Hass: Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land
Reviewed by Penny Johnson
This collection of thirty-seven dispatches by prize-winning Israeli journalist Amira Hass of Ha’Aretz begins with a report about the rise in youth suicide in the Palestinian territories in 1997 and ends with a probing—and sometimes chilling—November 2002 interview in Tulkarm with four cadre of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, including a description of the brigade’s first suicide bomber. While the putative rise in youth suicides was an ephemeral story, Hass’s observation on the consequences of the profound inequalities of the Oslo years was prescient: “The distance from here to private and collective acts of despair is not great” (p. 18).
Tracing that journey, as well as the dialectic between the Israeli “violence of plenty” and the resulting “plenty of violence” (p. 17), is a theme running through this collection. Her insights into the structural violence of the Oslo years, whether increased Palestinian poverty, land confiscation and intense Israeli settlement construction, or the continuing story of the closures and confinement of the Palestinian population, culminate in an almost eerily prophetic article written a week before the eruption of the al-Aqsa intifada. Hass challenged the then-dominant Israeli view that confrontation was not feasible for Palestinians due to their economic dependence on Israel: “Israel was blind to the noneconomic factors that made life intolerable for every Palestinian. . . . Rebellion is not planned from above” (p. 65). When the violence of plenty led to the intifada’s highly unequal conflict, Hass observed in excruciating detail Israel’s use of illegal and excessive force. She also interviewed both Palestinian intellectuals troubled by the increasing militarization of the intifada and the young men who take up arms. Her interest in and insight about the world not only of armed militants but also of an entire younger generation of activists who know Israelis only as “soldiers and settlers” (p. 151) are of particular salience. As violence continued to escalate sharply in 2002, she opined that indiscriminate attacks on civilians only solidify national will and revenge: “Both sides are convinced that only more deadly and devastating force will restrain the opposing side. Both are dead wrong” (p. 174). She is sympathetic to initiatives by Palestinian intellectuals to oppose suicide bombing but understands the bind. She is not a glib moralizer who stands above the actors in this particular tragedy. Those who choose to die, she writes, are representing a “collective frustration and fury over a life unworthy of the name” (p. 184).
Hass is at her best when she deploys a dual vision, as in her contrast of a 2001 Israeli army seminar on human dignity, which focused on the behavior of soldiers at roadblocks, with a Hebrew language class in Dheisheh refugee camp, which used soldier’s expressions at roadblocks in a language lesson: “scram”; “germs”; “liar”; and “I’ll break your legs.” Comedy mixes with harrowing details. At checkpoints, soldiers frequently demanded a Hobson’s choice of their hapless victims: “Decide what you want—a shot that is worth $2,000 from Iraq”—a reference to Iraqi donations for families where a person has been killed—“or `khaber a’ajel’”—the Arabic expression for “breaking news” broadcast on al-Jazeera whenever there is an incident of soldiers firing, killing, or injuring Palestinians (p. 126). This double vision also works in a revealing interview with an Israeli sharpshooter in November 2000, when Israeli sharpshooters were picking off Palestinians gathered in mass demonstrations at Israeli army checkpoints. Hass, both subtly and overtly, challenges the sharpshooter’s version of reality from her observations on the ground. Finally, both agree, in the sharpshooter’s words, that Palestinian gunfire, when used in these demonstrations, is “pathetic,” mainly firing in the air. Hass probes the Israeli army’s definition of a child (who thus should not be shot) and finds an unwritten definition: “Twelve and up is allowed. He’s not a child anymore, he’s already had his bar mitzvah; something like that” (p. 92). When Hass points out that international law defines a child as under eighteen years old, the sharpshooter says that twelve is what the Israeli army tells the soldiers, “I don’t know if this is what the IDF tells the media” (pp. 92–93).
This collection also traces, painfully and persistently, the increasing physical encirclement and closure of Palestinian communities. This most pervasive reality is one of the most difficult to convey to those outside the Palestinian territories: Its evil rests primarily in the repetitive, day-after-day detail, rather than in singular heartbreaking examples, such as the story of Aadli Nafa’a who carried his diabetic mother on his back from the village of Deir Ibziya to the hospital in April 2002 for an operation on her gangrenous leg (p. 167). Noting that the first carriage road between Jaffa and Jerusalem was paved in 1869, Hass sees that the “level of connection between West Bank cities and villages is fast approaching that of 150 years ago” (p. 185). Hass understands these growing evils not simply as military cruelty but as a physical embodiment of the Israeli settlement project. She notes that the Hebrew word for asphalt (kvish) “is also the root of the Hebrew word for occupation or conquest (kibbush) meaning to subordinate, to oppress, to crush, to defeat” (p. 55). She devotes several articles to the building of bypass roads and the process of cantonization, of which the current policy of siege and closure is a particularly malignant offshoot.
Another relevant theme reminds us of what historians sometimes call “the future of the past.” Hass describes the conditions of Palestinians detained illegally without charge by the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo years and the repressive measures taken against a West Bank-wide government teachers’ strike (winter and spring of 2000), including the closure of a local Ramallah radio station that broadcast an interview with a strike leader. The teachers’ main demand was simple: that the Palestinian Authority implement its own Public Sector Law passed in 1998 (pp. 58–64). She comments on the killing of three student demonstrators from the Islamic University in Gaza by Palestinian police in May 2001. “The message was: when there is renewed contact between the PA and the bastion of Western democracy, the United States, together with a return to the negotiating table, forget about basic liberties . . .” (p. 128). Her reminder is both apt and urgent if we are not to relive the wrongs of the past once again.
This collection of frontline reports holds up remarkably well, given that they are presented unrevised and without additional context or comment. (A useful glossary is included.) Occasionally, Hass’s reporting succumbs to the sheer misery of the situations she is describing, in particular in some of the pieces written during the spring 2002 Israeli reoccupation. This was not necessarily a flaw when the articles originally were published as newspaper accounts, but the value of these articles lies more in their documentary interest than their readability and analysis in a book collection. (They also read strongly as appeals to the Israeli public to understand these terrible events.) An introduction would have added to the volume’s interest, particularly if she had explored the issues, whether in journalism, politics, or person, of “reporting from Ramallah,” as an Israeli journalist uniquely living and working in the Palestinian territories. Hass is not only the sole Israeli journalist living in occupied Palestinian cities, but also among the few Israeli voices, whether journalist or citizen, who report from the Palestinian territories without being embedded in the Israeli army. The army’s ban on Israelis entering area A, (where Palestinian cities are located), Hass argues, “enables the IDF to control the Israeli perception of reality” (p. 148). In this volume, readers are fortunate to encounter another version.
Penny Johnson is an associate researcher at the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University and director of the Palestine office of the Palestinian-American Research Center.