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Amira Hass: “Let me be blunt: Gaza is a Huge Concentration Camp”

By Thursday 9 July 2015 No Comments

2015-Amira Hass


This past Spring Amira Hass, correspondent for Haaretz, spoke at the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University. Hass, an Israeli who has won numerous awards for her reporting, has been covering the region since the early 90s. She lived in Gaza for three years and currently lives in Ramallah in the West Bank.

Originally from Jerusalem, she was educated at Hebrew University and wrote the well-known book Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege as well as the forward and epilogue to the diary of her mother who survived the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

She gave two public talks during her week-long residency at Duke — “The Israeli Occupation and Jewish-Israeli Dissent” and “Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Jew in an Occupied Land” — and also had the chance to meet with students.
Hass said she’s aware of the “contradiction of reporting about the Occupation,” while at the same time “profiting from” that Occupation as an Israeli.

“It’s a constant contradiction in my life. It is a bitter acknowledgment of a privilege and a contradiction,” she said during one of her talks. “It is especially bitter when I talk about Gaza.”
This week (July 8th) marks the one-year anniversary of “Operation Protective Edge” — also referred to as Israel’s invasion of Gaza — a seven-week operation in a long running conflict. According to a bleak new World Bank report, Israeli blockades, war and poor governance have left Gaza’s economy on the “verge of collapse.” It now has the highest unemployment rate in the world — 43 percent, and 60 percent among youth.
Here are some excerpts from Hass’s “Reporting from Ramallah” talk (re-ordered slightly for content continuity), which was audio-recorded in March 2015:

Hass on Freedom of Movement in the Occupied Territories: A Concentration Camp?

When I think of all my friends in Gaza … not only my friends…that haven’t been out of the Gaza Strip for the past 20 years … they are deprived of so many basic things, because Israel deprives them of peace, (the) basic right of freedom of movement.

I’m not talking about food. I’m not talking about even the water situation in Gaza, which is appalling and disastrous. I’m talking about the very basic need of people to travel, to move, to see other places, to have both the ability to plan or the ability to be spontaneous. The Palestinians are deprived of all this.
In practice, Gaza has become a huge, let me be blunt, concentration camp for right now 1, 800,000 people. This is not a novelty. This is not something new. This did not start, unlike what many people think, with the rise of Hamas, Hamas being elected in 2006, or Hamas taking over the security agencies and apparatus in Gaza in 2007 after the short civil war. We can almost trace it to the moment when it started, and this is the 15th of January 1991 — long before Oslo, long before Madrid, and of course long before the suicide attacks inside Israeli cities and against Israeli civilians.

This policy of sealing off Gaza, of making Gazans into prisoners, defacto prisoners, started then. I’ve written extensively about it and yet I know it always surprises.
In 1991 Israel started a policy, which you can compare to the past system in South Africa. Israel started to oblige Palestinians to have a permit in order to move from one place to another within the country. Until 1991, Israel more or less acknowledged the right of Palestinians to freedom of movement. It acknowledged for its own reasons, it’s own purposes, but the fact remained that Palestinians enjoyed relatively normal freedom of movement within the country that the Israeli government already controlled since 1967 — that is from the river to the sea.

Of course the freedom of movement of Jews was much more inclusive than Palestinian freedom of movement. But yet Palestinians could go out — and people forget it now — with their cars and move, and go from Gaza to north of Israel and go to the West Bank and marry and live in the West Bank. Even many people that I know: workers who became subcontractors, who opened joint ventures with Israelis inside Israel.
In the ‘90s people started to understand how important the freedom of movement is, the right of freedom of movement is, for human development and the development of the collective.

Until 1991, the country (Gaza and the West Bank) was occupied, but for Palestinians they were occupied in the entire country, so they could travel in the country as a whole. Israel respected the right of freedom of movement of all of the Palestinians except for a few, except for some exceptions, like mostly for political reasons — people who were put under house arrest, town arrest, etc. But in general the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza had freedom of movement.

