DevMode
Asked what is the secret of her being drawn to Gaza in 1993, Amira Hass writes: "What can I do if I am the daughter of refugees saved from the Nazis? I took in my mother's stories to the extent that it seemed to me that I was there: a prisoner of the German Gestapo in Yugoslavia, taken in the summer of 1944 to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in West Germany. When she and the others were taken off the cattle wagon and led by foot to the camp, she noticed German women riding comfortably on their bicycles, with a food basket on the back of their seat, watching those being led off with a dull, apathetic curiosity.
"On the way out of the Gaza Strip and its fences," she continues, "one travels by Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz named after Mordechai Anielewitz, leader of the Warsaw ghetto revolt. (1) The journey takes five minutes, but it is as if Gaza, the refugee camps and the people hungry for freedom there, don't exist. There in the kibbutz roadside inn, a reply drawn from the experience of my parents, refugees who were saved from the Nazis, is constantly reshaped within me: I won't be with those who were riding the bicycles."
These were the concluding words of an article called "Gaza, Contours of Peace," which Amira Hass wrote in this journal in our Winter 1996 issue. However, the identical theme is repeated in her introduction to the book, if in slightly different words: in the book, the cyclists became "a loathsome symbol of watching from the sidelines, and at an early age I decided that my place was not with the bystanders"(this reviewer's emphasis, here and above). In her book she explains that her desire to live in Gaza stemmed from that dread of being a bystander, from her parents' legacy of "resisting injustice, speaking out and fighting back."
Why Gaza? Because she understood Gaza as "our exposed nerve, embodying the entire saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… the central contradiction of the State of Israel - democracy for some, dispossession for others. I needed to know the people whose lives have been forgotten by my society and my history, whose parents and grandparents, refugees, were forced from their villages in 1948." And while the popular Israeli image of Gaza was "savage, violent and hostile to Jews," the writer, who always let it be known to the Gazans that she was an Israeli and a Jew, notes that she "felt at home there, in the temporary permanence, in the longing that clings to every grain of sand, in the rage that thrives in the alleyways." Yitzhak Rabin said of Gaza, "If only it would just sink into the sea," and Yasser Arafat declared that those who oppose the Palestinian dream of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem "can go drink the sea at Gaza." Hass used this phrase for her title.
Written in Hebrew in 1996, Drinking the Sea at Gaza received first-class reviews both in its Hebrew and its subsequent English editions. The English translators, for their part, did an excellent job. As for this reviewer, he usually marks in yellow those lines in a book which are particularly significant and worthy of comment; however, this method didn't work here because it turned out that there was more yellow than white. Some of the material in the book was first published in the daily Ha'aretz, for whom Amira Hass (44) is a correspondent. Hastily written articles in a daily paper often contain more than a little repetition but there is no such "padding" in this book and it is extremely readable, with a freely flowing narrative. It is a long book simply because it has much to say.
Yet Drinking the Sea at Gaza is not an easy book to define. As a journalist who went to live in Gaza in 1993, Amira Hass covers the whole range of events there before and after the Intifada (December 1987), and the coming of Arafat's Palestinian Authority in May 1994. The book contains a wealth of information, including statistics, on all aspects of life in densely populated Gaza, where in 1948, 200,000 out of the over 700,000 Palestinian refugees found shelter, outnumbering the original population.
Some of figures quoted on the period of Israeli occupation are mind boggling: since 1967, 280,000 Gazans passed through Israeli prisons, 80,000 during the Intifada; in the year 1988, 2,285 people were shot in the head, 7,049 severely beaten, and 3,196 suffered ill effects from inhaling tear gas. UNRWA figures show that in 4 years since August 1989, 1,085 people treated in its clinics had been shot in the head, including 545 under the age of 16 and 97 children under the age of 6. According to the Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights, during the 5 years of the Intifada, a child under the age of 6 was shot every two weeks.
Speaking of health, 15 pages of the book are devoted to illustrating how, in case after case, the inadequate health facilities left by the Israelis in May 1994, after more than a quarter of a century of occupation, necessitate urgent, sometimes life or death, treatment in the more advanced Israeli medical services. Hass quotes many cases like that of a baby who had undergone eye surgery, adults requiring eye surgery, cancer patients needing radiation treatment (this is not available in Gaza), heart patients, paraplegics, etc., whose requests to enter Israel for treatment are refused or delayed by the Israel Coordination and Liaison Office (CLO). The patients are Palestinians but it is the CLO which has the last word on entry permits. The Physicians for Human Rights, an Israeli organization which tries to help the applicants, says that, for every case handled, there are dozens who don't even know where to turn. Restrictions preventing physicians from moving between Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem also aggravate the way in which this dismal situation threatens the health of the residents of Gaza, an area where, in 1997, 40.4 percent of the population were living below the poverty line and 15 percent of children under 5 showed signs of malnutrition (caused not by a lack of food but by poverty, pollution and poor distribution of resources).

