Book Review: Drinking the Sea at Gaza

Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege by Amira Hass, 1996.

In Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Israeli journalist Amira Hass paints a nuanced and humane portrait of the hardships of life and politics unique to Gaza, from the first Palestinian Intifada through 1996. She connects this to the larger issue of the Palestinian pursuit of self-determination vis-à-vis the Oslo Accords and traces Israeli policies of de-development that have inevitably led to Palestinian dependence. According to Hass’s account, this process was vastly accelerated during the Oslo era, the primary backdrop of the book.

The main conclusions reached by Hass provide critical background information necessary to understand the continued statelessness of the Palestinians and the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza today, and the role that Oslo played in shaping both. In fact, according to Hass’s meticulously documented reporting, the siege of Gaza did not begin in 2007. It is a process that was set in motion in 1991 during the first US-led Gulf war. Hass further demonstrates how the Oslo process and the limited self-rule introduced to Gaza and Jericho served to separate Palestinians, destroy the already debilitated Palestinian economy, and shifted responsibility from enforcing the occupation from the Israeli military to the Palestinian Authority security forces, which created further Palestinian divisions. Palestinians began to direct their anger not at the occupation, but at each other.

However, Hass’s other conclusions are more damning. She traces the separation and fragmentation of Palestinian land and society through Israeli policies of closure and calls into question the Israeli assertion that these policies were implemented strictly in the interest of Israeli security. Hass asserts that these policies were in fact intended to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. Perhaps before any one else, Hass likened the fragmentation and separation of Palestinian society during the Oslo era to apartheid. She also noted that the Israeli settlements and the bypass roads that connect them to Israel, which were built during the Oslo era, were “in effect the nail in the coffin of a contiguous Palestinian state.”[1]

Hass joined the staff of Israeli daily Haaretz in 1989 and became the paper’s correspondent for the occupied territories in 1993. She lived in Gaza for three years while writing Drinking the Sea at Gaza, and has lived in Ramallah since 1997. With 18 years of experience living in the occupied Palestinian territories, Hass is more than qualified to write about Palestine; she can speak with authority about what she saw happening on the ground in Gaza as a result of the Oslo Accords because she was actually there. Additionally, because Hass is Israeli, she is uniquely positioned to interject insights into Israeli culture and how Israelis understand Palestine, which adds tremendous depth to the book. Moreover, that Hass writes about Gaza “through the eyes of its people, not through the windshield of an army jeep or in the interrogation rooms of the Shabak,” makes her account essential for humanizing a place and a people that have been so misunderstood and demonized.[2]

Hass was able to accomplish this by combining personal experience and testimonies from all sectors of Palestinian society – union leaders, Fatah members, Hamas members, Islamic Jihad members, PFLP members, former prisoners, housewives and taxi drivers, with in-depth research and data compiled by international organizations. Through the stories she collected and thorough investigative reporting, she carefully chronicles the implementation of and the interaction between closure and the permit system. She highlighted the effects of both on the quality of medical care in Gaza, the ability of Gazans to leave Gaza for medical care, and its impact on Gaza’s economy, primarily ever increasing restrictions on the ability of Gazans to work in Israel. Thus she provides a thorough picture of life in Gaza and the ways in which Israel’s policies and the Oslo Accords impacted Gazans. The overall picture she paints, however, is one of waning hope and inhumane hardship.

Overall, Hass’s book is a compelling and powerful account of Gaza’s humanity and suffering, and even a forewarning of a dark future ahead, which in reading the book 15 years after it was written has proven true. If her purpose was to translate awareness of the suffering in Gaza into action to address that suffering, she failed miserably. If her purpose was to document meticulously what was happening on the ground in Gaza during Oslo, she unequivocally succeeded. The strength of the book is that Hass does not shy away from dealing with some of the contradictions in Gaza’s politics and Palestinian society, nor does she shy away from balancing her criticism of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians with criticism of the Palestinian Authority and its authoritarian tendencies, which nearly got her kicked out of Gaza. However, her book may not be an appropriate starting point for those unfamiliar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is extraordinary in its scope of detail and knowledge of Palestinian politics but might overwhelm the novice.

 


[1] p. 346

[2] p. 5

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