Occupation 101: An Insider's View of the Complexity of Palestinian Resistance

Journalist Ben Ehrenreich's 'The Way to the Spring' offers a riveting - and admittedly one-sided - look at Palestinian society, its internal struggles and resistance against Israel.

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“The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,” by Ben Ehrenreich, Penguin Press, 428 pp., $28

In the summer of 2012, the people of Nabi Saleh finally made it to the spring. Every Friday since 2009, the residents of the Palestinian village, located 12 miles from Ramallah in the West Bank, had been protesting the seizure of their lands by Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Halamish. Along with their fields, the settlers took ’Ein al-Qoos, a spring just south of the village, and, backed by the Israeli army, prevented Palestinians from approaching the area and using the water.

As described by journalist Ben Ehrenreich in his new book “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine,” the protest on that June Friday began as usual. The protesters, accompanied by journalists and Israeli and international activists, walked down the road leading out of the village, waving Palestinian flags. Then, suddenly cutting down the hill and through the underbrush, they reached the spring.

Ehrenreich describes their exhilaration at having come so far; the soldiers, he writes, would usually start shooting rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and, sometimes, live ammunition long before that point. For an hour, the children played in the water and the adults chatted in the shade while settlers scowled and soldiers gathered. It was only on the way back that the tear gas, and the village teenagers’ rock throwing in response, began.

If Palestinians are most often presented in the media as either bloodthirsty terrorists or faceless victims in a seemingly unending cycle of violence, this story that opens "The Way to the Spring" paints a different picture. It is an uplifting account of Palestinian solidarity and unarmed resistance winning a small victory over the might of the Israeli military — of David, against all odds, defeating Goliath.

"The Way to the Spring" is a political travelogue based on the author’s journeys through Israel and the West Bank, where he met Palestinian activists in Nabi Saleh, Hebron, Ramallah and elsewhere, as well as a handful of Israeli soldiers, settlers and left-wing political activists. One of Ehrenreich’s goals is to introduce American readers to Palestinian life under the occupation.

The book covers the period from 2011, when the author first went to Nabi Saleh to report on the protests for The New York Times Magazine, and ends in the fall of 2014, following Israel's Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip that summer. During that time, grass-roots, unarmed protest movements like the one in Nabi Saleh were taking hold throughout Palestine. Rejecting the violent tactics of the second intifada, civilians in villages and towns, unaffiliated with the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah, were taking a stand against the expanding Jewish settlements and Israel’s separation barrier, which blocked Palestinians’ access to their fields and lands.

Ehrenreich places these activists’ work in a historical context, but devotes more attention to explaining their goals: attracting a global network of supporters, including foreign volunteers and journalists who participated in the protests, and developing an international social media audience, to tell their story and pressure Israel to change its policies.

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“The people of Nabi Saleh were crafting a narrative of their own struggle, their own courage, their sacrifice, steadfastness, heroism,” he writes.

"The Way to the Spring" is a riveting and powerful work because it does not simply and uncritically convey this narrative. As Ehrenreich shows, the simple story of Palestinians as happy warriors conceals a great deal of complexity, conflict, pain and contradiction. The story protesters presented to the world, like the account of that Friday at the spring that appears early in the book, was incomplete — not out of deception, but because no story ever is complete.

“We settle on stories like paths worn through tall grass,” Ehrenreich writes. “They take us where we need to go. Or where we think we need to.”

"The Way to the Spring," at its core, is a book about that complexity: the divisions that cut through Palestinian society, the toll activism takes on the participants, and how much global attention and social media ultimately undermine such movements.

Unbearable violence

To be clear, the complexity that Ehrenreich explores is one-sided. He is not interested in Israelis and their experiences, humanity or suffering. This disinterest will strike some readers as biased and even fraudulent, and there are moments when Ehrenreich’s dismissal of Israeli concerns even lapses into callousness.

Palestinians wait to cross an Israeli army checkpoint on July 3, 2016 at a road next to the Palestinian town of Al-Fawwar south of Hebron.
Menahem Kahana / AFP

For example, in his response to the death and destruction of the 2014 Gaza war, he writes, “it occurred to me that perhaps the occupation was not the clever and highly sophisticated machine I had thought it was. Careful and pragmatic decisions had surely been made all along the way at multiple levels of Israel’s political and security apparatus. But whatever force was pushing those bureaucratic processes forward was not rational at all. It was merely murderous, rooted in a fear and rage that flowed beneath the ground in hidden channels, secrets and unmentionable conduits that had been there all along and were only now erupting.”

