Journalist Ben Ehrenreich spent three years living among the Palestinians on the West Bank. It’s a place that, in his view, joins the ranks of colonial Africa, Mexican border towns, Rwanda and the undercity of Mumbai as a hellhole of devastating oppression.
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Jeff: Welcome to radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
One of the things we’ve been hearing lately with respect to our own domestic politics is the debate between conscience and politics. Sometimes our desire to see our own side win has to be tempered by a broader view of the moral and human dimensions of an issue. The ongoing struggle in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinian people is no different. No matter the depth of our appreciation of the remarkable miracle that is Israel, the matter of the Palestinians and some of the decisions and actions taken by Israel must be viewed in the larger moral context. In order to do that, we have to really understand what’s happening on the ground in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. My guest Ben Ehrenreich has been there. He has gone there to live among the people and learned firsthand the enormity of what’s going on. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He is a recipient of the National Magazine Award, and it is my pleasure to welcome Ben Ehrenreich to radio WhoWhatWhy.
Ben Ehrenreich: Thank you, Jeff. It is a great pleasure to be here.
Jeff: One of the things that you talk about is really a sense of being surprised and shocked about what you saw on the ground taking place in Palestine. Talk a little bit about that first.
Ben: Sure, I think the surprise goes even further back to the first time that I went to work as a journalist in the West Bank which was in the spring of 2011. I knew as much as I could when I got there, read everything I could possibly read, and prepared as well as I could. I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what the situation was. I was, first, viscerally shocked and disturbed by what I saw in terms of just the absolute transformation of the landscape. I’d been there about a decade earlier and couldn’t believe how much things had changed in terms of the brutalization of the actual land itself: the wall we all know about which is in some places eight meters high of concrete, the checkpoints everywhere, the settlements, some places it feels like every hilltop there’s an Israeli settlement which all have their own fences and barbed wire around them and usually have an Israeli military base on the settlement right next to that. All of that was more than I was really prepared for. Then I think the other thing that really shocked me on that trip was just the pace of events that everywhere you looked, there were things happening, not good things. Everywhere I went. Sometimes I sought these things out and more often than not, I would just go somewhere and things would happen. I’m talking about land confiscation: settlers taking over Palestinian land. I’m talking about peaceful demonstrations like Palestinians being put down with overwhelming force by the Israeli military, arrests, beatings, etc., etc.. Everywhere I went, there was something awful happening and I wasn’t quite ready for that because most of it doesn’t make it into the news here. Most of these very daily realities of life in the West Bank are simply not reported on in the US. That made it all the more urgent for me to try to get those stories out.
Jeff: The overwhelming sense of it is that – obviously each time you had gone back and as you report on it over time – the situation continues to deteriorate, that it’s one of those situations which is unusual but it’s not like it gets better and then it gets worse and gets better. This just continues to get worse in so many respects.
Ben: Yes. For the most part, I think there are ups and downs. There are periods where it seems like nothing is happening which will last for a while and when you stay there longer, you start to get more of a sense of the rhythms of things. There will be times where everybody seems to be depressed, and then there are brief moments of momentum when people are suddenly hopeful about one thing or another. Then those dissipate and it goes back into quiet depression and things get worse.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the difference between the situation on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Ben: They’re quite different. I can’t speak knowledgeably about Gaza. I’ve only been there once and it was quite briefly. I was there before the last war in the spring of 2014. It is no exaggeration to say that Gaza is an open prison. It is walled off on every side but the sea. To go in or out means going through very intense crossings which most people are not able to pass through at all. The amount of goods they are allowed in is severely restricted by the Israeli government. When I was there, there was a huge crisis. There is very little fuel coming in and peoples’ horizons are enormously, enormously limited. It’s hard to exaggerate how much they’re limited by. Of course things have gotten significantly worse there since the war that summer of 2014 in which more than 2000 people were killed. Huge amounts of not only buildings but basic infrastructure were destroyed. In the West Bank there’s a wall, of course, between the West Bank and Israel, and I would say it’s a larger and more open kind of prison. It’s still the case that people’s horizons are severely limited. People’s ability to move freely not only between the West Bank and Israel but often within the West Bank is curtailed by Israeli security forces and by checkpoints. The level of insecurity in people’s daily lives is also quite extreme. People try as hard as they can to let people go anywhere to live normally, but they also know that everything can vanish in an instant. Lives can be taken at checkpoints, people can be arrested for no reason and without charge, their land can be taken, their homes can be demolished. So people are constantly living with a powerful amount of insecurity.
