WHEN I FIRST meet Amira Hass, she seems weary. After speaking at UC Berkeley, dozens of people have surrounded her, wanting to know why one of Israel's best-known journalists has chosen to live in -- and report from -- Ramallah in the occupied territories. Isn't she afraid? Isn't she guilty of treason?
No, she tells them. She is neither afraid nor guilty of treason. She simply reports truthfully about how Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
After she has rested and we've had dinner, her dark eyes regain their sparkle, her voice gets stronger and she is eager to speak, once again, about the grim situation in the Middle East.
Depending on whom you speak with, Amira Hass is either a saint or a traitor. Last June, UNESCO awarded her the prestigious World Press Freedom Prize for her "outstanding professional commitment and independence, as well as personal courage, over the past decade."
Many Israelis, however, despise her because, as a staff reporter for the daily newspaper Haaretz, she files compassionate reports about the unspeakable hardships suffered by those who live in refugee camps and towns under military occupation.
To understand her sympathy for the Palestinian people, you need to know Hass is the child of Holocaust survivors. She is appalled by "the 'arrogant superiority' of many Israelis who view Palestinians as an inferior people -- unworthy of land, water, freedom to move about. They do not realize," she says, "that they benefit, in all kinds economic ways, from the expansion of the settlements and the military occupation."
These are not statements designed to win the hearts and minds of the Israeli people. Yet she is also critical of the Palestinian Authority -- for its extensive corruption and failure to meet the daily needs of its people. On numerous occasions, the PA has warned that she has been too critical and that her life was in danger.
After dinner, I ask about the Geneva Accord, a "peace proposal" recently brokered by former senior Palestinian Authority officials and former Israeli Labor Party figures. They expect to sign it in Switzerland within a few weeks.
Among other compromises, the proposal requires that Palestinians give up the right of return and then recognize the state of Israel, which must withdraw, with a few exceptions, to its 1967 borders.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has responded with tepid interest; Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with indignant outrage.
Some peace activists, eager for any sign of hope, have nevertheless hailed the document as a model for a future peace agreement.
Hass, a tough-minded journalist, shakes her head in disagreement. "None of these people has any legitimacy, in either Israel or the occupied territories. They are trying to prop up their own status because they are so marginalized."
She then describes the "sounds of silence" she hears in each society. "Israel has so manipulated peoples' fears that few people dare speak out against the settlements or the occupation. The same is true among Palestinians.
To condemn the suicide bombings is to risk your life.''
Could things improve? "I am not deterministic and things could change," she answers, "but right now, I only see a bleak future."
As we part, my only glimpse of hope is that she is still alive and that Israel is still sufficiently democratic to permit such a dissident voice to break those sounds of silence.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle