Frustration and helplessness: The emotions inevitably evoked throughout Ben Ehrenreich’s “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine”, for the Palestinians trapped within a system of bantustanisation (or the system of checkpoints, blocked roads, and other forms of disruption) in the West Bank. The injustice and the abuses are first listed, then expounded upon:
“The entirety of the occupation, the almost infinitely complex system of control that Israel exercised over Palestinians throughout the West Bank: not just the settlements and the soldiers in their hilltop bases, but the checkpoints, the travel restrictions, the permits, the walls and fences, the courts and the prisons, the stranglehold on the economy, the home demolitions, land appropriations, expropriation of natural resources, the entire vast mechanism of uncertainty, dispossession, and humiliation that for four decades has sustained Israeli rule by curtailing the possibilities, and frequently, the duration, of Palestinian lives”.
And the writer’s first-hand accounts further substantiate the later summaries:
“Deadly forms of systemic violence: The land theft, the permit system, the military courts, the economic hard squeeze”.
The “normal” occurrences for Palestinians in the West Bank: Screaming; Being shot at and having rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown at your house; Soldiers firing tear gas at schoolchildren to mark the beginning and end of each day of classes; Being arrested, questioned for hours, and released without charges or apology; Having a soldier with an automatic rifle stationed at all times just behind or in front of your house; Or – if it is not already mentioned – “everything”.
“Nearly half a century into a massive state-supported settlement enterprise that had, at the cost of thousands of lives, pushed Palestinians from as much as 60 per cent of the West Bank? Only now? After nearly half a century of evictions, demolitions, confiscations, mass arrests, targeted killings, and the steady and methodical disenfranchisement, dispossession, and humiliation of an entire people? Only now do they realise that this is also about expropriating land?”
The book is both descriptive (Ehrenreich, for instance, takes pains to outline environments and their details, complemented by maps) and immersive, because the narrative is anchored not just by interviews, but also by the writer’s participation and personal observations on the grounds, while living in these locations. The three locations of Nabi Saleh, Hebron, and Ramallah are most-frequented, and Nabi Saleh – in particular – appears to be the main focus. The reference to “the spring” in the title is tied to the natural spring of Ein al-Qaws, taken over by an illegal Israeli settlement, and where the Palestinian people protest every Friday. There is, of course, the broader metaphor of “spring”, of the Palestinians moving hopefully towards a better future.
Yet, the narrative is not limited to the tales of unarmed resistance (even as the resistance is detailed, the tensions among the Palestinians – to resist or not, the mode of resistance, even the fairness of representation, when a particular individual is hailed in the media or invited to events abroad – are neatly teased out, through diverse conversations). Different individuals, each singing a different tune, are interviewed. Views of the Israeli settlers and the young rank-and-file soldiers are solicited, and collectively all these stories are juxtaposed against the doomed-to-fail peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, mediated by a hapless John Kerry, then the United States Secretary of State. “To Palestinians, and to anyone pauing close attention … it often seemed that [Mr.] Abbas’s sole mandate was to crush and contain his people’s every effort to defy the occupation, and that the [Palestinian National Authority], even more than the Israelis, was the strongest force standing in the way of the formation of any organised resistance”.
“The Way to the Spring”, as a consequence, paints a picture of pessimism, though providing a roadmap for a peaceful future – if one even exists – is not the job of the book. Vis-à-vis the hapless, disenfranchised Palestinians, Ehrenreich makes it quite plain that the Israelis, together with the complicity of the PA, are to blame. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote, and disproportionate military responses after another, the frustration and the helplessness of the Palestinian people are on full display. What is there for them, besides hope? And resistance? There are, however, (human) costs to the resistance. Martyrs and heroes were mourned and celebrated, yet in the end the violent occupation persists, and for the Palestinians in the West Bank, spring feels an eternity away.