Daily Life in the West Bank Is More Than Just Protests and Tear Gas

Ben Ehrenreich's new book <i>The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine</i> explores the large and small frustrations of people living in Israel's shadow.

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Jul 6 2016, 4:57pm

Ben Ehrenreich. Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Identical twins who swap identities to keep their double out of jail; an Israeli settler caught in his own razor wire, too proud to allow himself to be helped down by a Palestinian; a little blond girl who defiantly raises her fist at soldiers twice her size—Ben Ehrenreich brings a novelist's touch to anecdotes that are often stranger than fiction in his new book The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine. His carefully curated stories, gleaned from years of reporting, provide a symbolic window into the West Bank.

The book takes place in the land Ehrenreich unapologetically calls Palestine—he spends time in different towns and cities in the West Bank, orbiting the village of Nabi Saleh to follow a family-led campaign of nonviolent protest that intermittently spans the entire book.

Many of the scenes Ehrenreich narrates happen far from the frenzied media ritual of tear gas and press photographers. Instead, he's put in the hours when nothing sensational is happening, often enduring the same hardships faced by his protagonists. His writing evokes neither a sense of pity nor a warped sense of heroism. Rather, Ehrenreich's eyes fall on the quiet actions that make someone a good father, on the love that holds a family together though prolonged periods of incarceration, on the humor that bubbles up from the perpetual grief of life under occupation.

The literal spring of Ehrenreich's title is a water source used by the residents of Nabi Saleh, now blocked off by hardline Israeli settlers, a group Ehrenreich tries desperately to understand but seems always to leave even more appalled and baffled by. As for the metaphorical spring, the so-called Arab Spring, according to many of the activists Ehrenreich encounters, that movement is blocked off by less visible systems like debt and class stratification that have crept up on the West Bank over the last decade.

Caged chickens peck at a watermelon in Hebron's market. During the first intifada or uprising, watermelons became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism after the Palestinian flag was banned. Photo by Munir Atalla

Ehrenreich doesn't believe in the notion of "objective" journalism, and it's clear he has little sympathy for the narrative that Palestinian stone throwers pose a danger to IDF soldiers backed by a lopsided legal system and equipped with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and "skunk spray"— a rancid fluid that soldiers use to dispel gatherings and even nonviolent protests.

It often seems that clashes and raids with the occupying forces are the only constant over the four years Ehrenreich spent in the West Bank—everyone he encounters has lost someone or something dear to them by the end of the book. Across the board the only developments in the protagonists' lives are more sacrifices, lost loved ones, and injuries. After a few years of witnessing life in the West Bank, the hopeful optimism found at the start of The Way to Spring seems all but ground out of the author.

I recently spoke to Ehrenreich over the phone about his new book and the increasing impossibility of nonviolent protest in Palestine. During our conversation, he admitted to me that the indomitable spirit of dogged resistance continues to puzzle, inspire, and trouble him. His hope is in change closer to home.

VICE: You say in the prologue of the book, "I do not aspire in these pages to objectivity. I don't believe it to be a virtue, or even a possibility." Why is it important for you to establish that?
Ben Ehrenreich: I think one of the things that is most deceptive about the "objective" narratives that we see a lot in journalism is that they refuse to acknowledge their own role in the production of the very texts that they're creating, and refuse to acknowledge whatever entanglements they have with their subjects. For me, it's important to acknowledge that and to place oneself in it. While I don't believe in objectivity, the role of the writer as subject and the degree to which the writer is enmeshed in the lives of the people he or she is writing about should be as transparent as possible.

There is such a vast canon of literature that already exists about this topic. Was that intimidating at all?
Some of it was; a lot of it frankly wasn't. Most of the things written about the occupation and the conflict, at least by American writers, tends to either focus on the high politics of the occupation—on the negotiations, on the political figures, etc.—or to be more academic and focus in a more scholarly way on the functioning of the occupation. I didn't want to do either of those things, I've never been at all comfortable reporting in those high circles of power; I am always much more interested in how those [politics] play out in people's lives. It's tempting to say "the lives of ordinary people," but I don't really believe in the notion of "ordinary people." I just wasn't interested in spending time with the elites, which is what most writing about the conflict by Americans tends to do.

Razor wire surrounds a settlement in Hebron, where Ehrenreich says ravenous expansion has led to "cartographic collapse." Photo by Munir Atalla

Your book is rich with the details that punctuate life in the West Bank. What do you think readers can learn from those details that one might miss from looking exclusively at the political side of things?
One of the things that is possible in writing is to give people an opportunity to imagine lives that are completely other than their own, and to gently challenge people to abandon their own experience and step into someone else's and imagine themselves as another. In many ways, that is one of the most important exercises people in this country can undertake when confronted with a population that is so routinely dehumanized. It is through that relation of details that kind of identification becomes possible.

One of the most moving chapters to me was the one about visiting the ocean with people who had never seen it before.
From most high points in the West Bank, you can see the sparkling of the sun on the Mediterranean in the late afternoon. Nonetheless, most Palestinians can't go there, and most children in their teens have never been to the beach. When we think about the occupation, we think about people being killed in raids, we think about prisons.

But one of the things that Palestinians talk about and plays a larger role in people's imagination in some ways than many of the obvious forms of oppression is not being able to visit the sea. They talk and dream about seeing the sea all the time. So one day during Ramadan in the summer of 2015, Israelis were allowing men under seventeen and over forty and all women to cross through Qalandia checkpoint into Jerusalem, so they could pray at Al Aqsa Mosque. I met up with a family with three children and some Israeli friends, and we took them to the beach near Acre, where the children could play in the water for the first time in their lives.

"More than half of the two thousand two hundred people who were killed in Gaza were civilians, and many, many more have been killed in the West Bank since then. That makes it a lot harder to convince anybody that they should risk their lives with empty hands while standing up to the occupation."

How are the characters in the book doing today?
When I first started going [to Palestine], several villages were doing weekly demonstrations against the occupation, and it still seemed possible that the number of villages might still grow and might spread, and one might see a grassroots unarmed resistance really challenging the occupation in some meaningful way. But I don't think anyone believes that now. It is, unfortunately, clear to most people, even the ones who are still taking part in that particular kind of resistance, that they need to find new strategies.

In Nabi Saleh, it's been nearly seven years of weekly demonstrations that have taken an enormous toll on the village and on the people who have been most involved in them. I was back in Palestine at the end of May and early June, and everyone I spoke to was feeling pretty paralyzed. Everyone seemed to agree that what had been happening wasn't working anymore, or that something new had to happen—but nobody knew what it was or was able to articulate that yet.

Concretely, in the years between my first visit to Nabi Saleh and today, two young men, both of whom were beloved in the village, were killed. Dozens of people were arrested, and people's health has been absolutely destroyed by repeated injuries and by constant tear gas inhalation over the years. The losses just pile up.

The port of Acre. Despite their proximity to the sea, many Palestinians living under occupation have never been able to visit the Mediterranean. Photo by Munir Atalla

One of the underlying themes of the book is a desire of so many of the people you write about to participate in nonviolent demonstrations. But toward the end, they find it more difficult than ever to adhere to this.
Particularly after the 2014 war in Gaza, it's become harder to convince anybody that it would make any sense to resist the Israeli military forces in a nonviolent manner, when they have shown themselves so willing to slaughter civilians. More than half of the two thousand two hunred people who were killed in Gaza were civilians, and many, many others have been killed in the West Bank since then. That makes it a lot harder to convince anybody that they should risk their lives with empty hands while standing up to the occupation. One frequently hears in the American pro-Israel press people bemoaning the lack of a "Palestinian Mandela" or lack of a "Palestinian Gandhi" and voices criticizing Palestinians for not starting a nonviolent mass movement against the occupation, which is I think hypocritical on a number of different levels. But the most obvious one is that Israel has taken great pains to destroy every nonviolent movement as it arises.

There's all this talk in the book about a third intifada, or uprising. Do you think the West Bank has lost the torque necessary for an intifada?
I think the big question mark is the role of the Palestinian Authority (PA) because one of the main functions of the Abbas regime is to prevent any organized resistance. I know this goes completely counter to the narrative we see coming out of Israel, which is frequently parroted in the American press, that Abbas and the PA are inciting violence against Israel. If you spend any time in the West Bank, it's very clear that the main role of the Palestinian Security Forces is to suppress any resistance to the occupation. Demonstrations not against the PA, but against the Israelis, are frequently put down with great violence by the PA. No one quite knows how to work around that yet. People are not ready to challenge the Palestinian Authority head-on, both because it's dangerous and because it's their own.

In a way, it sort of fits into a broader neoliberal structure being replicated all over the world.
Yes, exactly. And that's a more complicated and invisible enemy than a group of soldiers. Most of the activists that I know well talk about that neoliberal atomization as the greatest obstacle that they have to deal with, not Israeli bullets or tear gas. Many people have a salary from a Palestinian Authority job and a great deal of consumer debt they have to think about constantly. So they are a less likely to rally to anything.

Where do you see things going from here?
I think the fact that the lockdown on criticism of Israel is now breaking up is a real opportunity. We shouldn't forget that $3.1 billion American tax dollars goes to the Israeli military and that the US is in an absolutely direct way paying for what is happening over there, and we are not powerless. For years that has been unquestioned, and if Hillary Clinton had her way that would remain unquestioned. Americans who care about this have to make sure that it is not just questioned but powerfully challenged in a way that the political leadership in this country can no longer afford to ignore.

Munir Atalla is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, working as a producer at NBC News. Follow him on Twitter.

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