Jewish Currents / April 18, 2023
As Israel’s new government emboldens its settler right, Haaretz’s longtime occupied territories correspondent discusses the state’s old and new forms of domination over Palestinians.
When I want to understand the bureaucracy of Israeli occupation, or learn how an Israeli raid in the West Bank impacted Palestinians, I turn to the latest from Amira Hass, Haaretz’s correspondent for the occupied Palestinian territories. An Israeli Jew who resided in Gaza from 1993 to 1997 and has lived in the West Bank city of Ramallah ever since, Hass is the author of the book Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege and has written countless exposés on Israel’s military rule and its settlement project. In recent months, Hass has unpacked why Al-Aqsa Mosque is so important to Palestinians, reported on the Israeli army’s killing of a 61-year-old Palestinian woman in Jenin, and examined the Palestinian Authority’s unwillingness to protect Palestinians from settler attacks.
As the far-right Israeli government expands settlements, escalates military violence against Palestinians, and attempts to curb the power of the judicial system, I wanted to hear from Hass about how she views these developments in Israeli and Palestinian politics. On Friday, we discussed the potential of the Israeli protest movement, Palestinian armed resistance, and how she manages to maintain her sense of outrage. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ALEX KANE: What do you make of the Israeli protests against the judicial overhaul? Do you think there’s a possibility that these protests could impact public consciousness about Israel’s military occupation?
AMIRA HASS: The overhaul is indeed alarming and frightening. It is going to negatively affect many segments of Israeli society: workers, women, the LGBTQ community, old people. And it will curtail liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of organization. The tens of thousands of Israeli Jews who protest have all the reasons to stand up against it, as they know for certain that their comfortable life in an economically thriving liberal democracy for Jews is in danger.
I emphasize the phrase “democracy for Jews”: It is stupefying to see how the great majority of the protesters do not see the obvious linkage and continuity between Israel’s military dictatorship over the Palestinians in the occupied territories that has existed for almost six decades and the basic components of the judicial overhaul. For half the population living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—the Palestinians—the state has never been democratic. Moreover, prominent protesters have been molding and maintaining this military dictatorship, and now fear that the weakening of the present judicial system will expose them to lawsuits abroad [that they have previously avoided] because the world thought that everything was being supervised and monitored by independent Israeli courts. So I perfectly understand those who refrain from participating, especially Palestinians.
But as a leftist I believe in the educating and radicalizing potential of civil protests and I believe our social and political role as leftists is to contribute to this process with our critical and distinct participation. Radicalization can happen both in discourse and activism. For example, during the Balfour demonstrations against Netanyahu in 2020 and 2021, some leftist activists succeeded in drawing some of the mainstream demonstrators into anti-occupation activism, for example regular accompaniment of Palestinian farmers who are exposed to settler violence. In the current protests, leftist Mizrahi activists calling themselves the Mizrahi Civic Collective have published a platform which decries the proposed neoliberal, authoritarian [judicial] overhaul and at the same time exposes the inherent flaws of the “old regime.” In all cities, the left forms a bloc of its own, carrying the Palestinian flag and chanting slogans like “there is no democracy with occupation.” They have a chance to be heard by others, to be taken into account by emerging leaders. In addition, the nature of the right-wing think tank Kohelet Policy Forum, financed by Jewish American billionaires and heavily supported by the settler lobby, has been exposed, damned, and ridiculed during the protests, which have accentuated and revived old basic concepts of Israel as a welfare society.
Even if the majority of protesters do not see the contradiction between a Jewish state and democracy, and probably won’t see it for many years, their determination to stop the new legislation indirectly serves a larger cause than the preservation of their comfortable life. Palestinians on either side of the Green Line will not be spared by the judicial overhaul. On the contrary, they are the first and immediate targets of this proposed legislation. It is a bold attempt to guarantee the rule of the extreme right wing for many years, a right wing that has been openly advocating for a repetition of 1948 and the mass expulsion of Palestinians as a “solution.” Their success in passing this legislation will embolden them in carrying out their anti-Palestinian schemes.
AK: Is this new Israeli government a radical break from past governments?
AH: The answer is yes and no at the same time. Obviously, for the reasons I mentioned, the majority of protesters see it as a radical break, while we on the left, and certainly the Palestinians, see how the logic of Jewish nationalism, superiority, and militarism is being stretched even further along pre-existing lines. But we can say this about so many regimes: Didn’t fascism embrace to the extreme some basic components of capitalism? Didn’t Soviet Russia continue some traits of Tsarist Russia? There is a difference between a flawed system—even a very, very flawed system—that still has mechanisms to protect people who are “others” (I refrain from using the term “minority,” especially when it comes to Palestinians) and a system that doesn’t even recognize that they have any rights.
AK: In the West Bank, there’s been an increase in violent attacks against Israelis compared to previous years. What explains this?