(From) 1991 until today, it is the reverse. The right of freedom of movement of all the Palestinians is not respected, except for some exceptions; except a few categories. In different times it’s different numbers and different categories but yet this is the rule. No freedom of movement for Palestinians. From time to time Israel changes — I call it the policy of the goat. You put inside people’s lives many hardships and then as a kind of goodwill gesture, you remove one of the hardships when you want. But it’s taken as a favor done, not as a right and not as a policy. A policy is to calm down distress. In that sense there is not much difference between Gaza and the West Bank. Only that Israel not only deprived Palestinians of their freedom of movement and now, since 1991, obliges every Palestinian to ask for a permit in order to leave Gaza to go to the West Bank or to Israel or to leave the West Bank to Israel or to Gaza. But you need to ask for a permit. You can also be denied a permit.

It started, actually, to disconnect both societies. At first it was not visible. The disconnection of Gaza from the West Bank was not immediately visible but it became so with the advent of the Oslo process and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Because one of the basic stipulations, one of the two positive ones for the Palestinians (to come out) of the Oslo Accords, is that Gaza and the West Bank are considered by both parties as one territorial or one geographical unit. This is the basis of the two-state solution.

… So if I want to sum up the reality of Gaza: it is a huge prison, it is a huge concentration camp, it is an Israel -meditated, pre-meditated, pre-planned and planned project to separate Gaza from the West Bank. It has succeeded considerably over the years, but perhaps mostly because of the changes in the Arab World, and the disappointment, and the fact that the Arab World did not open to Gaza the way Hamas opened up to the Arab Spring. (Including) the fact that Egypt doesn’t allow Gazans to leave. It closes off the Gaza border with Egypt.

…In the meantime, the people are prisoners. The people don’t have any way to express their human capacities that are so dependent in the freedom of movement. If I can quote friends of mine from Gaza — they feel that they have no control over their life because of this deprivation of freedom of movement. People who are well-educated, who are very creative, who have many ideas about their life and about their children, feel completely chained and unable to shape their life. They are swept without being able to decide what they will do the next day.

Response to a question from a Durham resident as to whether comparing Gaza to a concentration camp is “going too far”:
I was deliberately provocative. Usually I don’t use this term. I use “largest detention camp.” I did want to use it now. If you separate the term from the history then it is, it is a camp where people are concentrated. Of course it does not lead to extermination. It does not lead to Auschwitz. But I don’t often hear this remark because I usually don’t use the term “concentration camp.”

But it is a huge camp, where people are concentrated and are not able to leave and are not allowed to have people coming in. And I think we also have to disassociate ourselves, to know to learn, to disassociate ourselves from the immediate associations that we have from The Holocaust — so as not to be under the dictatorship of our memory and of our history, The Holocaust, when we use terms. We have the right to shape the terms, the association to the history of Nazism and to adapt them to the content they reflect. I don’t say it’s Auschwitz. If I say it’s Auschwitz, if I said Gulags, it would have been wrong terminology. But it is a camp, a huge camp, where people are concentrated. We have to free also our metaphors from the yoke of the comparisons.

Hass on the Separation of Gaza and the West Bank: An Israeli Plan?

Gaza and the West Bank, even though they are in practice separated geographically, in all other meanings they are one unit and should be treated so by both parties. And that is why the Palestinian Authority, it’s ministries, started to unify the policies within Gaza and the West Bank. The curriculum should be the same, which was not the same before because one was under Egyptian rule and one was under Jordanian rule before ’67. So the Palestinians had a goal to homogenize between Gaza and the West Bank as much as it could. Administrative staff (were) working for both Gaza and the West Bank and many other ways. But in practice, the Israeli practices, the Israeli military practices, did everything possible to separate Gaza from the West Bank and not to allow the mingling of Gazan society into the West Bank.

There are many many such examples how they did it, but I’ll mention just two that show, that I think prove, that there was planning behind it. That it was not an ad hoc, it was not a reaction to something, but it was an Israeli plan.
Because of the permit system that started to develop in 1991, Palestinians who used to go from Gaza to the West Bank started to notice that they were not getting permits to study in the West Bank. So before 1991 there were hundreds if not thousands of Gazans regularly studying in West Bank universities and since 1991, the numbers started to decline. And the universities started to understand that they are facing problems. They have students enrolled in the universities getting a permit for one semester, going back home for the break of the semester, and then not getting the permit to go to the other semester. There was a lot of confusion.