Jeff: Given that the situation has gone on for so long, talk a little bit about generational attitudes because in the world now there were almost 3 generations that have experienced precisely what you’re talking about.
Ben: Yes, I think there’s a real profound difference between a generation of people who were a little older than me – I’m in my mid-forties – and the youth now. The people who were close to my generation lived through the first intifada which for Palestinians was a profoundly unifying uprising. It was a largely unarmed uprising that happened, for the most part, independent of the PLO. The PLO was at the time in exile in Tunisia and it was really through these grassroots movements, village to village, of people trying to push off the occupation and do for themselves what the occupation was refusing to do for them. People experienced these great revolutionary hopes which were subsequently dashed. That generation, I think, there’s a great sense of disillusion because they grew up through this revolutionary experience and those hopes were ultimately let down. The youth, who have grown up since the Oslo agreement since 1993-1994, put in place the Palestinian Authority and institutionalized a Palestinian leadership which has actually very little authority. What Oslo did was create a sort of semblance of a state while leaving Israel in control in most aspects of Palestinian life. There’s huge amount of disillusion with the PA and with the leadership of the older generation of the youth. That’s behind a lot of what we saw in the last six months or so. There was this – some people call it an intifada – but there was this outbreak of attacks on Israelis, mainly by very young people, by teenagers in an uncoordinated fashion using household implements: kitchen knives, screwdrivers, and scissors. People attacking Israeli soldiers, policemen, and sometimes civilians and usually being killed in the process. That, I think, was a symptom of the deep despair that is felt by young Palestinians and their alienation from the traditional leadership as well as from Israeli society.
Jeff: Has the despair given way to anger, or anger given way to despair?
Ben: I would say they are pretty well connected. It’s hard to separate them out.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the anger and what you hear among the people that you lived with, that you spent so much time with on the West Bank?
Ben: There is certainly plenty of anger. I think, given what people live with, it’s surprising how little anger there is. People still live with a great deal of humor and warmth. Most Palestinians, in my experience, were able to separate out that I’m American, I have an American passport, I enjoy all the privileges of being a citizen of a country that gives $3.1 billion a year to the Israeli military. To that degree, people would be perfectly justified in mistrusting and disliking me. For the most part, they didn’t. For the most part, people understood that there’s a difference between individuals and their governments and even with the relationships with Israelis. For the most part, there are not many Israelis who come into the West Bank into the Palestinian areas. But those who do, particularly in villages like Nabi Saleh, where I spent a lot of time with this protest movement which relies on the solidarity of Israelis. Most Palestinians would welcome Israelis who came to them with open minds and open hearts and were willing to try to understand the situation from their perspectives.
Jeff: What is the sense of understanding among the Palestinians with respect to the attitudes towards the Israeli people versus the Israeli government?
Ben: It varies. Some people are deeply enraged. At the moment, unfortunately, the Israeli society has moved quite far to the right. The elected leadership in Israel is extremely aggressively right wing and for the most part they’ve been elected by the Israeli people, and so there is an understanding among Palestinians that there are a lot of people on the other side of that wall that really don’t like them.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about your own personal experiences, some of the families that you came in contact with, and some of the resiliency that you experienced really so personally.
Ben: One of the things that made me want to keep going back there and eventually made me decide to move there was that for all of the darkness, and all of the violence, by which I mean both immediate forms of violence involving gunshots and what-not and the kind of quieter forms of institutional violence that really tear away at the fabric of people’s lives… despite all that, there is a warmth and a humor in people which was enormously welcoming and appealing. I spent a lot of time in places living in a way that most Americans would recognize as extremely normal, like hanging out with families and their kids, where the kids played video games, watch TV, and do the things that people do everywhere. One of the things that made me really want to write this book was that that is something we almost never see in the American media. Any understanding of not only what the realities of the occupation mean for Palestinians, but the fact that Palestinians are human beings like we are with the same kind of longings for dignity, who want the same things out of life that we want. In the US press, for the most part, we hear about Palestinians as terrorists or as victims, and not as some of whom we can relate to as people of any relevance or kinship.
Jeff: How much of that attitude do you see in the rest of the world viewing Palestinians in that way? How much of it makes its way back to the Palestinian people? How much of that do they sense and understand?
Ben: It depends. I think most have a pretty good sense of how they’re portrayed in the media. They are certainly not pleased and they understand that in the US – because the US media is far more vocal about this than Europe or anywhere else in the world -that the Palestinians are largely portrayed as terrorists and as aggressors and that their humanity is not accounted for in the least for the most part.
Jeff: Is there a sense of wanting to do something to change that image?
Ben: Yes, but I think if you’re portrayed as something other than human by everyone around you… no one wants to have to prove their humanity. One wants to be respected. It’s a kind of further indignity to be asked to prove it. But that said, certainly in places like Nabi Saleh, where I spent a lot of time, a lot of the way they structured their resistance at the village where they try to march to a spring which was taken by the settlers who live across the valley from them, they are there every week. They met with overwhelming firepower by the Israeli military. Part of their approach is definitely geared towards the rest of the world and having foreigners, foreign solidarity activists and the Israeli solidarity activists there, is very much a part of how they understand their strategies. They are trying to resurrect a different understanding of what the Palestinian resistance might mean for the rest of the world.
Jeff: What’s happening on the grassroots level, particularly among younger Palestinians?
Ben: At the moment, not a lot. I think the defeats have been profound, particularly the events that occurred while I was there and in the summer of 2014, the war in Gaza which took more than 2000 lives. I think people are feeling quite defeated for the most part. There is not a whole lot of dynamism on the ground among the young. There is also a great deal of disillusion with their own leadership and understanding that what the Palestinian Authority mainly does, and this is very different from our – how to put it on here – but I think it’s accurate that what the PA mainly does is actually try to stop any real resistance to the Israeli occupation. They pretty much see their own leadership as a puppet probably controlled by Israel.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about why the Palestinian Authority takes that attitude? What do they hope to gain by that?
Ben: To preserve their own power. But I think it’s largely structural. Their individual motivations and the Oslo and the creation of the PA did create an elite within Palestinian society which has its own privileges in terms of power and money, but those are strong motivations for the people who have power and money. But I think it’s structural. Oslo created this class of people within Palestinian society whose privileges are very much tied to the status quo and are very much tied to not challenging Israel. You know, Edward Said, the great Palestinian scholar, the moment the Oslo declaration was issued, the Oslo Treaty was signed, he understood the situation quite well. This wasn’t peace. This was a continuation of the occupation through various veils and a lot of other people have been slower in understanding. I think it’s become quite clear.
Jeff: Who, if anyone, do the Palestinians trust?
Ben: Well, it depends which Palestinians. There are nearly 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza. One can’t generalize with numbers that big. But for the most part Israel has been pretty good at getting rid of viable Palestinian leaders. One leader who has maintained a great deal of legitimacy and popularity among Palestinians in the West Bank is Marwan Barghouti, who is in prison and will likely be for the rest of his life. So viable leaders rarely last very long.
Jeff: There is this sense of – maybe it’s fantasy and maybe it’s just wanting history to repeat itself – this desire to see a kind of Palestinian Mandela emerge from all of this.
Ben: Yes, they have these desires, but at the same time when the leaders emerge, they tend to be very quickly imprisoned. On the one hand, there are often calls for a Palestinian nonviolent movement led by somebody like “where is the Palestinian Mandela”, or “where is the Palestinian Martin Luther King Jr.?” But, at the same time, the Israeli government does a very good job at getting rid of it by imprisoning those people and using violence to crush any nonviolent resistance movement that threatens to come forth.
Jeff: What did you come to see as the potential role of the US in all of this?
Ben: The US historically played…looking for a right word…The role the US has played is not a viable one. On the one hand, the US supports Israel with, again, $3.1 billion a year in military aid, more than we give to anyone else in the world and at the same time blocks all criticism of Israel in international bodies like the UN. The US is absolutely an unwavering supporter of Israel and only criticizes it in the most qualified terms. On one hand, we are their best friend, their supporter, and their enabler. On the other hand, we pretend to be this impartial aid in negotiations and the Palestinians understand quite well that this is not an impartial role the US is playing. This has meant that these negotiations have always been failures and, I think, will continue to be failures if the US attempts again to play that role. I think that the one thing that the US can do that will make a real difference is not to do something new but to stop doing what we have been doing. To not give all of that money, to not block criticism of Israel in the UN international bodies. The fact that we’re giving Israel so much aid gives us enormous power to use pressure to change Israeli policies and we don’t use that at all. We don’t use that at all. We just continue to fund this really ongoing catastrophe as it spins further and further out of control.
Jeff: In spite of it all, you have some small sense of optimism.
Ben: I do and I do not because things are getting better in Israel. They are not. They’re getting more and more right-wing and more openly racist and violent. Not because I think things are getting better on the Palestinian side either. But I think things are changing here and I think the fact that we’re having this conversation now is a sign of that. There’ve been shifts – gradual shifts – over the last decade or so of more and more openness in the American media. It has become more and more possible to offer criticisms of Israel which was really excluded from the US media for years. A lot of Americans, especially younger Americans, are ready for and hungry for a real conversation about this. It is a conversation we haven’t been having. It had been one-sided on the closing down of all criticism of Israel. But I don’t think that’s possible anymore. What we’re going to be seeing at the Democratic convention with the Sanders appointees to the platform drafting committee insisting on mentioning Palestinian rights, insisting on using the word “occupation”, and insisting on having a more inclusive policy platform on Israel and Palestine. This is an enormous change. It’s kind of unthinkable that in the previous presidential elections we would be using the word “Palestinian”, we would be using the word “occupation”, we would be talking about the legitimate rights of Palestinians because this conversation has been limited to talking about the security needs of Israel.
Jeff: Of course part of that is the fact that the Israeli government has so overplayed its hand.
Ben: Absolutely, there’s nothing to stop them from doing so. Netanyahu’s conflicts with Barack Obama have been reported on quite a bit in the US international press. It has been strange to watch because Netanyahu will do something fairly offensive to Obama. It will be a quick little rift and he’d kind of move on. What’s been really clear throughout is no matter how much the personal dislike there may be between those men is Obama doesn’t change American policy. He still blocks all criticism at the UN. Obama’s administration has been involved in the last few months with negotiations with Israel over the aid package in which Netanyahu has been holding out and demanding more money. By most reports, he wants at least $5 billion in aid a year and Obama has been trying to keep it to $4 billion. So whatever sort of superficial conflict there may be between the US and between a US administration and Israel, the money keeps going forth. The military relationship keeps going forth and the absolute backing of all of their policies remains unchanged. That, I think, is something that will have to change if the situation is going to change at all because government after government in Israel correctly understands that there will be no consequences for anything that they do and, regardless of how much they overstep and regardless of how horrified the rest of the world is by their actions, the US government will support them absolutely. And that has to change.
Jeff: Ben Ehrenreich. Ben, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on radio WhoWhatWhy.
Ben: Thank you, Jeff. It’s been a real pleasure.
Jeff: Thank you, and thank you for listening and joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit:Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from West Bank wall (Anna / Flickr – CC BY 2.0)