Binational state is only solution, Israel journalist maintains in S.F.

Israeli journalist Amira Hass does not consider herself a rebel. But the fact that she lived in the Gaza Strip for three years, and now lives in Ramallah –both Palestinian Authority-ruled areas which most Israelis will never set foot in — doesn't exactly put her in step with her fellow citizens.

And when she says she moved to Gaza because "I fell in love with the Gazans — how warm and welcoming they are," when the majority of Israelis are unable to count one Palestinian among their friends, it becomes absolutely clear that she does not espouse the standard Israeli party line.

Hass, who was in town recently to speak in conjunction with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, discussed her work and her views in an interview.

An award-winning correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Hass is the author of "Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege," which was reissued recently in paperback.

Her decision to move to the place so reviled by Israelis that a common way to say "go to hell" in Hebrew is lech l'Aza — literally, "go to Gaza" — was a professional one.

Gaza was her reportorial beat in 1992 when Israel deported some Islamic activists and placed the 147-square-mile strip, home to some 1 million inhabitants, under curfew and a closure. No journalists were allowed in to report on life under the closure. But with her contacts, Hass managed to slip across the border.

After the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Hass began going to Gaza several times a week. Assigned to cover the transition to Palestinian rule, she realized that her stories would lack the immediacy of those written by someone actually living through the changes.

"How could I understand a society and write about it without actually being in the middle of it?" she writes in the introduction of her book.

"I was, it seemed, like any other journalist sent to cover a foreign country. To most Israelis, though, my move seemed outlandish, even crazy, for they believed I was surely putting my life at risk."

The only child of Holocaust survivors who were active in the Communist Party, Hass said the principles of equality were strong in her household, factors that were a "melange" affecting her upbringing. She was raised on her parents' stories as refugees and survivors — her mother was at Bergen-Belsen and her father was confined in a ghetto. But she also heard about those who took a stand against injustice, and those who were merely bystanders.

"In the end, my desire to live in Gaza stemmed neither from adventurism nor from insanity, but from that dread of being a bystander, from my need to understand, down to the last detail, a world that is, to the best of my political and historical comprehension, a profoundly Israeli creation," she writes. "To me, Gaza embodies the entire saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it represents the central contradiction of the State of Israel — democracy for some, dispossession for others; it is our exposed nerve."

If Gaza is Israel's "exposed nerve," as Hass writes, she believes in exposing it further still. Even the peace camp, she charges, chooses not to concern itself with just how bad the living conditions there are, and how such misery and desperation fosters more hatred — not to mention terrorism. Her willingness to confront this unpleasant aspect of the conflict has made her rather controversial in some Israeli circles.

Hass calls what's been in effect since the Oslo accords a "neo-occupation," since Palestinians, in many cases, have less freedom of movement than they did before.

She repeatedly refers to "the so-called peace process," because she believes that any settlement based on pre-existing conditions is "based on our — meaning Israel's — demographic and military superiority."

The only way for a true peace to happen, Hass believes, is for the two parties to return to the terms of the U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, calling for a complete return to the pre-1967 borders. Israel cannot be selective when it decides which U.N. resolutions it accepts and rejects, she said.

That is especially true when talking about the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "The feelings and welfare of a settler is always worth more than a Palestinian who lives nearby," she said. "If we build a peace based on the superiority of the Jews, it will eventually blow up in our faces."

The Law of Return for Jews is problematic as long as there is no similar principle in effect for Palestinians. "Jews from all over the world are still allowed to come here while people born here more than 53 years ago, who still have keys to their homes, cannot come back to live with their relatives," she said.

Hass also warned of a solution based on religion, which she said was evident in the Camp David discussions on Jerusalem.

Departing from the views of most Israelis, Jews and President Clinton, who took Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to task for not being more willing to compromise at Camp David, Hass said this time it was the Jews who missed the opportunity.

Though Hass tries to refrain from making predictions about the future, she believes the only workable solution to the Mideast conflict is not a two-state solution, but a one-state solution. Whether it takes 50 years or 200, whatever entity that will finally exist in the disputed piece of land can no longer be an exclusively Jewish state.

And the Palestinians in the territories are not the only reason why, Hass maintains. There are 1 million Arabs living in Israel who do not have the same rights as Jews, and are therefore second-class citizens. "Any society that is built upon regressive laws toward another people is not Jewish," she said.

Hass envisions a state in which Jews and Palestinians live side by side, both having equal rights, and both respecting the rights and entitlement of the other.

"The binational state is the peaceful solution," she said. "The Palestinians are fighting for their rights. [The desire for] equality is universal, as basic as eating and sleeping."

General wisdom might dictate that as the child of Holocaust survivors, she would feel the necessity for a Jewish state. But in Hass' case, it's the opposite. She says she can relate more to the Palestinians as people because of her own parents' experiences as refugees.

Having the Holocaust in her family has made Hass an outspoken advocate against injustice. The legacy of the Holocaust, she said, "never really goes away."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."