Amira Hass’s Drinking the Sea at Gaza

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

0805057404Amira Hass is a rarity: a Jewish Israeli journalist who lives full-time among Palestinians. She went to live in Gaza in 1993 and moved to Ramallah on the West Bank in 1997. She writes for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. Drinking the Sea at Gaza is rooted in her daily witnessing and sharing of the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It deals with the period from the Oslo Accords (1993–1995) and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, followed by the general elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (1996), with flashbacks to 1948, 1967 and the first Intifada (1987–1991), and an occasional footnote on changes between the Hebrew and English publications.

An awful lot has happened in the Gaza Strip since Hass wrote this book, including the second Intifada (2000–2006), the withdrawal of the Israeli army and dismantling of Israeli Settlements (2005), the election of Hamas (2006), the blockade (2007–) and armed conflict involving rockets, air attacks, land invasions, targeted assassinations, demolition of homes, and constantly violated ceasefires. So the books political narratives are historical rather than current news, the statistics on the economy are way out of date, and the living conditions of the people have almost certainly changed, and not for the better.

But the strength of the book lies in its intimacy. However formidable it is as journalism – marshalling statistics, providing context, arguing a position, constructing lucid narratives – it absolutely shines as a multifaceted portrait of people who have endured and resisted dispossession, armed occupation, economic oppression, neglect, wilful misunderstanding and betrayal. Hass has been described as an Israeli-bashing journalist, but on the strength of this book that’s rubbish. What she does is attempt to communicate an understanding of Palestinian points of view: suicide bombings are nightmarish, but the extraordinary hardship caused to ordinary people when the Gaza Strip is ‘hermetically sealed’ in response is monstrous. She writes about her friends.

Gazans include three main groupings, each with its own perspectives: refugees, people who were already living there before the great influx of refugees in 1948, and Palestinians who returned from exile after the Oslo Accords in the mid 1990s. Hass’s sympathies lie firmly with the refugees. There is also, of course, great political diversity: Fatah, preparing to govern and then backing Yasir Arafat (with reservations: Hass is not a fan); Hamas, at the time of this book gaining strength as the main Islamist party; the secular left, small but insightful. Older men who have spent time in Israeli prisons have a greater understanding of and sometimes sympathy for Israelis than the young, some of whom know them only as stereotypical oppressors (a little boy who followed some Israeli soldiers around tells an adult questioner he is trying to see their tails). Women are largely absent for public life: Hass, a Jew, mostly deals with men as a journalist, and her chapter on women is made up largely of pieces written by Gazan women contacts.

An unexpected quality of the book is its humour – Hass herself has a sardonic edge, and she has a good ear for the illuminating jokes of her Gazan friends.

The chapter ‘It is written in the holy Quran’ is a wonderful antidote to the notion that Islam is a dangerous monolithic hive mind. In a discussion of Muslim diversity is a neat example of religion-based humour. Hass was getting into a lift with a male acquaintance when another man, known to them both, joined them as the door was closing, and said, ‘I’m Satan.’ When Hass showed her lack of understanding, they explained that a verse in the Quran says that when a man and a woman are alone together Satan is between them.

Another chapter begins with a teasing exchange between drivers in a traffic snarl. The men, both from the same refugee camp, mock each other on the basis of generations-old jokes between the villages their parents were driven from in 1948. And so we are introduced to a very bitter–very sweet culture of remembrance. The yearning for lost country is not just a political motivator. It also sustains people who have been trapped in refugee camps for half a century.

Even when dealing with the torture of political prisoners in Israeli prisons, there are unexpected flashes of laughter. This, from a man named Abu Majed, is probably my favourite moment in the book:

One of his interrogators was rather overweight. As the man was jumping on him and squeezing his testicles, trying to get him to squeal on his comrades, Abu Majed managed to gasp, ‘They must be paying you double for your fat ass.’ Incredibly, the interrogator bent over with laughter and left the room.

Hass describes that as an unexpected moment of contact. That’s not a bad description of the book itself. In the context of so much that is written about the intractability of the Israeli–Palestinian entanglement, here is someone attempting to build a bridge of understanding. She writes:

If more Israelis with good intentions would actually come to Gaza and talk to people directly, I am convinced that they would have a better understanding of [attitudes described in the Israeli press as] ‘fundamentalism’ and a better grasp of the true face of the Oslo Accords. But Israelis are not allowed into Gaza unless they come to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders as part of an official delegation.

We can be very glad that at least one Israeli has managed ‘talk to people directly’, and has given us a chance to do so by proxy through this book.

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