AH: I have a reservation about this question. When our starting point is talking about Palestinian violence, it’s as though we accept that the norm is occupation, and the annoying Palestinians have come and interfered with it. The responsibility for violence is thus put on the Palestinians. But on a permanent basis, Israel continues to confiscate land, to demolish Palestinian houses, break into homes, meddle with economic activity, prohibit construction and development, isolate Gaza and disconnect it from the rest of the world, and prevent Palestinian freedom of movement—all of which are very violent, systemic actions of the state. You didn’t start by asking me if there is a spike in Israeli bureaucratic violence against the Palestinians. So let’s say firstly that Israel continues with this abnormal situation of dominating every aspect of Palestinian life. Some Palestinians then express their despair by taking up arms in different forms. Some take up arms only within their cities when the Israeli army invades. Some carry out lone wolf attacks against Israelis. Yes, there is an increase, but it reflects an increase in the despair of the people.
At the same time, it’s important to note that in comparison to the scope of Israeli violence against Palestinians, very few Palestinians resort to the use of arms and to the killing of Israeli civilians. However, there is great support for the armed groups because people feel that they reflect their sentiments of anger and the desire to take revenge. Those who claim that this will liberate Palestine are deceiving themselves and others, but all other ways of struggle have totally failed: popular unarmed struggle, diplomacy, and lawsuits.
AK: Last month, the Knesset passed a law repealing parts of the 2005 law that barred Israelis from living in four northern West Bank settlements. This caused a diplomatic dispute with the United States, because former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised the Bush administration that Israel would abandon these settlements, and now the government is going back on that commitment. What’s the significance of this development?
AH: The change may indeed reflect disrespect of an understanding with the US, but it does not reflect a dramatic change on the ground. Since 2005, the land that was evacuated has not been returned to the Palestinians. And throughout, there have been delegations of settlers carrying out provocations in these areas, which forces the army to guard them and causes harm to the Palestinians there. The ex-settlement of Homesh sits on private agricultural land of Palestinians from the nearby two villages. They were not allowed to return to work their lands, in spite of a High Court ruling that they should be allowed to. Palestinians were also not allowed to use the land in the other three evacuated settlements. They were categorized as “Area C,” which is under full Israeli administrative control, and does not allow Palestinians to develop the land. That was a signal that the evacuation of the four settlements was only temporary, that it was reversible. If Israel really intended to finalize the evacuation of the settlements, they would not have prevented Palestinian villagers and the Palestinian Authority from developing the areas. That’s why I was not very surprised.
The revocation says that international agreements are not sacred for the Israelis. Again, this is not new; Israel cherry picks whatever suits it from the Oslo Accords, and throws everything else away. The danger is it gives more power to the settlers, and to people like [far-right ministers] Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
AK: Since you live in Ramallah, you have a really close view of what’s going on in the West Bank. What is the state of the Palestinian Authority right now?
AH: It’s pathetic and tragic. It’s important to say that even the cleanest, most creative and democratic leadership wouldn’t have been able to stand up to Israel’s very sophisticated war of attrition against the Palestinians. It’s not because of the nature of the PA that Israel succeeds in doing what it does. But a struggle needs the people’s trust in the leadership and its intentions, which does not exist. The Palestinian political body is dismembered. The PA doesn’t allow the development of any new thinking or new strategies to confront Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, has managed to create a very authoritarian regime in which he and a group around him decide everything. There is no parliament. People are more and more afraid to speak out. The judiciary is under the control of Fatah and Abbas’s men. The PA continues security coordination with Israel and arrests political opponents, but does not try to protect its own people from settler violence and does not respect agreements with one of the most important sectors in Palestinian society—the teachers who have been on strike for almost two and a half months. Polls show that the PA is not respected—and is, rather, hated—by the people. And then Israel keeps stealing money from the PA’s revenues, so the PA can’t even materialize some of their plans and pay salaries, which is the minimum that people expect them to do. It’s a very desperate situation.
AK: You spend what seems like all of your time writing about the occupation. How do you sustain your outrage against the routine violence of the occupation? Does your anger ever dull?
AH: On the contrary, I’m always angrier. It continues to blow my mind. I just wrote about a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem that will be evicted because of one of the racist laws that makes it obligatory for the Israeli government to take over buildings that were owned by Jews before 1948 and pass it on to Jewish hands now. At the same time, it does not allow Palestinians who are Jerusalemites to get back their pre-1948 property in West Jerusalem. With every sentence that I wrote, I felt my rage growing. I live among the people who are the daily targets of Israeli violence, so how could my anger get dull? I see how my life is comfortable and safe in comparison to every Palestinian’s. Every friend of mine is a target of bureaucratic and military violence. I have freedom of movement, and I can go to Jerusalem whenever I want, but most of my friends here in the West Bank cannot go to Jerusalem. It’s about 15 kilometers away. Not to mention my friends who are jailed in Gaza, among the two million Gazans there. It makes me angry to just talk about it.
Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents