An interview with Ben Ehrenreich

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Ben Ehrenreich (c) Peter-van-Agtmael Magnum Photos

Just south of the village, Nabi Saleh, there is a spring. It is called Ein al Qoos or the Bow Spring. Palestinian farmers have used it for their crops for as long as anyone can remember. However, in 2008, Nabi Saleh’s access to the spring was cut off. Israeli settlers dug a pool that collected water from it; they populated the pool with fish and built a swing, a bench, and a shade. They gave the spring a Hebrew name –Ma’ayan Meier, or the Meier Spring – and occupied it. Since, the residents of Nabi Saleh have protested weekly. They – young, old, men, women – are met each time by armed Israeli soldiers, tear gas, rubber (and sometimes live) bullets and ‘skunk’ spray (a noxious, foul-smelling liquid that does not wash off for days and causes vomiting), and the argument that the land this spring exists on is land promised to Israelis. Journalist and author Ben Ehrenreich opens The Way to The Spring: Life and Death in Palestine with the story of the struggle for this spring. He introduces us to residents of Nabi Saleh, to families who protest, are injured, arrested and, sometimes, killed, and we soon learn that, here, it is not only a spring that is at risk of being lost but surrounding hills, homes, life-styles and culture also. For Israeli’s, the whole of Nabi Saleh is land promised to them.

Nabi Saleh and its spring are not unique. Symbolic springs exist all over Palestine – hills and businesses and roads and homes – all central to clashes, occupation and protest. These places are the bargaining chips in a centuries-long debate: the question of who has real claim to the land they exist on – land that is the birthplace of the Jews, but home for millennia to Palestinians. It is an infamously complex and controversial debate, compounded by spin, media bias and obscurantism; it is a debate that has made speaking objectively about the things happening in Palestine – the building of walls; settling of land; bombings; arrests with no charge; missile-strikes; clashes between children and soldiers and so on – and the legality of them, near-impossible. So, Ehrenreich makes a bold choice; he does not engage in this debate in his book. Rather, he asks a different question: what is life like for those living in these places at the centre of conflict? “In a way, we can’t disengage in the debate, completely,” Ehrenreich says. “To call Palestine Palestine is to have a bias. It’s unavoidable. But, what was important to me was that the book didn’t just shout things at people whose minds were already made up. I wanted to focus on the reality of these places, instead – the truths, the injustices that the debate never focuses on.”

Ehrenreich moves between Nabi Saleh, Hebron and Umm al-Kheir, amongst other places. He stays with families who, in each chapter, we get to know a little more; we learn of their relationships, day-to-day lives, pasts and hopes for the future. In Nabi Saleh, Ehrenreich stays with the Tamimis. Bassem and his wife Nariman are leaders of the weekly protests; their daughter, Ahed, became the face of child resistance in Palestine when videos of her confronting an Israeli soldier and biting another who had pinned down 12-year-old Mohammad Tamimi, went viral. Ehrenreich becomes almost part of the family. We learn of Mohammad’s cheeky, inquisitive nature – he earns an epitaph in the book: ‘young Mohammad’, reflective of his innocence and energy – and that, despite the harsh setting of conflict, he is still very much a child. Ahed is strong, feisty, confident yet, also, a typical teenager – she takes selfies, spends most of her time attached to her phone, watches Glee on the TV with her siblings, friends and parents.

Ehrenreich interviews inhabitants of houses cut off from communities by walls and checkpoints, relatives of people who have been killed, witnesses to murders and unlawful arrests; and he also writes of what he witnesses. Protests in Nabi Saleh are often shockingly violent; the village youth throw stones and the Israeli soldiers retaliate with bullets and tear gas. In 2011, 27-year-old Mustafa Tamimi was killed by a tear gas canister, which struck his head at close range; and in 2012, Rushdi Tamimi, 31 – Nariman’s brother – was killed with live ammunition while lying on the ground, already incapacitated by a rubber bullet. This occurred during protests following air strikes on the Gaza strip that saw 167 Palestinians and 6 Israelis killed. Nariman – shot in the leg later during protests – stayed with her brother as he lay dying, and was prevented from carrying him away to seek medical help.

“As complex as everything may seem from a distance, once you get there, the imbalances of power are so extraordinarily clear,” Ehrenreich explains. “In the West, there’s the occasional headline in the New York Times, The Guardian, mainly when Israelis are the victims of violence and only occasionally when something really bad happens to Palestinians. But, when you’re there, it’s very clear that things are happening constantly to Palestinians.” Ehrenreich catalogues the quieter acts of resistance too; when Palestinian homes have been in the way of the wall being built by Israeli’s, they have been bulldozed or the walls have been built around them, curtailing inhabitants off from the rest of society with concrete and barbed wire; the inhabitants stand their ground. They adapt to their new situations; one man explains that he tries not to see the wall at all, but to see his garden instead. “Everywhere I went, even though I wasn’t particularly seeking out any kind of drama, I found it,” Ehrenreich continues. “I happened across settlers taking over people’s land, people completely at a loss and trying to hold onto what little they still had, Israeli soldiers firing tear gas and rubber bullets at Palestinian youth. The drama was constant.” Despite this, Ehrenreich speaks of a hope that prevails and a spirit of resistance that never seems to die.

