitism in the movements in favour of free Palestine?
I do feel that among some people, also Islamists and Arabs. They always speak about “Jews, Jews”, and it’s distressing. I don’t think it’s the majority, but that’s what press likes to show. Personally, I have encountered westerners that are pro Palestinians for the wrong reasons, and I argue with them. In Ramallah I knew people that would compare Israel to Nazism. It’s troubling. In the past I could get very angry about such remarks, now maybe I’m tired of being annoyed. Then, I also use the word Jews instead of Israelis, because any Jew in the world who decides to move to Israel can have immediately more rights than a Palestinian who’s born there.
Words are very important in journalism. You stress on the necessity to use the word “occupation” instead of “conflict”. And also it can make a big difference if you call a settlement “a Jewish neighbourhood” or if you call the separation wall “a fence”.
Actually, the majority is a fence and not a wall. But, for me, the wall looks less bad. The fence looks awful, because it’s barb wired and it occupies more land. Sometimes it’s more offensive than the wall. The wall, at least, you could pretend it’s for noise.
And how do the Israelis see the settlers?
For me, every house in the settlements is a house too much. But, in the past 20 years, settlements became more familiar than before. There are more than half a million settlers. Everyone has at least two friends or family members who live outside and think settlements are normal. Oslo gave everyone the impression that there is a Palestinian state, like a virtual Palestinian state. People don’t really look at the details, like how much land there is for Palestinians.
What do Israeli people think about the huge quota of gross national product going for defence? Does anybody complain about this money being stolen to school or health investments?
Majority of population sees security industry or apparatus as a very patriotic cornerstone of Israeli future. In the media, for instance, there is this general and stupid – to me – notion that everything should be balanced, except military generals (besides in Lebanon, because there we lost). Policy against Palestinians this is not being questioned. Army is a fundamental part of Israeli society and identity. Suppression of Palestinians is taken as necessary, beyond doubt by the majority. I represent a minority that thinks different.
How could you serve in the army?
I was on a kibbutz for two years and I did an alternative service. Today this is more accepted. I had a background of activity in left wing, so the army didn’t want me. I worked with children, without wearing a uniform. Today, women have more occasions to do alternative services. Now, secular Jews also go less in the army. Religious fundamentalists go more and more. There are ways to sneak: the son of Olmert didn’t serve. It was a political choice but didn’t appear as political. The army is smart and allows people to find ways to sneak. When it’s too political it gets a lot of noise and attention. Army wants to hash attention, so they allow personal agreements.
Is sneaking the military a form of civil disobedience?
No, it is more out of convenience. Religious believe that the land is ours; the others don’t serve for selfishness. And in the elections people support right wing parties.
I remember you saying that even bribery can be considered a hope.
I know that, in certain prisons, soldiers smuggle mobile phones for Palestinian prisoners, but it’s not a widespread phenomenon. You can also bribe soldiers at checkpoints, but this is not widespread, also. Maybe I quoted Bertolt Brecht, when he says that corruption is a sign of humanity because when the laws are inhuman. But bribery is also corruption: they pay 10.000 euro to smuggle a mobile, it’s not a pack of cigarettes.
Are there, in Israeli society, forms of underground, small rebellion? Not proper political activism, but small ways to refuse occupation?
I’ll give you another example. I do think that the majority of Israeli Jews supports government policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But there are examples of human attitude; it’s not a fascist society. There’s a lot of institutionalized discrimination of Palestinians. But at the same time you can find normal, warm relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. When I see Arabs speaking Arabic very loud in cafés, I like it. This is a hope: it means they feel safe. During the onslaught in Gaza there was one terrible case, the one of Blacksmith: the Israeli army declared he had a truck full of missiles. It turned out it was equipment taken out from his workshop to avoid bombing, and 8 people in his family were killed. He spoke to me on the phone, in Hebrew, telling me that his former employer called him and sent him money. The human attitude doesn’t necessarily reflect in political attitude.
Western societies are showing a similar trend: it is now considered normal to have first class citizens and second class citizens, and the security of the firsts allows disregard of the seconds’ rights. We see it in Europe with immigrants, with Roma people and so on. Do you see this trend, and when do you think it begun?
I guess that as long of Soviet Union existed – we knew it was a prison for its own people – it presented an ideology of equality of human beings. It was false inside, but it was used outside. With the collapse of the so-called socialism, we lost this ideology of equality, which was never really implemented, but was exemplary, ideal. At the end of this ideological war, you don’t have to pretend any more that you stand for equality. In the past 30 years, for examples, we saw the diffusion of more and more theories that connect skills and talent with biology instead of education or sociology.