Individual Lives

However, this book is far more than the work of a journalist assigned a story and reporting diligently on the facts and figures. The essence of Amira Hass's book in this reviewer's evaluation is that the history and the politics of the period are primarily conveyed through their impact on the lives of individual Gazans who confided in the author, be they ordinary people, families engaged in a grim daily struggle to make ends meet, or leaders from different political streams. In telling all these stories, Amira Hass gives a close human dimension to what is not, for the most part, new material in itself.
I remember a book, which was to become a classic, about the Jewish shtetl (Yiddish for small town) in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, called Life Is with People. Amira Hass's book could bear the same name. This sort of approach can only succeed, as the author writes, first, because of "all the people in Gaza and in its refugee camps who taught me about the [Gaza] Strip, hosted me, accepted me as I am, and helped me," and, second, because "more than anything else, they gave me the opportunity to experience the humanity that can flourish under harsh and humiliating circumstances." It is the combination of these two factors that gives Drinking the Sea at Gaza its unique flavor.
The book is subtitled Days and Nights in a Land under Siege. The Gaza Strip inhabitants saw themselves as living in a huge prison, where their freedom of movement is denied and where leaving even for a day requires a Kafkaesque process of screening and permits in the sacred name of Israeli "security." At the infamous Erez checkpoint, established in 1994, workers line up from 1 a.m. in order to pass, from 3 a.m., through 5 Palestinian and Israeli screening stations into Israel, perhaps ending their working day some 15 hours later. When there is total closure there is no movement at all but, otherwise, those who get to work in Israel are the lucky ones, since they are, at least, able to provide for their families.
Though they have been refugees for over 50 years, Hass writes that the refugees in Gaza retain "an enduring sense of connection" to the homes and the villages which they left behind in Israel. An officer in the new Palestinian security force asks a civilian clerk where he is from. The clerk replies that he is from Dimra, though he actually lives in the Jabalya refugee camp. Asked where he is from, the officer, who lives in the al-Boureij camp, replies "al-Batani." Both these were destroyed villages in the Gaza district under Israel, and both men were born in the Gaza Strip and know of the villages only from their parents and grandparents. Thus they maintain "an individual and collective inner truth that refuses to die." Many entertain fantasies of returning to their former homes, but when one family delayed enlarging their house, even though they had the money, until 1994, the father explained bitterly that it took the Oslo agreement to finally convince him that he won't be returning to his village. The author thinks that the refugees won't forget the pain of expulsion, but they will accept a peaceful political solution as long as it honors their rights and their dignity.
Limitations of space don't allow us to dwell on Amira Hass's writing on a host of other important subjects like the role of women in Gaza's patriarchal society, the centrality of the family and the norm of large families, the Israeli prison experience, the still-painful issue of returning the remaining prisoners from Israeli jails, and various expressions of what she calls "the long tradition of post-revolutionary disappointment."
Gaza, as we have noted, is one of the poorest places in the world and, in 1994, about half the Strip's GNP was earned in Israel, where wages, however low, are three times higher than in Gaza. One Gazan, arbitrarily refused entry into Israel, had a fantasy of kidnapping an Israeli soldier, but he wouldn't demand in exchange the release of Palestinian prisoners or more effective negotiations: "To hell with the negotiations," he says, "I just want my work permit back." In imposing such economic dependence, Hass sees Israel as being unable after Oslo "to shake off the imperious, supremacist style of rule enforced [on the Strip] since 1948," when it was under Egyptian rule.

Responses to Occupation

Hass thinks that, contrary to the stereotype, the people of Gaza are "not hotheaded but patient and slow to anger, their powers of endurance bordering on apathy." This only goes to make the outbreak of the Intifada, which started in 1987 in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, more remarkable. Amira Hass writes extensively on Hamas and quotes one of their activists as saying that "if Israel had recognized the PLO after it declared Palestinian independence in 1988, there wouldn't be any Hamas." She discusses Palestinian terror attacks against Israel on several occasions, expressing the view that in their wake "every Gazan, regardless of religion, sex or age, became suspect, a person capable of committing an act of terror. But… resistance and terror are responses to occupation [by a] foreign ruler," and "stopping terror involves recognizing its social, economic and historical context, and alleviating human suffering." "The attacks in February and March 1996 which killed 57 Israelis have not changed my opinion or that of the minority of Israelis who share this view."
Most Israelis probably justify collective punishment against the population in which the terrorists live; were they to read Amira Hass, they may not change their opinion, but at least they would understand what collective punishment really means - not as a nebulous generalization about security and deterrence, but as a policy determining the everyday life of millions of men, women and children who pay for a crime with which they have personally had no connection. While Palestine was under the British Mandate, in the 1940s, the British general Barker - who said that in fighting Jewish terrorism, we should hit the Jews where it hurts most, in their pockets - was accused of anti-Semitism. Though the Israelis did not make a similar announcement, the closure policies had the very same result for the hard-up pockets of the Palestinians.
We have seen that though the political situation changed, Gazans still felt "imprisoned" after 1994, when the Palestinian Authority took over and ended direct Israeli occupation. Hass is at her best when she explains the meaning in human terms to people and families from all walks of life of the closures with which Israel responded to Palestinian terror - confining some 1 million people to a 147-square-mile strip, with no exit to Israel, to Egypt or to the West Bank. Because this collective punishment caused such massive hardship in so many aspects of life in Gaza, she claims that "'Oslo' and 'the peace process' [became] synonymous with mass internment and suffocating constriction." Elsewhere she compares the thin trickle of salty water available in Khan Yunis with the plentiful flow of cool and sweet water in the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim and writes that the water had "an aftertaste, the bitter flavor - I couldn't help but imagine - of apartheid."
However, she also directs harsh criticism at the Palestinian Authority's regime of "creeping encroachment on Palestinian freedom." She notes, for example, the Authority's policy of arbitrary arrests (which she compares with Israel's policy of administrative detention [detention without trial] following terror attacks against Israel early in 1996. She asks if this is part of what she bitterly calls "the Palestinian Authority's imported style of government," whether it is intended to force people's political and ideological capitulation, and to what extent it was the result of Israeli pressure. She concludes that "as long as the rift continues to grow between a ruling Palestinian elite that has not kept its promises and a people whose elementary hopes have been crushed, this leadership will continue to depend on intimidation."

A Soldier Called Yigal

Here and there, Amira Hass surprised this reader with some unexpected item. For instance, the tale of a soldier called Yigal in the army's Golani Brigade serving in 1991 in the Jabalya refugee camp, who stood out for his ability to catch children on the street during curfew, or to use his rifle to tear down washing lines hanging between the houses in the alleyways, and pull down the clothes. He urged all the soldiers to do this, until given orders to stop. A fellow soldier told a reporter how they "beat the hell"out of suspects and, once, Yigal "caught this guy and saw in his papers that he had been in jail, so we all really went to town."
The soldier was Yigal Amir, who was to assassinate prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995. Amira Hass adds: "In the end Amir, who had brutalized Palestinians as if born to it, turned his animus on Rabin, who had once given him license to do so." This observation is factually true, for it was Rabin as defense minister who gave the order to suppress the Intifada through "might, force and beating." Even so, some may perhaps see Hass's comment as too harsh.
Though there may be some light at the end of the tunnel in glimpses of humanity which break through here and there in relations between Israelis and Palestinians, Amira Hass paints the picture as a whole in somber colors. She doubts whether in view of Israel's overall superiority - political, military, economic and geographic - a peace agreement will allow the weaker (and in her view misruled) Palestinian party to win equal rights or the application of principles of universal justice. In her view, "effectively Israel has declared that Palestinian prospects will always be subjugated to Jewish needs, desires and strength."

Heroes of Journalism

In Boston in May 2000, Amira Hass was declared a World Press Freedom hero, one of the 50 journalists chosen from all over the world by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI). The IPI surveys press freedom in the world and supports journalists whose defense of a free press, regardless of prevailing public opinion, endangered their lives in repressive regimes. They are called the century's heroes of journalism. The Palestinian journalist who won the award was Daoud Kuttab, a member of the Journal's editorial board since its inception.
Though her work in Gaza was carried out in difficult and even dangerous conditions, it is doubtful whether Amira Hass sees herself primarily as a hero of journalism. Nevertheless, Drinking the Sea at Gaza is a fine example of genuine, committed and uncompromising journalism. Such an outstanding book and its author deserve recognition from abroad. It would be even better if, at home, her call for equality between Palestinians in Gaza and the people of Israel were taken to heart.


(1) In his last letter to the outside in 1943, Anielewitz (24) wrote before he died that the revolt "fulfilled the last desire in my life… I am happy to have been among the first Jewish fighters in the ghetto."Why Gaza?

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