In Umm al-Kheir, Ehrenreich spends time with Eid Suleiman al-Hathalin, a vegan Bedouin, whose views put the Israel-Palestine debate into relief. “They say it’s the holy land,” he says. “It’s not. It’s the same land as Jordan. It’s the same land as America. It’s land.” Eid doesn’t understand the need to differentiate between different types of people – Jews, Palestinians, Bedouins; he doesn’t understand the need for violence. “Buddhism is a very good religion. […] You know why? No killing. No killing! This is incredible!” he says. Eid is a rare character; despite the hardships he faces when his home is demolished by settlers over and over, he is not compelled towards retaliation; rather, he simply feels confusion and bafflement. Ehrenreich allows us to feel this same bafflement, by removing the events he witnesses and learns of while in Palestine from the larger debate. He explains, “what’s very clear is that whatever historical, political, ideological, religious frameworks one can find within this situation and as complex as they may be, the massive injustices and imbalance of violence is inescapably clear, and I think that can’t be justified with any rhetoric with even the subtlest of arguments. Whether you agree that the Israelis have right to the land or the Palestinians do, the violence and injustices occurring can’t be excused.”

Truth, in Palestine is, Ehrenreich writes “a slippery creature, [an] elusive [one], that lives most of the time in contradiction.” Palestinians, including many in Nabi Saleh, record instances of violence and injustice and post the videos online; beatings, violent arrests of both adults and children and murders have been committed to film, as well as less dramatic incidents (such as a recent video of a Israeli soldier confiscating a small Palestinian girl’s bike at a checkpoint). Ehrenreich’s book adds to this evidence. “However,” he explains, “there is a whole attempt on the internet to dismiss all video and journalistic evidence. There are these right-wing Zionists who argue that any video or documentation is staged “Pallywood”, which is of course a racist term, but also an attempt to suggest that all of these really obvious episodes of extraordinary violence are acted out or caused by Palestinians egging on Israeli soldiers.”

Ehrenreich admits that some minds are closed; those he mentions in regards to Pallywood, he understands he will not be able to reach. “But, in the US and the UK, I think there are many people who have inherited certain views from the media that is most-often biased towards Israel, from their families, from the various sources we inherit our political outlooks from, who simply haven’t been exposed to the realities in Palestine. And my hope is that if they can be exposed to some of those realities, without feeling screamed at, and begin to recognise that these things are happening to human beings, the book will be able to actually change – or at least open – some minds. I think a lot of Americans and perhaps British people as well just believe that Palestinians are violent terrorists and that Israelis are acting righteously in self-defence. I think those people can kind of be reached; you can get under their defences.”

Ehrenreich does not discuss terrorism much in his book. He argues that ‘terrorism’ is word that is not descriptive but, rather, ideological and, consequently, it “clouds our ability to see the world with any subtlety but also intelligence”. Of Palestinian terrorism, he says: “I think the function of the word ‘terrorism’ in this narrative is to declare certain kinds of violence illegitimate and other kinds legitimate. It renders one type of violence – Palestinian violence – completely monstrous and outside the pall of the human while making Israeli violence, whether it is state violence (the kind that is visited on Palestinians on a daily basis) or the quasi-state violence exercised by settlers, invisible and justified.” Ehrenreiech makes clear his recognition of the costs that suicide bombings have had on Israeli society, but argues that, to differentiate between the types of violence brought down on civilians on either side – both types that often end in fatalities and injury – is illogical and silencing of the side that does not have support from the state or from the West. By only calling out one type of violence – one side’s violence – as terrorism, Ehrenreich argues, the multitudes of deaths caused by the other side are rendered less significant. “Before Palestinians are to be taken seriously, it is demanded that they renounce all violence. If they have any sympathy to or any understanding of military resistance, as it’s called in Palestine, they are cast aside as illegitimate, as terrorism supporters, not to be listened to and to be demonized and discarded. The same requirement is of course not made of Israelis; Israelis are not required to disown violence; the IDF is not required to throw away all of its weapons before we take their opinions seriously. So I think that the word ‘terrorism’ forms this very powerful narrative function in silencing Palestinian voices and giving the sole authority to Israelis.”

Ehrenreich writes about a blindness that prevents people from seeing the existence of inequalities. In Palestine, no matter which side of the debate one is on, one should, he argues, still be able to see the inequalities between Palestine and Israel – unequal funding from foreign countries, biased national and international media coverage, and unequal standards of weaponry. He explains that, being in Palestine has enabled him to see the institutional inequalities in his home country, America, more so, also. “In America, so many people have such successful strategies for not seeing the massive inequalities that exist. Only now, with the police shootings and with Trump are things starting to crack and people starting to pay more attention,” Ehrenreich explains. “I don’t see Palestine as this far away exotic land with this kind of incomprehensible conflict going on; I think it’s quite legible, from an American perspective. We have a wall too, in the US, and parts of it are contracted out to Israeli contractors, just as parts of the Israeli wall are funded by America. As much as Trump talks about building a bigger one, we already have one; it’s been going up for years. And a lot of the same global players are involved in maintaining those inequalities here as well.”

For Ehrenreich, we have a responsibility to resist the things that blind us, be they biased media, obscurantism and the opinions of others. By getting to know the Palestinian people he stays with, through intimate and insightful interviews, sharp and detailed observations, and his refusal engage in the wider political debate, Ehrenreich helps lift the veil that otherwise might prevent some from seeing the inequalities and injustices at the heart of the occupation. With Trump wanting an “ultimate” solution for the Palestine-Israel conflict, and believing that settlements are no obstacle for peace, this truthful, insightful and uncensored account of life for Palestinians could not be more pertinent. In a time where lies triumph and division is encouraged, this book reminds us of the importance of actively seeking the truth, about all manner of things, not only Palestine, and demonstrates the need for unity and hope.

By Claire Kohda Hazelton


benThe Way To The Spring: Life and Death in Palestine by Ben Ehrenreich, Granta Books, 2016