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I asked Israel's only journalist in Palestine to show me something shocking – and this is what I saw

This is the old road from Ramallah to Jerusalem, lined with lost wealth and forgotten hopes and once-loved homes. They all now end, of course, at The Wall

Robert Fisk
in Bir Naballa, West Bank
Thursday 20 September 2018 19:12 BST
Robert Fisk and Israeli journalist Amira Hass walk alongside a section of 'The Wall' at the West Bank (Nelofer Pazira)
Robert Fisk and Israeli journalist Amira Hass walk alongside a section of 'The Wall' at the West Bank (Nelofer Pazira)

Show me something that will shock me, I told Amira Hass. So Israel’s only journalist in the Palestinian West Bank – or Palestine, if you still believe in so unorthodox a word – took me down a road outside Ramallah that I remember as a highway which led to Jerusalem. But now, just over a hill, it deteriorates into a half tarmac road, a set of closed, rusting shop doors, and garbage. The same old summer smell of raw sewage creeps up the road. It lies, green and gentle, in a pool at the bottom of the wall.

Or The Wall. Or, for more cautious scribes, the “Security Wall”. Or, for more squeamish souls, the “Security Barrier”. Or for even more slovenly pens, just the “Barrier”. Or, if you’re really worried about the political implications, the “Fence”. The Fence – like the friendly wooden posts and crossbeams you might find along the edge of a field. Or – if you really want to frighten the TV editors and anger the Israelis – the “Segregation Wall” or even the “Apartheid Wall”. Why, soon we will be talking about the Palestinian “Bantustans” that lie cut off by The Wall and the Israelis-only roads, and the vast empire of Jewish settlements on Arab lands.

Trust Amira to start the ball rolling. The phrase “Palestinian Bantustan” litters her angry digression as she takes me around the Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank and, after an hour or two, the Wall: towering 26 feet above us, stern, monstrous in its determination, curling and snaking between apartment blocks, and skulking in wadis and twisting back on itself until you have two walls one after the other, a double wall but the same wall such are the Alpine twists of this creature. You shake your head for a moment when – suddenly, through some miscalculation, surely – there is no wall at all but a shopping street or a bare hillside of scrub and rock. And then the massive colonial project of Israel’s settlements, all green trees and red-roofed houses and neat roads and, yes, more walls and barbed wire fences and yet bigger walls. And then the beast itself. The Wall.

But the section of The Wall to which Amira Hass takes me – tourist guide and analyst of Israeli society, she admits, do not go together – is a truly miserable place. Not as epic as Dante. Maybe a war correspondent could better describe the place. It’s the old road from Ramallah to Jerusalem, lined with lost wealth and forgotten hopes and once-loved homes which now end, of course, at The Wall. “Now if this is not shocking, I don’t know what shocking is,” Amira says. “It’s a destruction of people’s life – it’s the end of the world. See here? We go straight to Jerusalem. Not now. This was a busy road and you can see here how people invested in homes with a little bit of grace, the strength of the houses, the stone. Look at the Hebrew signs – because these Palestinians used to have so many Israeli customers. Even the name ‘carpenter’ is in Hebrew.”

But almost all the shops are closed, the houses shuttered, weeds and dry sticks along the broken kerb. The graffiti are pitiful, the sun merciless, the sky so caked with heat that the grey of the wall sometimes merges into the grey stone of the sky. “It is pathetic,” Amira Hass says, without emotion. “This place – I’ve always been showing it to people; always, you know, probably a hundred times already, and it never stops shocking me.”

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The sewage, once you get used to it, is somehow appropriate. It’s like a place where imagination has dried up, leaving only a grim little pool behind, the green all the brighter because The Wall is acquiring the patina of age.

The silence is not oppressive – as it might be in a novel – but it demands an answer. What does The Wall say to us, I ask Amira? “I think what it tells me…” she begins. “Because it realises it cannot drive the Palestinians away, it has to hide them. It has to conceal them from our eyes. Some might go out to work over there for Jews. And this is seen as doing them a favour. Israelis do not enter, because for Israelis, we don’t need these areas – we don’t need it – this is garbage – this is sewage. The Wall is about how strong is the need to be pure – and how many people participated in this act of violence? They say it’s because of the suicide attacks, but the legal and bureaucratic infrastructure for this separation existed before The Wall. So The Wall is a kind of graphic or plastic or tangible expression of laws of separation that existed before.”

And this is an Israeli who is speaking to me, the tough, unremitting daughter of a Bosnian Partisan mother who had to give herself up to the Gestapo and a Jewish Romanian Holocaust survivor, and whose socialism, I think, has given her a hard, Marxist courage.

She might not agree, but I think of her as a child of the Second World War, even though she was born 11 years after Hitler’s death. She guesses she has only between 100 and 500 Israeli readers left; thank God, say many of us, that her newspaper, Haaretz, still exists.

Amira’s mother, on her way from the train station to Bergen-Belsen in 1944, was struck by the German housewives who came to look at the trail of distraught prisoners, of how the German women “watched from the side”. Amira Hass, I suspect, will never watch from the side. She has grown used to the hate and abuse from her own people. But she is a realist.

“Look, we cannot ignore that for a certain period, [The Wall] did serve the immediate role of security,” she says. And she is right. The Palestinian campaign of suicide bombing was cut short. But The Wall was also a machine for expansion; it crept forward onto Arab land which was no more a part of the state of Israel than the vast colonies now holding around 400,000 Jews across the West Bank. Not yet, at any rate.

Amira wears round spectacles which make her look a bit like one of those dentists we have all met who study with sorrow and cynicism and a certain depression the terrible state of our teeth. She writes like that. She has just finished a long article for Haaretz – it will be published two days later, a ferocious dissection of the 1993 Oslo agreement which comes close to proving that the Israelis never intended the “peace” agreement to provide the Palestinians with statehood.

“The reality of the Palestinian Bantustans, reservations or enclaves,” she writes on the gloomy 25th anniversary of the Oslo agreement, “is a fact on the ground…nowhere was it stated that the goal was the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territory occupied in 1967, contrary to what the Palestinians, many people in the Israeli peace camp at that time and the European countries had concluded.” In Haaretz, Amira says, “the problem is the copy editors – I call them the kids – change every couple of years and each time they ask me: ‘How do you know Oslo was not about peace?’…Now the paper is proud because they have someone who got it right. Twenty years ago they thought I was a lunatic.”

The Hass tour continues around what she refers to as “the five-star prison”. We pause above the city of Ramallah, temporary pseudo-capital of the Palestinian state-that-isn’t. She imagines – she often does this – an alien arriving in the West Bank from outer space. The alien, she says, would notice that Palestinian homes have black water tanks on the roof – because their water comes in quotas from the Palestinian Authority – while the Jewish settlements have a mains supply. “They don’t need to worry.” The hilltop settlements – “so lush, so tempting, it has very good air” – have red, sloping, European style roofs. Now the richer Palestinian families are imitating the red roofs of their occupiers.

Amira Hass’s alien appears again. “It sees a sprawling city [Ramallah], fancy buildings…you have cinemas here and shops and businesses. Look at the cars along there. Our out-of-space alien, he’d say: ‘What’s the problem? Why are you complaining about the occupation?’ So the problem is that you have an illusion that you are not under occupation in this narrow space, in a caged place, in this five-star prison…The contours, the borders, are very clear. But people within the borders have got used to some kind of normalcy that is very hard for them to give up now.

“Basically, they know that if they engage in another wave of resistance, they might lose even this – even the little that they have, this normalcy…One of the best proofs to me that there is some kind of normalcy is the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens who come every weekend to this Palestinian Bantustan to escape Israeli racism and the arrogance they face on a daily basis inside Israel – and they come here to escape it, to be in an all-Palestinian ambience.”

The analysis is harsh and not without historical distance. “The Palestinians know this is not independence. But right now they make the calculation that this is not worthwhile. During the last two or three years, when some young men were engaged in stabbing attacks and there were some students who went to the checkpoints here to clash with the Israeli army, people felt for them emotionally. But you didn’t see the masses coming out to confront the army. Now, it’s not fear, it’s not the Palestinian police who have stopped them. Right now, with the Palestinians split between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinians at the bottom of their political ‘savviness’, and with America – Trump – all of this, there is no reason to sacrifice yourself for nothing.”

Journalist Amira Hass suspects she has ‘between 100 and 500’ Israeli readers remaining (Nelofer Pazira)
Journalist Amira Hass suspects she has ‘between 100 and 500’ Israeli readers remaining (Nelofer Pazira)

She drives on, past a military base where she points out the words – in English – spray-painted on a wall. “Jews did 9/11.” With such words, could the Palestinians incriminate their society more utterly in the eyes of the West? But there are other graffiti. In a tiny Palestinian village perhaps two hundred metres from the Jewish settlement of Beit El – cameras pointing outwards along its fence — she points to the words spray-painted onto the wall of a Palestinian home after settlers raided the village. “Judea and Samaria,” it says in Hebrew, referring to the West Bank. “Blood will be shed.” Aisha Fara shows us the roof of her home, where her solar glass has been shattered by tiny stones – fired from a slingshot by religious students, she says, just three days earlier – and despite her 74 years, she doesn’t mince her words. I work out silently that she was born in the original mandate Palestine in 1944, the same year Amira Hass’s mother was sent to Bergen-Belsen.

“The thieves came before sunset,” Fara says of the stone-throwers. “They burned our trees three times. But thieves do not remain forever. And the people scattered all over will return to their homes, God willing… You ask me who they [the settlers] are? You sent them. You have it all in your cameras… I want the American pigs to hear – we are not Red Indians!” Amira listens carefully. “For her, history is like a long, long, long chain of expulsion,” she says of Aisha Fara. “These are things you stop writing about. Normalcy again.”

This, I think, has affected Amira Hass, the way in which a newspaper story falls away once it is has become a daily event. Stone-throwing, burning, another colonisation. And the privileges of being an Israeli citizen are ever present. “In a way, when we were bombed, it was easier because I was with everyone. This is something I can feel – the fear of bombs, of course, I share it. But closure, for example, this is something I cannot understand. I cannot really grasp it. For me a wall is just something ugly on the way to Jerusalem. But for Palestinians, it is the end of the world. When I go to Jerusalem, I cannot tell my neighbours that I go there – I’m shy. I’m embarrassed…because for them, Jerusalem is like the moon.”

So will she live all the rest of her life among the Palestinians of the West Bank, the only Israeli reporter on the sharp end of the story? “I never thought I’d live in El-Bireh, but it’s now the town I’ve lived in longer than any other place,” she replies. “I never planned it – but that’s what happened. And I know that if something happens – if I have to leave, either because I stop working or the Israelis tell me to go or the Palestinians tell me to go, whatever, I will never be able to go back and live in a purely Jewish neighbourhood. I’ll have to go to Acre or Haifa… In Haifa, you have Palestinians.”

As I turn to go back to Jerusalem, to the “moon”, I thank Amira Hass for her lecture tour, academic as well as journalistic and — in the eyes of her Israeli non-readers – a commentary as appalling as the hate-mail they have sent her. “I have a tendency to say to people what they don’t want to hear,” she says. She sounds like a journalist to me. And I understand at once that she will never watch from the side.

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