The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine
(Penguin Press, 2016)
There are many hells on this earth, most of them created by war, poverty, totalitarianism, and various superstitions. But it’s among Palestinians—in the shadow of the holy cities of Bethlehem, Nablus, Jericho, Hebron, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem—that all four horsemen gather.
The 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank are in an impossible predicament. Unlike the Arab Spring countries, the fount of Palestinians’ oppression is not a Palestinian dictator; it is an intricate foreign enterprise, operated by fundamentalist settlers, who believe themselves ordained by God to take all of the land west of the Jordan River, and enabled by Israeli policy, currently under the control of a coalition of frightful reactionaries, by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which governs by force the majority of the West Bank, and by a pliable Palestinian establishment that, in exchange for acquiescence, has been made rich and powerful.
There is no dictator to depose, yet the kind of unrelenting oppression Palestinians are subjected to necessitates resistance, hopeless as it may be. Ben Ehrenreich’s extraordinary new book, The Way to the Spring, chronicles individual Palestinians who live with this existential struggle and, in his words, “decline to consent to one’s own eradication, to fight actively or through deceptively simple acts of refusal against powers far stronger than oneself.”
The timing of this particular kind of work could not be better. What American officialdom calls “the peace process” is dead, as is the possibility of a two-state solution. Look no further than John Kerry’s soft-headed attempt to revive negotiations in 2013, which were easily overpowered and slowly smothered by an Israeli team whose only goal was to further cement the status quo and who knew, correctly, that the Palestinian Authority had absolutely zero leverage. The effort revealed, in Ehrenreich’s telling, an “almost astonishing American naïveté” that only embarrassed the Obama administration and enabled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to press his advantage by approving even more settlements while the feckless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cried uncle. It’s precisely at this moment, during a lull in media coverage and a low point in American influence over Israeli policy (which Netanyahu has shown can be implemented with impunity), that a meeting between Western readers and Palestinian individuals is needed. The crisis is now, not when the bombings and shooting inevitably start again.
The Way to the Spring grew out of a cover story Ehrenreich, a novelist and freelance journalist in Los Angeles, wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 2013 about Nabi Saleh, a village on a hill near Ramallah. Every Friday since 2009, the villagers have staged peaceful protest marches against a growing illegal settlement on an opposite hill, which is appropriating their farmland—including a freshwater spring the Palestinians use to cultivate crops—under the protection of an IDF garrison based right next to the settlement. The protestors, some hurling stones that bounce harmlessly off armored men and jeeps, are met with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets (which, while usually not deadly, are known to have put more than one Palestinian in a coma), and “skunk” water sprayed from a high-power hose on top of an armored Jeep. (“No one knew,” Ehrenreich writes about skunk water, “what chemicals it contained or what effect exposure to it might have. But everyone knew [. . .] it smelled like shit. And no matter how many times you scrubbed your hair and your clothes, the scent would linger for days, even weeks.”) Protests would be followed by nighttime raids—“home invasions,” as Ehrenreich prefers to call them—and regular arrests under often spurious charges, or sometimes no charges at all.
Ehrenreich, who spent months at a time living in Palestine, rotating between different families in different cities and villages from 2011 to 2014, treats us to other manifestations of oppression ranging from surreal to murderous. We meet Hani Amer, whose house is completely encased by Israeli-built separation walls and a “security gate” remote-controlled by an absent IDF soldier, prompting him to satirically name his property The Nation of Hani Amer. We learn about the murder of Anas al-Atrash, and the subsequent cover-up by the Israeli government. We go to a village of hobbling men and boys, whose knees were the target of a sadistic Israeli sniper.
And then there is Hebron. If the holy land is hell on earth, Hebron is its ninth circle. It’s there that the endpoint of Jewish fundamentalism and Israel’s current policy is most explicitly revealed: graffiti of Stars of David next to “Gas the Arabs,” the IDF referring to streets empty of Palestinians as “sterile,” settler boys gleefully setting fire to mosque carpeting, and IDF squads conducting practice raids several times a day. Inside the Jewish settlement in Hebron a concrete monument honors Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from New York who in 1994 walked into the al-Ibrahimi Mosque inside the Cave of the Patriarchs in the middle of the city armed with an Uzi and massacred 29 Palestinian men and boys.
Ehrenreich’s reportage is solid—in fact, it is easily verifiable. If you have an American passport you can visit all the places he describes and see the colossal crime in progress for yourself. None of the places are difficult to access; indeed, almost all of them have appeared on mainstream media outlets, though only when a new uprising or large-scale Israeli operation is underway.
Ehrenreich makes no claim to “objective journalism,” (not that such a thing is possible or desirable in a place like Palestine). The only Israeli voices are the mechanical press releases from the IDF denying any wrongdoing and a few particularly fanatical settlers in Hebron. Neither are there voices of Islamist Palestinians. Of course, Ehrenreich is not a blind apologist. He addresses Palestinian violence and the unseemly honor bestowed upon some murderers. For example, Ahlam Tamimi, a Nabi Saleh villager who escorted a suicide bomber into a Jerusalem pizzeria during the Second Intifada, is celebrated by some of the residents.
The book shouldn’t be mistaken as a disqualifying imbalance, but rather a much-needed corrective. Ehrenreich repeatedly demonstrates how outlets like CNN and the New York Times, which do claim the mantle of objectivity, have consistently favored the official Israeli line. One example is the Times publishing a PowerPoint “Incitement Index” prepared by Netanyahu’s office alongside an article that, Ehrenreich writes, “repeated Netanyahu’s claims with a lack of skepticism that should have been astonishing. Given that Palestinian violence against Israel had reached a record low, it was never clear exactly whom or what Netanyahu thought Abbas might be inciting.” Indeed, Ehrenreich notes that objectivity is always “‘directed against’ someone.”
The Way to the Spring is not extraordinary because of its reportage alone. What makes it great is the author’s insistence on treating Palestinians as human beings, and detailing the specific mechanisms of what he calls the “giant humiliation machine” that controls their lives. Ehrenreich doesn’t believe his work to be pessimistic, but it’s hard to come out feeling any different. Every family and protest group is in a worse state by the time Ehrenreich departs in late 2014. Despondency is overtaking unarmed activism, especially since the bombardment of Gaza in 2014. Bassem Tamimi, one of the leaders of the Nabi Saleh resistance, leaves us looking at a thundercloud on the horizon, “How can I talk about peaceful resistance now? They will laugh at me.”