Apartheid Is Israel’s “Desired Reality”

An interview with Haaretz journalist Amira Hass about occupation, the diaspora, and what comes next.

Mari Cohen
June 12, 2019
Amira Hass in 2018. Video still: “The World Today with Tariq Ali” via YouTube

This month, Amira Hass, who has served as Haaretz’s Occupied Territories correspondent for 30 years, visited Illinois and Iowa to speak to a variety of audiences at events on topics like “Israel’s nation-state law” and “The effects of long-term blockade and settler colonialism on the health and welfare of the people of Gaza.” The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Hass lives in Ramallah, where she is the only Jewish Israeli journalist living in the West Bank. In the 1990s, she spent three years living in Gaza, and eventually compiled her experiences into the award-winning book Drinking the Sea at Gaza. Due to Israeli restrictions, she has not been able to visit Gaza since 2010.

I sat down with Hass after she gave an hourlong talk at the McCormick Foundation, a Chicago-based charitable trust. During the talk, titled “Speaking truth to power as a journalist,” Hass described in detail how Israel continually encroaches on Palestinian land in the West Bank, dividing Palestinian communities into smaller disconnected areas that she referred to as “enclaves.” Areas governed by Palestinians are scattered within land controlled by Israel, making it difficult for Palestinian communities to expand infrastructure and move between communities. In her journalistic work, Hass regularly digs into the bureaucratic mechanisms Israel uses to restrict Palestinian people’s freedom of movement and access to land.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mari Cohen: You write news, and you also write opinions. Is it traditional in Israel for journalists to do both?

Amira Hass: At Haaretz it has developed like this, rejecting this very American view that journalists should be “objective.” Nonsense, we all have opinions. And we all have a background. An Israeli journalist who served in the army is full of opinions, only he doesn’t claim to have them. You express your opinions by your choice of words. I know in other Israeli media—on the radio for example—they will never report on the issues I report on. There is an opinion that the land belongs to us Jews, so we don’t have to report about all the tricks that Israel has in order to take Palestinian land. There is an opinion [expressed] in the very choice of what to write about and what not to write about. Haaretz has freed itself from this artificial distinction, this deceptive notion that an op-ed is only for columnists and a piece of news is only for journalists.

MC: What are the reporting projects you’re working on right now?

AH: I’m working on two main issues related to both land and people. Israel is now developing more and more ways to confiscate the land beyond the separation barrier. Supposedly, the barrier was built for security reasons, but it was built deep into the West Bank, so there are large areas between the separation wall and the Green Line (the ‘67 border) that are Palestinian land. At first, Israel promised that Palestinians would be able to reach their land to cultivate it. But especially in the last four years, they’ve developed all sorts of new regulations and procedures that prevent Palestinian people from reaching their land. But Israelis and settlers can travel there, can hike there normally, and they stop seeing it as Palestinian land. I’ve written several articles about this.

And the second thing is about policies that have to do with the population registry, granting or not granting residencies to Palestinian people. It’s very complicated, because it has to do with a lot of bureaucracy. And people get tired from this, you know—it’s easier to be shocked by a story about a child who was killed by an Israeli soldier. And I don’t minimize that, but this is not the main policy—it’s a byproduct. The main policies are to get more land, and to manipulate the Palestinian demography—to find ways to prevent people from coming to the country, or from marrying with foreigners. You see that this is really a plan. [Israeli leaders] sit and they think about how to implement it, and what regulations will achieve this goal. But it’s so bureaucratic, and so tiring, and they lie a lot—you ask them something, they lie to you, and you know that they lie. But how do I prove that this is a lie? One by one, step by step . . . If you look at each [policy] separately, it doesn’t look so bad. But when you see the whole picture, connecting the dots, you understand how serious it is. You cannot explain all the dots in one article; you need many articles to connect them. I have to repeat myself over and over again so that it sinks in.

MC: Do you have a sense of the response in Ramallah to the April Israeli elections?

AH: The right wing is so strong that even those parties that are not considered right-wing are right-wing in their attitude toward Palestinians. They shy away from anything connected to negotiations with Palestinians, dismantling of settlements, or easing the restrictions on Gaza. They don’t even suggest it because they’re afraid to lose voters. So there was much less interest than there ever was among the Palestinians. They say that whatever party there is in power, it’s a right-wing party aiming to enhance Israeli colonization of the West Bank, and to isolate Gaza from the rest of the world.

MC: You were talking earlier about young people leaving Ramallah and other cities in the West Bank. Is that a trend you’re seeing?

AH: You see youngsters who feel that there is no horizon and they want to leave. They don’t have any confidence in their own leadership. People look for better jobs outside, to study outside, to breathe outside. Then you have people in villages; Israel is taking the land of the villages, and there is no work. So they go to the cities and towns. There is no hope now for an uprising that can succeed. It’s all very tragic.

MC: And in some ways, to Israel’s advantage.

AH: Of course. That’s why Palestinians can’t find housing in Jerusalem, because Israel expropriated the majority of Palestinian land in the Jerusalem area, and at the same time imposed so many restrictions on housing—they cannot build the way they build in Jewish areas. And there is no public housing for Palestinians in Jerusalem, only for Jews. This makes housing for Palestinians extremely expensive, out of proportion to their salaries. Which means people are living very densely or are in debt or are going to live in Ramallah, and then they lose their [residency] rights in Jerusalem. So you see how Israel manipulates so many things to push Palestinians out of the country. Young Palestinians, mostly.

MC: What are your thoughts about the viability of the two-state solution these days?

