Just over 100 people gathered last night to hear veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass speak at UBC’s Webb Theatre.
Hass is the only Israeli journalist who has lived in Gaza (where she was based from 1993) and the West Bank (she’s been living in Ramallah since 1997) and she was here on a cross Canada speaking tour, sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) and Kairos Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.
Some members of Vancouver’s Jewish community expressed regret that the event coincided with Rosh Hashanah, preventing many from attending. And an angry Palestinian man confronted Hass in a question period, berating her for not addressing the refugee issue.
But Hass, who has courageously reported on life in the occupied territories for Israeli and international readers of Haaretz since 1989, held her own. As she said at one point in the evening, when asked how she responds to critics. “I really don’t care what people think. My job is not a popularity contest.”
Her low-key pragmatism shone through when she said “But look, we are not heroes. We are lucky. Israel is a democracy for Jews. I can write what I want without being arrested, or stopped at passport controls. I have freedom of movement, I have all the privileges of being a Jew in Israel.”
In her 45-minute lecture, she made it clear that these were privileges not enjoyed by Palestinians.
She began her lecture with a moving account of her relationship with the Samoudi family, who lost 29 of their members in the first week of January 2009’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza. With no electricity to cook with under the siege, the men in the family had gone out in search of firewood so they could make some bread and tea. As they returned to their family compound, they were bombed by Israeli soldiers, after a drone image of the long sticks they carried home was wrongly interpreted as RPG’s (rocket propelled grenades).
It was one of the hardest stories she ever had to report, recounted Ms. Hass, who says that the mother of the clan, now widowed with seven children to raise, still calls her to complain that her daughter suffers terrible headaches from the missile parts that are lodged in her brain.
But the main thrust of Hass’s talk concerned the issue of “closure” in the occupied territories. In essence, she explained that Palestinian freedom of movement has diminished dramatically since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993 and railed against the “Bantustanization” of Palestine. Since the Israeli Ministry of the Interior still controls Palestinian ID, movement between areas A, B, and C – designated under the Oslo accords- is severely restricted, resulting in economic disaster and social fragmentation. “There are 16 year olds in Tulkarm,” a Palestinian town 15 km east of the Mediterranean, “who have never seen the sea.”
When asked about the two state solution, Hass replied – “two states- it’s more like 10.” The only difference now between Labour and Likud, she said, was a discussion about “the size and number of the Bantustans.”
The Israeli peace movement, she contends, lost their way when they failed to critique the Oslo accords, which in effect paved the way for increased settlements. “What happened to Peace Now’s old slogan ‘no peace without settlements’?” she asked, “It got dropped completely.”
When an audience member asked her if there were any hope for the future in the region, she said, “Only if we continue to build a bi-national movement against Israeli apartheid.”
When Palestinians see Israeli activists, (groups like Ta’ayush and others) protesting side by side with them against house demolitions and confiscation of land, she related, and getting arrested and beaten by soldiers, “then they see another side of Israelis.” Since 1993, she said, most Palestinians have only encountered Israelis as soldiers and settlers. “When we stand together with them, they see us in a different light.”