On December 17, 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunis, Tunisia, set himself on fire to protest official interference with his business. When he died a few days later, he became a martyr in the revolution to remove Tunisia’s long-time (22 years) president. Then, in what came to be known as the “Arab Spring,” the turmoil in Tunisia spread quickly across North Africa and into the Middle East. The Arab Spring never arrived in Palestine.
Ben Ehrenreich, a freelance writer and author on assignment for Harper’s magazine, went to Palestine’s West Bank in 2011 to report on Israel’s water war with Palestine. While there, he spent a week in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh. He returned to Nabi Saleh in 2012 and wrote a cover story for The New York Times Magazine. After a few months in Nabi Saleh, he moved to the West Bank city of Ramallah, about ten miles north of Jerusalem.
The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine is based on Ehrenreich’s eye-witness account of life in the West Bank—in the village of Nabi Saleh and the cities of Hebron and Ramallah. “Spring” in the book’s title has a double meaning: It refers to both the Arab Spring and a freshwater spring near Nabi Saleh that generations of farmers from the village have relied on for their crops. In 2008, Israeli settlers from Halamish, a hilltop settlement opposite Nabi Saleh and just uphill from the spring, built several pools to collect water from it. When Palestinian villagers went there to tend their fields, the settlers confronted them, “hitting them, beating them, threatening them, scaring them.” In response, protestors began marching to the spring from the village square of Nabi Saleh every Friday after midday prayers. They continue to do so today, and when they near the spring, they are confronted by members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
The protestors come from not only Nabi Saleh but also elsewhere in the West Bank, Israel, Europe, and the U.S. The protestors from Israel may be of particular consequence, writes Ehrenreich: “Israel is a small country. So long as the activists were there, the soldiers knew that what the army did in the West Bank might find its way back across the Green Line (which separates the West Bank of Palestine from Israel), to their families, and their homes. Perhaps this sometimes gave them pause.”
The restriction of villagers’ access to the spring is archetypal for how Palestinians’ lives have been impacted not only by such Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but also by the walls, fences, and checkpoints that have been built to separate these settlements from the rest of the West Bank. Much of Ehrenreich’s book is devoted to describing how Palestinians’ land has been seized (and continues to be seized) and how these settlements disrupt Palestinians’ lives. For this reader, these descriptions were my reason for reading the book. However, the book is much more than that. Ehrenreich also summarizes the long history of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts; the history of the settler movement and its major Jewish players; and the history of diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflicts. The book also includes a list of its main characters, eight maps, forty-two pages of notes, and many photographs (some of which were previously published by The New York Times).
In the book’s Introduction, Ehrenreich writes, “I do not aspire in these pages to objectivity.” He goes on to say that living and working as he did in the West Bank (and not Tel Aviv or West Jerusalem or Washington, D.C., or New York), “is to enter the conflict whether one wishes to or not. If the nature of this choice is at first not obvious, the soldiers at the checkpoints can be counted on to quickly make it so.”
Ehrenreich’s primary contact in Nabi Saleh is Bassem Tamimi, whom Ehrenreich met in 2011. Tamimi is a “Fatah activist from early youth” and the “leader of the village protest movement.” Like many men and women in the village, Tamimi has been imprisoned numerous times by Israel. According to Ehrenreich, “Forty percent of Palestinian males have been confined in Israeli jails.” (That percentage is even higher than an estimate by Allen Beck of the U.S. Bureau Justice Statistics “that, based on current rates of incarceration, 28.5% of black males in the U.S. will likely serve time in a state or federal prison for a felony conviction.”) In the book’s Introduction, Ehrenreich writes, “I do not aspire in these pages to objectivity.”
The West Bank, which covers about 2,800 square miles (roughly twice the size of Long Island), has more than 230 illegal settlements like Halamish and well over 600,000 settlers. In a footnote, Ehrenreich writes, “In 2010, basing their calculations on official maps created by the Civil Administration, B’Tselem The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories researchers reported that 42% of the land-mass of the West Bank had fallen under the control of settlers. An additional 18% has been seized by the IDF as “closed military areas” for purposes of “training.” Ehrenreich writes elsewhere in the book that the “settlement enterprise has been a state-sponsored project from the very beginning.”
