Amira Hass is the Haaretz correspondent in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and author of 'Drinking the Sea at Gaza' (H. Holt, N.Y., 2000). She also contributed the foreword and afterword to 'Diary of Bergen Belsen' by Hanna Levy Hass (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2009).
Journalists and Occupy Wall Street activists, so I hear, are cross with the police for having kept the press away from the OWS encampments during police raids. They cynically and disbelievingly quote the explicit reason behind this move: according to Michael Bloomberg, the NYPD did it "to protect members of the press," the exact same explanation given by the police in Los Angeles. My advice is never to doubt the wisdom of officials and never, never to underestimate their sincerity when they are so concerned with a journalist's wellbeing. So my experience tells me.
At the end of 1997 I got a warning from the Palestinian police in Ramallah that my life was in danger and that I should leave the city instantaneously. First there were some phone calls, then an official letter. It was only a pure coincidence, of course, that a few days earlier I had published an op-ed against the execution of a Palestinian convict in Gaza and against the capital punishment in Palestinian Authority territory.
For a day or two my two apartment mates scrutinized the street and made sure that there was no suspicious movement around the house. I don’t recall any longer what made me seek the advice of Q., a Fatah senior activist and a former prisoner in Israeli jails: was it the warning letter from the police or another menacing phone call? Either way, Q. saw the letter, apologized to the people who had come to his office with the usual grievances of underpaid ex-prisoners or of farmers whose land has been confiscated, put on his coat, and off we went to the police station.
Without any introduction Q. started chastising the high officer who signed the warning letter. The officer was baffled. “We did not intend it to be public,” he protested. Then somehow we learned that the person behind the letter was — surprise, surprise — someone directly connected with the death sentence. Q. just advised the high officer to ignore the instruction to intimidate me. We drank the hot sweet tea that was offered, and left.
Less than a week later, while on a journalistic mission (examining a private plot of Palestinian agricultural land that had been gradually taken over by Israeli colonists), an armed, religious-looking Israeli Jew showed up and shot toward the Palestinian farmer, Haaretz photographer, and myself. A vivid example as to how Israeli colonists become land owners. The news traveled fast, and Q. called me and said triumphantly: “Don’t you see that our PA is wise, well-informed, and of good intentions: Your life was indeed in danger.”
The second proof as to the well-meaning warnings of those in charge, limited as it is, came on December 1, 2008. It was my third week in Gaza. I arrived there on the Free Gaza boat “service,” because Israeli authorities had not allowed Israeli journalists to enter Gaza since the end of 2006 (for our safety, needless to say). Hamas security had placed 24/7 surveillance on me. For my safety, needless to say. Until they summoned me urgently and ordered my instantaneous departure. “We cannot protect you any longer, we cannot guarantee any longer that you [will] be safe,” they argued. The order came from high up: the Hamas minister of interior. By pure coincidence I had spent the day before at a Hamas military court session, where a mock trial was staged against nine (or were they eleven?) Fatah affiliates indicted for an attempt to assassinate Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniye. Words of reason and the pleas of some Hamas acquaintances did not change the order. I was thrown out of Gaza and separated from my many friends there.
Four weeks later Israel launched its massive onslaught against the Gaza Strip and its residents (surprise, surprise: in the preceding weeks Israel had prevented foreign journalists from entering the Gaza Strip). The Gaza Strip became a death trap. People — civilians and armed ones alike — were chased everywhere by drone missiles and sophisticated artillery a la a video game. Dead worried about my friends, and laboring to reach real information through the phone, I could not avoid appreciating Hamas’ clairvoyance when they had kicked me out: indeed there was no way they could have protected me from Israeli fire.
By the way, when the onslaught ended, I managed to enter the Gaza Strip again, through Egypt: there was no Hamas surveillance of me this time, and I was able to stay in Gaza for four months and write down people’s testimonies. What a miracle: no concern with my safety that required around-the-clock surveillance. No eviction order.
When Hamas security officers ordered me to leave, it was a déjà vu. “You even use the same manual as Arafat’s security did,” I told them, holding tight my tears. They were not amused at all. How can I even compare? But I swear they used the very same sentence that Yasir Arafat’s intelligence officer had used in 1995, when he demanded my instantaneous departure: “We cannot protect you any more and cannot guarantee your safety,” he recited. In 1995 I was driving my car in Gaza. So he added, “Maybe something will happen to your car, or to you, driving it. How can I tell?” It was only pure coincidence, of course, that a few days earlier I had published an op-ed where I criticized the establishment of the State Security Tribunal, with its night sessions and swift verdicts. I later learned the expulsion order came directly from Arafat’s office.
Just as it would be in 2008, in 1995 some members of the ruling party (Fatah, that time) who had known me for several years joined in the attempt to undo the order. Unlike Hamas’ unbending minister of interior, who would not succumb to the pleas of his movement’s brothers to let me stay, Arafat listened, and after three days revoked the order to evict me. “Your life is no more in danger,” the intelligence officer announced. Did I only imagine he was winking?
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