AH: Look, the current reality is actually one state, which is an apartheid state. This means there are two separate laws: one for Palestinians and one for Israeli Jews. The Palestinian population is subdivided into groups and subgroups like the nonwhite population of South Africa. They’re disconnected from each other. They are treated differently by Israel, while Israeli Jews live in the entire country, like one people, with full rights. The question is: How sustainable is this? We assume it’s not sustainable. But so far, it’s working fine for Israel—it has been sustainable. Because the world has accepted it. In the past, we used to say that the world would not accept it, but it does.

For Israel, this is the desired reality: that Palestinians live in their enclaves, deprived of any ability to develop the economy, and that the world gives them donations so that they can sustain themselves. And that’s it. There is no desire on the part of Israel to reach a different reality. There has been a kind of an illusion among Jews [in the diaspora] that Israel wants a solution. But [Israeli Jews] don’t see that this is a problem. So I think that when we talk about one state or two states, in a way it’s an obsolete discussion.

The question is, will the Israeli messianic religious right-wing segment of the population that has gained a lot of power in Israeli politics—will it succeed in accomplishing its aims: the mass expulsion of Palestinians and annexation of the great majority of the West Bank? It’s not enough for them to have Palestinians living in enclaves. They want more. I think that we have to be concerned with these questions, not about hypothetical questions about one state or two states.

MC: What opposition to mass expulsion would you see coming from within Israel?

AH: Nothing. In a scenario of right-wingers expelling, let’s say, a whole village, for some reason—except for the few Israeli leftists, I don’t see a real political force that would stop them from doing this.

MC: So it sounds like right now most of the opposition would need to come from the international community.

AH: And the Jewish communities outside [Israel]. I think Jewish communities should be alarmed by these dangerous possibilities. But what I see is the mainstream refusing to define these Israeli policies as a problem. It reminds me of Communists who refused to hear any criticism about the Soviet Union. Decent people who were honest, but they shut themselves [off] from any knowledge, any information about the Soviet Union and its atrocities and repression. So anybody who dares criticize Israel is an antisemite, like Communists used to say, anybody who criticizes the Soviet Union is anti-Communist.

MC: I know you feel some pessimism about reaching the Israeli public with your journalism these days. Do you feel a similar pessimism about reaching the mainstream Jewish diaspora?

AH: I do see that there are more cracks now than before. So in a way, it’s encouraging, but it’s all too slow, far too slow, and has to be much more dramatic. Criticism of Israel, from everybody, but also mainly from Jewish groups, has to be much more open, thorough, daring, and consistent than it is today.

MC: Is there a specific power that Jewish groups advocating from the outside have to affect policy in Israel or to apply pressure, as opposed to non-Jewish activism?

AH: Israel is so successful in calling criticism of its policy antisemitism; when Jews are criticizing, you cannot call them antisemites. I mean, they try maybe, but it’s ridiculous. So the main thing is how to block the propaganda machine in Europe and the United States that automatically equates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. I think it is not so much to affect Israel as it is to affect discussion and awareness and openness outside [Israel]. I mean, the big Jewish money is not supportive of left-wing activities. The big Jewish money still goes to Israel, it goes to settlers, it goes to openly anti-Palestinian religious projects. That will not stop. Jewish liberals are still too shy, too prone to doubting anybody who’s criticizing Israel.

I think your role in the diaspora is mainly about daring to criticize and at the same time, not dissociating yourself from Jewish history or from your Jewish culture and background. It’s important that people understand that what Israel does is not in the name of the Jewish people.

MC: What’s it like for you personally to try to maintain a Jewish identity in the face of the work that you’ve been doing for so long?

AH: I live in Ramallah and I’ve never been religious. I was born into an atheist family, a family of communists and Holocaust survivors. So, the Jewishness was never expressed in religious rituals. It was more an acknowledgement of the historical background of my parents’ history. And my love of my language. I mean, this is my language, Hebrew; it was not my parents’ language. There is an Israeli Jewish culture that I would not like to see vanish, and I do feel attached to the parts of it that are not militaristic.

You know, I left Israel/Palestine for this tour, and I skipped Holocaust Memorial Day and Independence Day. For the last few years, I’ve tried to be out of the country for those days, because it’s very painful for me. I don’t need Holocaust Memorial Day to remember. I think about the Holocaust every single day, even though my parents are dead. It’s always present in my life. And by the way, so is the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe that we caused in 1948–9. So to be there on those days that are used for so much Israeli propaganda and deception, on the one hand, and on the other hand, to be among Palestinians, who tend to minimize it—it’s difficult.

MC: Is that common among your Palestinian friends and associates, the minimization of the Holocaust?

AH: Unfortunately, yes. It’s not easy. I understand it, I analyze it. Because, you know, as somebody told me, Israel lied about so many things, they lied to the world about ’48. So the assumption is that they also lied about the Holocaust. Because it was used against the Palestinians, Palestinians are in a general mood to try to [minimize]. Not all, you know. You see much, much more interest [now] in understanding. And you have Palestinian scholars totally attentive to this history, and who know how to incorporate it in their analysis of the reality. But in general, I confront this. This is one of my painful experiences with people I know and people I meet.

But this is a result of Israeli policies, not the cause. And Palestinians are not responsible for [those policies]. I mean, when Israel deprives Palestinians of water in the West Bank, it’s not because they say that the Holocaust did not happen. I go to Hebron and it’s not the most urgent topic for a Palestinian there to acknowledge the Holocaust. What they see is how Israelis made their home into a ghost town. So I’m not expecting them to come and tell me, “Oh, we share with you your sorrow.”

Meanwhile, Israel uses the Holocaust to justify everything it is doing to Palestinians. This is really the cheapening of the Holocaust. The cheapening of the memory of our grandparents who were murdered, when it uses them to oppress Palestinians. This should be much more alarming to any Jew in the world.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.