While fear certainly claims a privileged place in the Israeli collective unconscious, it is wrong and reductive to dismiss the occupation as inexplicable, radical evil. Israelis, the targets of violent attacks and hateful rhetoric, have reason to be afraid; that fear is not only, and not even primarily, the product of cynical politicians’ manipulations. Even if the danger and insecurity Israeli civilians experience is less than that faced by Palestinians, their pain and trauma are just as real.

However, as a chronicle of the experiences of Palestinians he met, like Bassem Tamimi and his family in Nabi Saleh, Issa Amro, the founder of Youth Against Settlements in Hebron, and Abir Kopty in Ramallah, "The Way to the Spring" does not need to be balanced or show how the other half lives. Readers near and far who seek greater understanding of how Palestinians live — and the violence they endure — are well served by Ehrenreich’s book.

He describes several deadly incidents, including the killing of Anas al-Atrash, a 23-year-old Palestinian shot to death by Israeli soldiers at a Hebron checkpoint on November 7, 2013. There was no official Israeli investigation and Israeli media reported that the soldiers acted in self-defense against a knife-wielding terrorist, but Ehrenreich found eyewitnesses who say it was no less than unjustified murder. On almost every page, the reader is confronted with arrests, intimidations, nighttime searches, tear gas, checkpoints, insults, theft, house demolitions and rubber bullets. Even for readers familiar with the human cost of Israel’s occupation, when collected in this way the weight of suffering is almost too much to bear.

A global affair

"The Way to the Spring" condemns the Palestinian Authority just as strongly. Ehrenreich sees the PA, its leadership, and particularly president Mahmoud Abbas, as little more than Israeli stooges. He describes how PA security forces violently suppress demonstrations in Ramallah and elsewhere, including demonstrations against Israeli abuses, continue the security cooperation with Israel despite escalating numbers of Palestinian dead, in 2014, and get rich from their privilege and power.

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The PA’s collusion with Israel also explains one of the book’s underlying questions — why the Arab Spring never made it to Palestine. The four-year period covered here parallels the rise and fall of mass protests and revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere, and these events serve as a counterpoint to Ehrenreich’s Palestinian narrative.

Nabi Saleh’s ’Ein al-Qoos is not the only “spring” of the book’s title. Though this question is never fully answered, the fact that Palestinians faced, as Ehrenreich argues, not one repressive government but two made grass-roots political change doubly hard.

"The Way to the Spring" contrasts the current situation of a fractured Palestinian political landscape — between the PA leadership and average Palestinians, between Hamas and Fatah, between Gaza and the West Bank — with the unity and grass-roots resistance that characterized the first intifada. However, rather than focusing their efforts inward, on strengthening Palestinian solidarity in the face of Israeli power, today’s protests hope to influence a global audience through social media and volunteers, diplomats and journalists like Ehrenreich.

“Nabi Salih’s local dramas could — and did — become global affairs,” Ehrenreich writes. “But tools are never innocent. They have agendas of their own. They move things in one direction or another and determine the shapes available to them ... Media insists on visibility, and on celebrity. Stories need protagonists. This one too. Unless people take pains to avoid it, campaigns that rely solely on media are almost inevitably undemocratic.”

As in the case of the Twitter revolutions in the Arab world, this strategy carried the seed of the movement’s own destruction. More pressing crises bump them from their place in the news cycle, and "The Way to the Spring" also shows how the attention that is lavished on the central characters like Bassem Tamimi — the stars of media profiles, who are befriended by English-speaking internationals and invited on lecture tours of European capitals — creates jealousy and division.

Ehrenreich describes how the protests in Nabi Saleh steadily lost the support of the villagers, who resented Bassem and others for their inequitable access to funding, fame and opportunities to see the world that are unimaginable to average Palestinians.

Even as the protests in Nabi Saleh waned, Palestinians in another village, Wadi Fukin, began to challenge an expanding Israeli settlement. Ehrenreich’s account of this new protest ends the book, but given all that has come before, the hopeful tone of these final pages rings false. Is Ehrenreich naive to believe that, somehow, Wadi Fukin will succeed where Nabi Saleh failed? Or does he truly believe all oppression will cease — if not today, then tomorrow?