Occupation 101

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, that June Friday’s protest 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, usually start shooting rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades and, sometimes, live ammunition long before. 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 that summer’s war in Gaza. During that time, grassroots, unarmed protest movements like the one in Nabi Saleh were taking root 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 Isarel’s separation barrier that 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 international volunteers and journalists who participated in the protests and developing a global social media audience, to tell their story and pressure Israel to change its policies. “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. “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.

Read the whole review from 2016 in Haaretz.