So, today you can propose exchange of populations as a political strategy…
There are things that were a taboo and not any more. Also African liberated societies have now their own elites that behave very badly towards their own people. The idea of equality has strong and successful enemies.
Now, if you say it’s for security reasons, you can do almost everything. In Israel, do you think this concerns are true or are they just paranoia?
There is an element of truth, of course, but Israeli security machine has to augment the problem, all the time. We also have many signs that Arab world would accept us now. There was, in 2002, a peace offer from the Arab league. I’d think Israel should take it, and jump on it. But they did just the opposite. So it’s not security that concerns, but the profits and the interests connected to it.
Of course, suicide attacks exists, they are a problem and you have to address it. But now, the Israeli establishment looks for biological reasons for this: they are Arab, they are Muslims, and so on. We know that in criminology you should connect crime to background: if most prisoners in the United States’ jails are black, something is wrong with society, not with black people. Young Palestinians willing to commit suicide are a social problem, connected to their situation, to how they live. You cannot kill them all. But now, most of the people give essentialist, biological and not sociological explanation to this threat. You can say it’s brainwash, but Israel is a democracy, people have access to information, to different opinion. It’s not North Korea. It’s wilful brainwash, because people are part of an establishment that profits from this.
Some people believe that in a free Palestine Arabs wouldn’t be able to administer themselves. For instance I remember some passages from Benny Morris, the historian.
What I don’t like is that he attributes this incapacity to blood or genes. In many things people think that Israeli administration was very lousy at the beginning, but things change. I criticize the Palestinian elite, I always criticize elites because they think they deserve more than others. But my criticism is class based, not biological.
And what about the Palestinian Authority? How could they sign an agreement and guarantee its respect, since half Palestine is under Hamas control?
Hamas is very shrewd and they’ve never believed that Israel wanted peace. They were right, so far. Hamas is able to continue its politics another 200 years, because the time span of religious people is different, they have longer breath. The thing is how much the people support this. You have a nucleus of people that are 100% Hamas, but others support it for one or another reasons. I think they want people support; they could not do something that is totally against the people’s will. So they might start to withdraw if there is opposition. This is the big thing, we don’t know.
The Palestinian Liberation Organization has to give a counterbalance to Hamas popularity, and this is very difficult. Plo and Pa should show that they offer something that fits more the human life. But to do so, they depend on Israel, and this is difficult, it’s a mess. Hamas is depending on God, but also on Iran and Arab states. Fatah is depending on the West. Both are depending from outside. There are very small forces in Palestinian society, like the Popular resistance movement, so called non-violent. But they are very small and not very well organized.
It’s difficult to see a hope.
Israeli activists against occupation are versatile and creative. I am proud of my activist friends, but it’s a minority. They give Palestinians a reminder that not all Israelis are settlers or soldiers, and this is the most positive thing. There are initiatives aimed at breaking the separation, defying prohibitions. You have demonstrations against the wall, women who go to checkpoints, protesters against to settlements. It’s mostly Israeli women who defy Israeli laws. It’ an important trend, a good frame of mind.
Why mainly women?
I think women are more courageous. There are groups with men, which are very consistent and dedicated. Voluntary activity, though, is mostly from women, not paid or Ngo activity.
Last summer, a group of Israeli women took Palestinian women and children to the sea, to have fun on the beach. The police interrogated one of them after the pressure of right wing. So, after that, the other 19 denounced themselves. They published an ad, saying they also had broken the law.
Then, you have groups of women who go to the Israeli military courts and watch the sessions. It puts a pressure on these judges. You see good-looking old women, who sit there for 6 or 7 hours, 3 times a week. And this puts a lot of pressure. They are exposed, they publish reports, and it’s all voluntary work.
Or you have Machsom Watch, women who go to checkpoints. Since 10 years, 3 or 4 times a week, standing from 4 o’ clock in the morning. What they manage to do is that they actually bring occupation back home. They are all obsessed with what they see; they witness terrible discriminations. Their families don’t want to hear all the time about the checkpoints, but they manage to bring to the immediate surrounding things that people don’t want to know. They make two separate societies interact, and this is very impressive to me.
You said women are braver.
I said it about Israeli women. They don’t develop these leadership things like men. You can have 400 grassroots activists. They do have problems and conflicts, but they don’t do this for prestige, for salaries. Most of these women belong to quite comfortable classes, to Israeli “aristocracy”. They are professionals or retired and they have time. We all have privileges, because we belong to the dominating people; the thing is what we do with the privileges. And these are privileged women who decide to dedicate their time and privilege in order to fight against a regime of privileges.
And what about Palestinian women?
Among Palestinians, right now I don’t feel there’s much mobilization of women. Those who have privileges use privileges for themselves. There isn’t a big movement of women. And those who haven’t privileges are so taken over by their daily troubled lives that they couldn’t allow themselves to do anything more. Palestinian society now is going to many upheavals, from shock to shock. In a permanent situation of instability and emergency the weaker parts of the society suffer more. And in this sense, I see there is some regression in Palestinian society. The women position, despite the official language of the PA, is worst. Social habits that see women as instruments for procreation and housework are very rooted. There were places where women participated in non-armed resistance and now they are less. Women have to struggle with so many problems, connected both to the society and to the occupation.
Could they become, as women, a peace factor?
I even don’t like the word peace. It was so contaminated in the past 20 years that I don’t use it as a positive term. I would say a vehicle for change in the society. And right now I don’t see Palestinian women being a vehicle of change. Certainly not in Gaza, and also in great parts of the West Bank, in villages, in refugee camps. Women are strong, but they are not allowed to develop as they should and could. You have many women who go to university, is not like it was in the past. I think that there are more educated women; there is understanding in the society that you have to educate daughters, but since there are not enough job opportunities of course it’s easier for men. But there are changes.
How could Palestinian women be empowered?
There were years when the Palestinian feminist movement was stronger. Officially the PA has this notion of women participation, there are different Ngos which deal with the issues of women, but for me it’s much less volunteer work, it’s much more Ngo work, getting paid. There is something lacking, existing in the first intifada and missing now, more volunteer work. The society as a whole is going a bit backward. There is more dependency on religion as comfort, and then it is being interpreted in its most conservative levels, more traditional roles of women, in the villages, in refugee camps, women are considered like getting married, bringing children, having a home shaving their legs for the man, and things like this. You go to villages and it’s very sad to see women confined to traditional role. That’s my impression. Women are very strong but their strength doesn’t go towards individuality.
How does the war affect women’s everyday lives?
Because this conflict involved so much targeting civil population, women were among the most punished. Both Israeli women, especially in suicide attacks in buses and streets, and Palestinian women. It’s also a class issue. In suicide attacks in the buses, usually is poor people who take the bus. It’s very clear in Israel that it’s lower classes. Palestinians who committed these operations didn’t care at all about targeting the poorest. And women are usually among the poorest, coming back from markets. Proportionally I would guess there are more Israelis women who where killed.
In Gaza, I remember meetings with women immediately after the attack. Many women complained about the men, that they collapsed more quickly, ran away from home and left the women with all the troubles of taking care of traumatized children. So, in a society where social system is based more on the family, there is a huge burden on the women. It’s less in the Israeli society, because it immediately mobilized to assist the victims of suicide attacks. It’s a more developed society in this sense; it has a more developed social support system.
What if there were more women in negotiations?
It’s not about gender. It’ about class, and ethnicity. The terrible onslaught on Gaza was in the time of Livni, so I don’t think it’s a gender issue at all.
How are you seen as a woman living in Ramallah?
After almost 15 years, it became normal. Of course, I experiment more freedom than Palestinian women. But Ramallah is a bourgeois, Christian elite. In a Palestinian village I’d be too strange, as a single woman without children. Palestinian women would think something must be wrong with me.
You suggested some books to Internazionale readers, and one of those was “La storia”, by Elsa Morante.
I gave it not because of the woman, but for the Second World War, because it’s important to remind people that you cannot disconnect Israel from the Holocaust. I read this book very long ago, but I remember the scene where all the Jews from Rome were taken and brought to trains. People were part of European countries and they were sent away.
What do you think about Holocaust’s memory? For instance, I visited the new memorial in Berlin and I found that there is more memory than history, and very little connection to historic responsibilities.
I didn’t like those stones so much. But there’s another interesting memorial near Brandenburg Gate, to commemorate the burning of books. There is glass, and beyond you see empty shelves. I found it much stronger. But in general I agree with you, you cannot disconnect the Holocaust from history. It’s not a tsunami. It’s not something that happened from the sky.
Your parents survived from concentration camps. Do you feel that this family history makes you especially free in your writing? How is it connected to your present work?
I know there are many people who have the same history and think the opposite. Objectively, this doesn’t give me any special right. It’s many factors. But I remember my father saying: of course we can use the Holocaust as an excuse, but we, survivors. are the only one allowed to do so.
