Amira Hass; a champion of justice
by Abdallah Schleifer
I live in Cairo but I long for Jerusalem.
My first job in the Middle East as a young American journalist ,who stumbled upon the Old City of Jerusalem almost by accident enroute from Algiers via Amman to Cairo in the summer of 1965, was to be the managing editor of Jordan’s English language newspaper The Jerusalem Star/The Palestine News. The paper was published, as one might gather, in Arab Jerusalem. No one thought of it as “East Jerusalem” in those years – there was Arab Jerusalem or more formally Jordanian Jerusalem, and there was Israeli Jerusalem, or less formally Jewish Jerusalem, separated by a thin strip of no-man’s land. Occasional sporadic exchanges of gun fire occurred along the border in the late hours of the night.
My newspaper collapsed in the early hours of June 5, 1967 and when the city fell and then the war ended, I went to work first as an editorial assistant in the New York Times, responsible for coming up with stories from the occupied territories. In the early days of the occupation, three Palestinian villages in the fertile Latrun salient and an old City Palestinian neighbourhood that stood in what is now a vast plaza before the Western (“Wailing”) Wall, were levelled. Arab Jerusalem was annexed and an almost half –hearted attempt made - more wishful thinking that serious effort - to encourage a West Bank exodus to Jordan that would replicate the ethnic cleaning of Palestinians in 1947-8. So, that first year was relatively benign, compared to the ever escalating horrors of the years to come. There were several hundred Israeli settlers who had moved into the occupied territories when I left for Amman one year later, not the half million who are there today. And there is the relationship – the escalating presence of settlers and the escalating hell of occupation.
No one has more thoroughly, more consistently, documented that hell in day- to -day reporting than Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist writing for Haaretz who has been reporting (since 1991) and living (since 1993) in the Occupied Territories - first Gaza for three years and in Ramallah since 1997. This seems so unusual. I mean, what foreign correspondent lives in the occupied territories – in my brief time it was just me, and given my previous employment and the strong local identity involved, as a Muslim as well as the editor of a Arab Jerusalem newspaper, I was sort of considered half-native by my colleagues in the foreign press corps based in West Jerusalem.
But Amira Hass is an Israeli born in Jerusalem, her parents are survivors of the Holocaust. She is an Israeli foreign correspondent reporting in an Arab land for an Israeli newspaper, a foreign newspaper, although the settlers and other advocates of a Greater Israel would deny that status. And we have lived so long with the idea of an Israeli presence - more than 45 years - in the occupied territories, that many of us, subconsciously, would also stop thinking of Haaretz as foreign to the occupied territories. This is particularly because no daily newspaper in the Arab world, aside from the Palestinian press, can top Haaretz for its detailed reporting of the suffering of the Palestinians.
Any day now I expect the increasingly menacing Israeli Ultra-Right, and in particular the Religious Nationalists (who have more certitude than secular Israeli right-wingers since they know they have God on their side), to fire bomb the offices of Haaretz.
Reporting on Palestine from Palestine
But Hass gives a simple explanation for her residence in Palestine; “just as reporting about England should be from London and about France from Paris, so reporting from Palestine should be from Palestine.”
Hass is as much a commentator as a correspondent. She would probably say that this particular observation is a product of my own prejudice that news should be separate from opinion. She has the capacity to write short but powerful pieces. One of the most powerful—because it goes to the heart of the matter for anyone of Jewish origin, was her July 18, 2012 column “The anti-Semitism that goes unreported.” Her sub-title said it all: “The daily dose of terror inflicted on these Semites isn’t noticed by most Jews – even though the incidents resemble stories told by our grandparents.” She goes on to allude to 154 recorded attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their property in the first six months of 2012.
Her writing assembles references to terrible facts that are told in a controlled but biting, often ironic, style framed by a sense of the terrible injustices of an Occupation which has come to derive its raison d’etre in protecting, facilitating and fostering the Israeli settler movement. At best by the IDF’s shoulder-shrugging passivity at the sight of settler crimes against the Palestinians, at worst by the IDF’s active participation in those crimes.
Hass always leads with a strong first paragraph, all the more powerful because they are stated so flatly they seem to transcend opinion. So on April 3rd, in a column entitled “The inner syntax of Palestinian stone throwing,” she wrote: “Throwing stones is the birth right and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance. Persecution of stone throwers, including 8-year old children, is an inseparable part – though it is not always spelled out – of the job requirements of the foreign ruler, no less than shooting, torture, land theft, restrictions on movement, and the unequal distribution of water sources.”
Since then she has been subject to a wave of hate mail and calls for prosecution for incitement to violence. It is as if this one column opened the storm gates of a reservoir of hatred and anger at Hass that has been been gathering for years, for in these attacks little or no mention was made that in the same column, which called upon Palestinian schools to teach modes of resistance to their students, Hass said such schooling should include the distinction between civilians and those who carry arms, between children and those in uniform, and the pitfalls of using weapons.
Four days later, Hass was praising a documentary co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian that portrayed the courage and bravery of the non-violent demonstrators from the West Bank villages of Bil’in and Naalin, no mention of her support was made in the vociferous attacks that followed her April 3rd article.
Touched by emotionalism
But I also think that Hass has lived so long and so closely with the Palestinians that she has been touched by the same emotionalism that has often undermined the sense of appropriate tactics. The IDF welcomes stone throwing. It provides an opportunity to demonstrate its own far superior violence - tear gas canisters often fired directly as protestors, killing one upon impact a few years ago, and rubber coated bullets, which again have proved to be lethal. Their aim is to discourage any Israeli critic of the occupation from joining in the protests.
That is why the IDF has been known to infiltrate agents provocateurs into Palestinian demonstrations to start up the stone throwing – not difficult since about than half of the Jewish population of Israel are of Jewish – Arab origin. Just as it is Amira Hass and a few other Israeli reporters and columnists who insist on calling attention to the cruelties of the occupation, and just as it is Israeli human rights groups who provide the legal services and researchers so that Palestinian villagers can contest settler and IDF activities in Israeli courts (and on occasion win), so too will the possibility arise that one day tens of thousands of Israeli advocates of peace, or even hundreds of thousands , participating with the Palestinians in highly disciplined non-violent demonstrations, will bring the Palestinian’s lack of rights to global attention.
And that global consciousness – which expresses itself in actions such as the recognition (with observer status) of Palestinian statehood at the U.N. , or undertaking boycott and divestment campaigns against Israeli products – can conceivably force its way into the consciousness of a majority of Israelis.
One can dismiss global public opinion but one should bear in mind Israel has the firepower to level all of Gaza in 48 hours, which is probably the only way it can ever “defeat Hamas.” But it is global public opinion that has prevented such an act, to date, not Hamas nor the Arab League, nor the Organization of Islamic States. And it will be an affected Israeli public opinion at work if an Israeli government is ever to move forward with the sort of concessions necessary for the Arab Peace Plan (which finally seems to be getting some traction in Washington), a supportive Israeli public is needed to transcend from a Two-State proposal to a reality.
Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza…and Jerusalem.”