The talks between the PA (Palestinian Authority) people and the Israelis —instead of talking about the advance to the final status negotiations, etc. , the Oslo times, they were engaged in endless talks and imploring the Israelis to allow students… to go back to their universities in the West Bank. And every now and then the Israelis would impose what’s called a very strict closure … that all existing permits would be removed and people would have either to go back from the West Bank to Gaza because their permits were no longer valid, or remain illegally in the West Bank or be unable to go out of the West Bank to work. This changed the whole demography of Palestinian universities in the West Bank. No more Gazans there. If there is now one Gazan or two Gazans it’s a miracle. It’s really by “wasta” if somebody can be there. This cutting off of the student and academic population from each other is one of the signs that Israel had a vision.

Another proof that Israel had a vision, you can see with the registry of population… Israel controls the Palestinian population registry. Every Palestinian newborn has to be registered in the Israeli Ministry of Interior computer. All the technicalities are not important, but a Palestinian who was born in the Occupied Territories and is not registered in the Israeli computer does not exist. There are children whose parents failed to register them in time and they are without documents. It’s not that they emigrated from elsewhere — they are there but they don’t have the Israeli approval that they exist so they do not exist, which means that they cannot live abroad, they cannot even open a bank account within the Palestinian Authority territory. They cannot have a drivers license … Now, Oslo didn’t’ change this but… gave the PA the authority to register the change of address. So Palestinian officials are allowed to change the address of Palestinian residents, for example someone who is moving from Nablus to Ramallah, Palestinians register it, and then give the changes to the Israelis and the Israelis only have to approve it. They do not have the right to veto it, they only have to register it, to kind of ratify it, but they have to ratify it.

So the same should have been (for) people moving from Gaza to the West Bank, and (for) many people have already moved before, or wanted to move from Gaza to the West Bank… So, in order to have a permit they need to change the address. I know that this bureaucracy is very tiring, but it’s very important to realize the complexity of this bureaucracy in order to understand the violence of this bureaucracy. Very early on in Oslo, the Palestinians discovered that the Israelis refused to ratify any change of address from Gaza to the West Bank. From West Bank to Gaza, ok.

Of course they (the Israelis) said the Gazans will flood the West Bank. Not true. Gazans are very patriotic to Gaza and if they have the freedom of movement, they would have no reason to go and move to the West Bank. It is like being born in Brooklyn and someone will not allow you to move to North Carolina. Or consider you illegal in North Carolina once you are here. And this is the situation now. If Israel does not ratify this change of address, the people whose address is still written “Gaza” on their identity card are considered by Israel (as) illegal sojourners in the West Bank. This has developed in waves and gradually since 1993. It is not a policy that in one day the order was given, the Israelis don’t even claim (it’s) their policy. You discover it by practice. They never acknowledge, they don’t even acknowledge in writing that this, for example, contradicts the Oslo accords. No, it’s only the practice. So this is another practice that shows, I think, the intentions (of the Israelis).

In order to circumvent this Israeli policy pass system and the need to get permits in order to go from Gaza to the West Bank, people found all kinds of tricks. I knew students who sneaked out of Gaza in trucks full of potatoes.
At the time one of my young friends, living at Rafaa refugee camp in Gaza, asked me to sneak him out in my car. I had fake (Gaza) plates and I drove with fake plates. He asked me to take him out and I had to refuse, because I knew that he would be found. My car was checked.

There were many other ways. One of the ways was to go out of Gaza through Rafaa checkpoint terminal, fly to Jordan, and then enter the West Bank through Allenby Bridge. That is what Palestinians did for years.
In 1996 or ‘97 without any decree, military order, nothing, the Israelis stopped allowing Gazans to cross into the West Bank through Allenby. There were already the suicide attacks, but this was part of the gradual policy of disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank. You also hear it in statements of the Israelis. Unlike what people think, Gaza was never part of a more comprehensive equation that the Israelis had in mind from the start. Immediately after the ‘67 war, and the ‘70s and the early ‘80s, the Israelis still hoped to empty Gaza of its Palestinian refugees and annex Gaza to Israel. It was a plan that seemed feasible to them.