Once, in the mid 80s, there was this Israeli ex officer, very racist, xxxhvam Zevi, who was later assassinated. He had an open meeting at the university, and I told my father. There were many leftists who came but didn’t know what to do, and it was my father who foiled the whole meeting. Before the man started talking he stood up – he was the oldest man in the hall. This man had suggested transfer of Arabs. And my father said: “I’m sorry but you don’t have a right to talk like this, it’s illegitimate what you are saying. I’ve been once to fascism and I cannot stand it another time”.
How often are you criticized for your opinions? And how do you feel?
I really don’t mind about the attitude of people. They call me Kapo, or even Adolf Hitler, because we have the same initials. All these lunatics. Now, there are comments on Hareetz website, but I never go read it. Instead, I remember good e-mails. I receive e-mails from Lebanese people thanking me for my work, and for some of them is dangerous even to write me. I am sad when Palestinians don’t appreciate my work, but I am not writing for them.
In your career, which were the best satisfactions?
I’m never satisfied. I think I still have a lot to develop in my writing and in my work, and I am envious f people who can make real researches and investigations. You need better contact with authorities, which I don’t have. So I envy them.
Than it’s contradictory, I know there are journalists who come today and say, “I knew the peace process would collapse because Amira told me so”. People remind me that I had warned, much before the second intifada. It shows, in one way, that I analyse correctly, but I am not happy about this. I wish I were wrong. Then, also, 2 years after I started writing about intifada, officers started to say, “we are shooting to much, and we shouldn’t”. So, you cannot be satisfied because people were not listening to you in time.
Yes. But besides analysis, I know that I keep improving my writing. I try very hard not to repeat myself. If I repeat, I repeat deliberately, like old Cato. You have to say things over and over again. But I try not to use clichés. Once, I gave a talk to the memory of Edward Said. His wife was there and she said she’s never heard a lecture with “not even one cliché”. I took it as a very big compliment.
Do you think journalism should be objective?
To me, the duty of a journalist is to annoy power, to monitor centres of power and what they do to people. When I started working, I was one of the first journalists who didn’t have a military background. Civil administration, which was Israeli military authority over the Occupied territories before Oslo, complained about my work. And my editor said: “It means you are your job”.
About objectivity, I’m personally not objective. I am against the occupation, and I declare it. No journalist is really objective. As soon as you decide which stories you want to tell, you make a choice, you establish a hierarchy, which is influenced by your opinions and beliefs. It’s the editor that should balance, giving space in the newspaper to different opinions. My duty is to tell a story where facts and details can speak. If you want to criticize power you shouldn’t preach, but find interesting angles and stories that show its contradictions. And you should always make tough questions, even to those you like.
Have you ever been afraid?
Yes. Sometimes, you stand in front of a tank and you don’t know what will happen. In a way, I am much more afraid in demonstrations, when they throw teargas, than with the bombs. A bomb is not personal. When I saw soldiers throwing something from 5 meters distance, I was shacking, but with the bombs I was always very quiet. It’s funny. Once in Rafah I was with friends and I have to calm them, we were watching stupid movies to get distracted. Now, if I think of what I did at the beginning of the Intifada, I wouldn’t dare to do it today. Walking between tanks, and walking in the city totally under curfew, and I’m the only one who’s walking there. Now, it looks to me… wow… like it’s another person 200 years ago. But it was me, and 8 years ago.
And were you ever afraid after writing? For you, or for people you could have put in danger?
Yes, my fear is always to hurt someone. So, I’m very careful about that.
Did you ever make a mistake because of anger?
I make mistakes, of course, but not because of anger. Sometimes because of tiredness or misunderstanding, but then I correct myself. At the beginning of the Intifada what really annoyed me was that I was so tired that I didn’t fight for including some details. The paper didn’t like to publish details about the soldiers’ killings. I felt angry with myself, but then I was so tired, and it was so hard.
Is it a punctual tiredness, or do you ever feel really tired, like if nothing was ever going to work?
There was a time when my editors did not want to publish me, and then I felt very very tired, you could say depressed. There was a long time when I was almost fired because I was not publishing so much, and the owner of the paper thought I didn’t care to write. I couldn’t convince him that it was the editors. For many years I had to fight a lot, I published because I was fighting for everything. And then there were one or two years were I didn’t fight so much, and I didn’t publish. And then I was really depressed. In general I have tendency for depression but then it was even worse.
So, where do you find energy?
When you write, when you work, it gives you energy. In the past I could see my writings having more concrete effects, now it’s more difficult to have a real result after a journalistic piece. But this doesn’t stop me. Once, I interviewed a Solidarnosc activist, who told me: “We never thought we were going to see the fall of communist regimes in our lives, but we weren’t fighting against its injustices just to see the results. You fight because you have to fight”.