Whenever Amira Hass tries to explain her vocation as a journalist, she recalls a seminal moment in her mother's life. Hannah Hass was being marched from a cattle train to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen on a summer's day in 1944. "She and the other women had been 10 days in the train from Yugoslavia. They were sick and some were dying. Then my mother saw these German women looking at the prisoners, just looking. This image became very formative in my upbringing, this despicable 'looking from the side'. It's as if I was there and saw it myself." Amira Hass stares at you through wire-framed glasses as she speaks, anxious to make sure you have understood the importance of the Jewish Holocaust in her life.
In her evocative book Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Hass eloquently explains why she, an Israeli journalist, went to live in Yasser Arafat's tiny, garbage-strewn statelet. "In the end," she wrote, "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. 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."
Now living in the West Bank town of Ramallah – with the Palestinians whom many of her people regard as "terrorists", listening to the Palestinian curses heaped upon "the Jews" for their confiscations and dispossessions and murder squads and settlements – Amira Hass is among the bravest of reporters, her daily column in Ha'aretz ablaze with indignation at the way her own country, Israel, is mistreating and killing the Palestinians. Only when you meet her, however, do you realise the intensity – the passion – of her work. "There is a misconception that journalists can be objective," she tells me, the same sharp glance to ensure my comprehension. "Palestinians tell me I'm objective. I think this is important because I'm an Israeli. But being fair and being objective are not the same thing. What journalism is really about – it's to monitor power and the centres of power."
Each day, Amira Hass writes an essay about despair, a chronological narrative she maintains when talking about her own life and about her parents: her mother, a Sarajevo Jew who joined Tito's partisans and was forced to surrender to the Nazis when they threatened to kill every woman in the Montenegrin town of Cetinje; her father Avraham who spent four years in the Transnistria ghetto, escaping a plague of typhus only to lose his toes to frostbite.
The story of the secular Jews Hannah and Avraham is essential to an understanding of Amira. "My parents came here to Israel naively. They were offered a house in Jerusalem. But they refused it. They said: 'We cannot take the house of other refugees.' They meant Palestinians. So you see, it's not such a big deal that I write what I do – it's not a big deal that I live among Palestinians." Hass became a journalist by default. She had survived on odd jobs – she once worked as a cleaner – and travelled to Holland. "I sensed there the absence of Jewish existence. And this told me many things, especially about my attitude to Israel, how not to be a Zionist. This is my place, Israel, the language, the people, the culture, the colours..."
Hass dropped out of the Hebrew University where she was researching the history of the Nazis and the attitude of the European left to the Holocaust. "I was stuck. The first intifada broke out and I didn't want to sit in academia while all this was happening. I used wasta – you know that Arabic word? – to get a copy-editing job on the Ha'aretz news desk in '89." Wasta means "pull" or "influence". Ha'aretz is a liberal, free-thinking paper, the nearest Israel has to The Independent. When the Romanian revolution broke out, Hass pleaded to be sent to cover the story – she had many contacts from a visit to Bucharest in 1977 – and much to her surprise, Ha'aretz agreed, even though she'd been with the paper only three months.
"When I'd gone to Romania before, I felt I had this philosophical responsibility to taste life under this socialist regime," she says. "It was a thousand times worse than I imagined. There was this terrible pressure – life under Israeli occupation is not as bad as life in Ceausescu's Romania. It was unbelievable suffocation. So I covered the revolution for two weeks and then went back to the paper. Ha'aretz didn't know if I could write – I knew I could. But I also knew never to look for what all the other journalists are looking for."
In 1990, with her parents' support, she joined a group called Workers' Hotline, which assisted Palestinians who were cheated by their Israeli employers. "During the Gulf War, I reached Gaza under curfew – I'd gone to give Palestinians their cheques from Israeli employers. That's when my romance with Gaza started. No Israeli journalist knew or covered Gaza. My editor was very sympathetic. When in 1993 the 'peace process' broke out" – Hass requests the inverted commas round the phrase – "Ha'aretz suggested I cover Gaza. One of the editors said: 'We don't want you to live in Gaza.' And I knew at once that I wanted to live there."
From the start, Hass recalls, there was "something very warm about the Palestinian attitude – there was a lot of humour in these harsh conditions." When I suggest that this might be something she had recognised in Jews, Hass immediately agrees. "Of course. I'm an east European Jew and the life of the shtetl is inbuilt in me. And I guess I found in Gaza a shtetl. I remember finding refugees from Jabalya camp, sitting on a beach. I asked them what they were doing. And one said he was 'waiting to be 40 years old' – so he'd be old enough to get a permit to work in Israel. This was a very Jewish joke."
But Hass found no humour in the Israeli policy of "closure", of besieging Palestinian towns and throttling their economy and people. "I spotted as early as 1991 that the policy of 'closure' was a very clever step by the Israeli occupation system, a kind of pre-emptive strike," she says. "The way it debilitates any kind of Palestinian action and reaction is amazing. 'Closure' was also a goal: a demographic separation which means that Jews have the right to move about the space of Mandatory Palestine. The 'closure' policy brought this to a real perfection."
Hass found herself fascinated with the difference between Palestinian image and reality. "Their towns were being portrayed in the Israeli press as a 'nest of hornets'. But I really wanted to taste what it means to live under occupation – what it is like to live under curfew, to live in fear of a soldier. I wanted to know what it was like to be an Israeli under Israeli occupation." She has used that word "taste" again, just as she did about Romania under dictatorship. She says she was still thinking about her mother's trip to Belsen. "It was this idea of not intervening, not changing anything. And luckily, this combined in me with journalism." Hass is possessed of the idea that change can come only through social movements and their interaction with the press – an odd notion that seems a little illogical.
But there is nothing vague about her vocation. "Israel is obviously the centre of power which dictates Palestinian life," she says. "As an Israeli, my task as a journalist is to monitor power. I'm called 'a correspondent on Palestinian affairs', but it's more true to say that I'm an expert in Israeli occupation." Israeli reaction, she says, is very violent towards her. "I get messages saying I must have been a kapo [a Jewish camp overseer for the Nazis] in my first incarnation. Then I'll get an e-mail saying: 'Bravo, you have written a great article – Heil Hitler!' Someone told me they hoped I suffered breast cancer. 'Until we expel all Palestinians, there will be no peace,' some of them say. I can't reply to them – there are thousands of these messages."
But many Israelis tell Amira Hass to keep writing. "People misled themselves into believing that Oslo was a peace process – so they became very angry with the Palestinians. Part of their anger is directed at me. Israelis do not go to the occupied territories. They do not see with their own eyes. They don't see a Palestinian village with a settler on its land and a village that has no water and needs government permission even to plant a tree, let alone build a new school. People don't understand how the dispersal of Jewish settlements dictates Israeli control over Palestinian territory."
As her mother lay dying this spring, Amira feared that she would be trapped by the Israeli siege of Ramallah – where she now lives – and spent hours commuting the few miles to Jerusalem. Now she is alone. The woman who taught her to despise those who were "looking from the side" died two months ago.