They thought they’d be able to convince the refugees to move to Sinai, for example, and some of the refugees in the ‘70s they directed to move to the West Bank. Still at the beginning of the ‘70s the Israelis tried to convince Palestinians in Gaza to move to the West Bank. I know in several refugee camps you have people who in ‘48 were in Gazan refugee camps and they accepted the offer to move to the West Bank after ‘67 but these were few. The majority preferred to stay and refused to go to Sinai or to anywhere else. And slowly, slowly with the ‘80s the Israelis had to give up the idea of annexing an emptied Gaza, which only had its original inhabitants of ‘48.

Hass on the Israeli Vision for Gaza:

Then the color started to change also with the expansion of settlements within the West Bank. It started to reverse — that Gaza would be on its own, separate, (i.e.) we give up Gaza and keep West Bank for Israel. At the time of course it was not possible. The Palestinians did not disappear from the West Bank, but never never never did Israeli politicans talk about a solution that comprises Gaza and the West Bank. On the contrary, in ’93 when Oslo was already announced there was some kind of peace meeting in Spain where Arafat and Peres (the minister for foreign affairs) participated…
This was leaked in Haaretz and he (Peres) said that he has a vision that:
• the Palestinian state would be Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinians would be connected to the Jordanian parliament, (and)
• the Israeli settlers would be connected to the Knesset.
• settlers and Palestinians would have similar interests in protecting the environment, water, etc. and they might even have a joint parliament for local affairs.
This was more or less his vision… Anyway in ‘95 he offered this to Arafat, to declare a state in Gaza. Arafat refused.

In a strange way what we see, what happened in 2007, is that Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas actually implemented the old Israeli plan of making Gaza into a separate state. But this is not deterministic. Because we see that even though Hamas and Fatah participated in an ignorant way or in a meaning to do it (way), this plan (was) to separate Gaza from the West Bank.
The general population doesn’t want to be separated. And what is going on now is a fight against determinism and against the Israeli plan. I don’t know how this fight will end but… the reconciliation government is an example of the attempt to break the determinism of separating Gaza from the West Bank. The fact that the Palestinian Authority continued to pay Palestinian employees all these years, it continues to pay for social services in Gaza in spite of this bitter conflict with Hamas. The fact that Europe continues to give money to the West Bank as part of the money it gives to the Palestinian Authority, all this shows that there are attempts to break the deterministic way that Israel dictated. But politically we don’t see this. Even the US is heading all sorts of projects (infrastructure) in the Gaza Strip that run contrary to the Israeli intention to separate it …

Hass’ response to question from ISLAMiCommentary asking her to assess what happened in this winter’s Israeli elections and Netanyahu’s pre-election comments against the two-state solution:

Netanyahu was never for the two-state solution. This notion that he supported a two-state solution is absurd. It’s only that he didn’t express it in so many words as he did now. Even now he zigzags between saying “yes I am” (and) “I’m not” (for a two-state-solution).
It’s maybe in order to comfort the Americans now … that he put in a corner his statement that he’s not for a two-state solution or that it won’t be established in his lifetime. Of course it won’t be established in his lifetime because he and the whole Israeli establishment are against it, but this is not a new thing and this is not only Netanyahu, because as I said Peres was also against a two-state solution. When Peres started to talk about a two-state solution, when it seemed a fait accompli that Gaza was out of the equation, when the Palestinian enclaves or reservations or whatever you name it became such a reality, it seemed not to be contested by the Palestinians.

The reality of such enclaves as most of you probably know, (is that) 60 percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli military and civilian control and that’s the land that Israeli rightists (who) are open and candid, like Naftali Bennet, say that we have to annex, but in practice this has been the policy from the start.
When you live in Israel – I think its true about everywhere – but especially with us, it’s the documents, the historical documents and the secret documents, that can teach you about the policies. We don’t have to wait 40 50 years until the archives open. You see them by the facts on the ground. So when the Israelis don’t allow Palestinians to develop and invest and connect to the water grid and infrastructure to do anything in the 60% of the land, and to drive there, it is what it is.

They don’t want Palestinians to be there. It’s so clear. We don’t have to philosophize about it. So the two state solution, which saw the whole West Bank and Gaza together and East Jerusalem as one, as a state, is not only not part of the imagination of Netanyahu, also of Labor. So that’s the big lie. The big lie is (that) if only Netanyahu was against the two-state solution and not Labor, the two state solution really could have opened and break (broken) the impasse that we were in in the beginning of the 90s.

Hass’ response to question about the success of the merger of the Arab parties (during the elections) into a join list during the Winter elections:

Well this was maybe the only good news of this election. As somebody who was always voting for one of those parties, we felt that this was the answer to a real racist attempt by Avigdor Lieberman. He wanted to raise the threshold and all parties like Labor, and the Israeli centrists were also in favor of this raising of the threshold, and it was clear that it was mainly meant to make Palestinians who were Israeli citiziens evaporate from the political scene in Israel. And they managed to get over their differences and decide to have a joint list. It is not a unity. So, the differences are enormous, which is normal. But (the idea was) to get together based on some common issues. And this is what they have to fight. And we, Israeli Jewish leftists or anti-racists have to be with them to fight against this strain of making them disappear first from the political scene, and over to expelling them from the country, from the state.

So far I think there are different discourses of the different parties. One is Islamist, one is moderate nationalist, one is liberal, one is radical nationalist, and one is aspiring to be more bi-national, internationalist and socialist, the communist party, and the Front. So far I think the Palestinian Front for equality and peace manages to offer its voice. It is interested in the welfare of both peoples in the country. So it is not only for Palestinians in Israel who are Israeli citizens.. It is meant and it is going to advance campaigns and legislation, initiatives in the government which see the well-being of both populations. So let us hope that it works. I think it is maybe the only encouraging thing in these elections.

Hass’ response to a question about the danger of settlements to the two-state solution.. “What political force has the capability to do something about settlements if there’s any force at all?”

Israelis have to be made to be understood that the price for keeping the settlements is too high. The price cannot be a price in blood. Because whenever Palestinians resorted to the so-called armed struggle or the use of arms against Israelis, and especially against Israeli citizens, it only united and unified the Israeli public.
So when Palestinians attacked Israelis inside Israel no matter how much they would say ‘oh it’s because of your settlement policy’ there was only one interpretation — that Palestinians target us everywhere. Within the West Bank the use of arms is legitimate but it has not produced any real change in the reality. It never stopped the advance of the Israeli colonialist project inside the West Bank.

… How to make settlements costly to the Israeli public? It can be only from outside I believe. Can it happen? Of course it can happen, but there must be work on it. I’m sure that if — let me imagine — if the United States stopped all security ties with Israel, all security payments to Israel, yeah we know it’s very difficult. If Europe, for example, reissued visas to all Israelis. Now when we go to Europe we don’t need visas. Palestinians of course in the West Bank and Gaza do need visas to go, but if Israelis knew that they cannot automatically fly to Europe and European countries could say we don’t want to have the settlers because they broke international law, but we cannot know who is a settler and who’s not a settler, that’s why all Israelis need to have a visa, or are not allowed to Europe or whatever.

We can imagine things. If there is a political will I think it is possible. It’s only that there is urgency. I believe that there are diplomats and there are foreign ministries who understand the urgency but do not dare to implement it into political measures vis a vis Israel. If there was pressure on Israel and Israel would say ‘ok we have to withdraw the army from the West Bank, and ok settlers can remain,’ most of the settlers would not remain. Or if Israel decided to, was forced to, imprison 2,000 settlers who are the most violent and most dangerous, the rest would leave. It is possible to imagine it. It is possible to do it. The longer it takes, the costlier the price is. But it has to be done. It has to be done not only for Palestinians but for the sake of Israelis and Israeli future.

We don’t have a future in that region if we continue to rely always on our military superiority. Israelis want to live normally. That’s one of the mysteries of how we do it. We live in this fake normalcy. It is fake, but it feels normal. But because we want it normal, the moment the normalcy is shaken… It’s not everything that can shake the normalcy (that) will indeed make Israelis understand how abnormal it is.

Hass on last year’s war, and the effectiveness (or not) of armed struggle:

Hamas boasts, and Hamas was able to stand up against the Israeli Army for 50 days and to surprise the Israeli army which indeed was something remarkable. In the sense that for several years Hamas knew how to prepare for such a clash with one of the strongest armies in the world … It is remarkable, but in practice it didn’t bring any result. It didn’t stop the siege on Gaza. It didn’t open Gaza to the world. It didn’t connect Gaza to the West Bank. So it’s a total failure.

But people are so imprisoned in Gaza that they have their masculine hallucinations about armed struggle and they still do. I just saw a poll, and don’t know how much we can trust polls, but 60% of the Palestinian population thinks that one should resort to the use of arms, and also in the West Bank. There is the old cult of armed struggle among Palestinians. I think it is one of the problems that Abbas, in his clumsy way, tries to stop or to cut. But it is not effective.

Response to a question from a Duke professor about the Shia/Sunni split and the emergence of ISIS, the involvement of Iran in supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, and what sort of implication this has for the Palestinian authority ?

I hinted before that Abbas has a clumsy way of speaking against the use of arms. I think he’s genuinely worried about the possible brutalization that any use of arms entails. And he has said it several times in relation to the war in Gaza and in relation to recent talks of armed struggle etc. People do not listen to him. People do not take him seriously — first because he is a dictator within the Palestinian context. He’s more than even in Arafat’s time. He takes his decisions alone, almost alone, with some counselors where we don’t even know where they came from. He makes changes within Fatah in a very non- democratic way.

He made Mohammed Dahlan (the former leader of Fatah in Gaza) and anybody who is closely associated with him into the enemies of the people in such a way that it is embarrassing. And it’s not clear because otherwise his attempt to stop the brutalization or the potential brutalization is very sane, very logical and humanistic. And he brings the example of ISIS. He did talk quite bravely of the consequences of the war in Gaza. Things do not change anything. I say bravely because among Palestinians there is this cult of armed struggle. People stand up and obey anybody who lifts a weapon up. So it is brave, but the message does not reach all, that is the problem.
At the same time, yeah, people see Syria, people see what’s happening in Iraq, and especially in the West Bank, people, when they are frank enough, they say we are better off. It is very difficult because any person killed or any civilian killed in Gaza is one person too many.

And we believe that Israel … has the means not to target civilians and not to harm Palestinians. It has the military means not to harm them. And it chooses not always to use this means. But at the same time, in comparison to the enormity and level of violence, the level of explosives that Israel has, you see a certain restraint compared to Syria, when you compare it to Libya, when you compare it to Iraq.
And Palestinians when they want to be, in that sense within themselves, it’s very hard; they sometimes feel that they are the worst off of everybody. And there is reason to it. But they also compare and they know that right now they are safer in this situation than in neighboring countries. I think that is why there is more ground when people talk about popular activities — (such as) the boycott of Israeli products within Palestinian territories and it is now initiated by Fatah people. It is an attempt – economically it will not harm Israel – but it is a good way to channel the anger and the energy of people, to feel that they are still engaged in the struggle, but do not express it in the need to take revenge. So you do take revenge but it’s in a different way.

The split between Hamas and Fatah always has its turns. So some things, when the cleavage is huge, then Fatah will blame Hamas that they are part of ISIS. There are very strong elements of Daesh-ism within Hamas, very strong of not accepting anything which is different, of seeing Islam and the early interpretation of Islam as the only kind. It is frightening. The only solution is to open Gaza to the world. This will open the eyes of people. This is why again, this is why Hamas never liked when Gaza was open. It continued — even when it was open a little bit — it continued to monitor the freedom of movement of people and to prevent people from leaving.

There were chances when Palestinians could go from Gaza to the West Bank and to have some courses and Hamas would prevent them from going. It is such a match — the Israeli policies and Hamas’ intentions. So I wrote several times, if you want to fight this Daeshism within Hamas and the Palestinian society, then open to the world, let them go to the West Bank. Let them see that even in the West Bank it’s better and let West Bankers go to Gaza and see that Hamas is not the solution.