The settlers are settlers in the same sense that settlers in 18th– and 19th-century America were: They confiscate, occupy, and develop land that belongs to someone else, e.g., Palestinians or Native Americans. It is not unreasonable to call the West Bank a reservation and to recognize Palestinians as the target of settler colonialism. And just as in 18th– and 19th-century America, some settlers in the West Bank were not born in Israel but are themselves immigrants from other countries, including Russia and the United States.
The barriers between settlement and non-settlement spaces include walls (and often fences and barbed wire), accompanied by many checkpoints and gates (which sometimes are welded shut for indeterminate amounts of time). Another wall, 440 miles long, separates much of the West Bank from Israel. This wall is up to 26 feet high and includes an exclusion zone that is typically 200 feet wide but sometimes up to 330 feet wide.
These barriers sharply restrict the movements of Palestinians, for example, in trying to move their sheep to fresh pasture and sometimes forcing them to take roundabout routes—or not move at all. A rationale for these barriers is that they provide security for the settlers, but the barriers and checkpoints serve other purposes as well, as Ehrenreich writes:
But the turnstiles served another function as well, a more important one, and it was standing between them in that dank, longitudinal cell—pressed against the people in front of and behind me, smelling the smoke of their cigarettes and the anxiety and irritation in their sweat and their breath—that I understood for the first time that in its daily functioning, the prime purpose of the occupation was not to take land or push people from their homes. It did that too of course, and effectively, but overall, with its checkpoints and its walls and its prisons and its permits, it functioned as a giant humiliation machine, a complex and sophisticated mechanism for the production of human despair.
Eran Efrati, an activist and former soldier in the IDF, spoke with Ehrenreich about his work at a checkpoint. Ehrenreich writes, “Inflicting humiliation was part of the assignment. Schoolteachers would cross dressed in suits and ties. The soldiers would make them strip in front of their students. ‘Sometimes we would make them wait for hours in their underwear,’ Eran said.” In The Way to the Spring, you learn that despite enduring such treatment at the hands of Israel for decades, Palestinians in the West Bank continue to nurture their culture and defend their land.
Zionists had been forcing Palestinians from their villages and land for decades before the Palestinian-Israeli conflict formally began in 1948 with the creation of the Israeli state and the displacement (exodus) of 700,000 Palestinians, a cataclysm known as the Nakba. Palestinians commemorate Nakba Day each year on May 15, one day after Israeli Independence Day.
Since 1948, various combatants and their external partners have fought each other in wars, proxy wars, and uprisings, as well as via acts of terror. The conflict has defied resolution, despite Herculean efforts by diplomats, warring armies, and monumental amounts of foreign aid to Israel, much of it in the form of weapons.
Israel’s most important ally has been, and continues to be, the United States. According to the organization If Americans Knew, since 1973, “Washington has provided Israel [a wealthy industrial state] with a level of support dwarfing the amounts provided to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War ll. Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s entire foreign aid budget.”
Some of the leading diplomats of the past half-century have been unable to find a permanent solution to the conflict. At least one optimist, Jimmy Carter, continues to hold out hope for a solution to this conflict. He outlined his proposal in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times: “The simple but vital step this administration must take before its term expires on Jan. 20 is to grant American diplomatic recognition to the state of Palestine, as 137 countries have already done, and help it achieve full United Nations membership. Silent witness to the turmoil in this land is borne by olive trees…
Since the publication of The Way to the Spring on June 14, 2016, two developments make this book a timely one to read. First, by June 14, Donald Trump was already the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and now, as President-elect, Mr. Trump has nominated David M. Friedman, a lawyer aligned with the Israeli far right, to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Second, on December 23, the U.S. allowed Resolution 2334, which condemns Israeli settlement expansion, to pass in the United Nations Security Council. This stance by the U.S. did not signal a change in U.S. policy but rather was an affirmation of longstanding U.S. policy and a global consensus going back to the 1960s. Which direction will U.S. foreign policy go in the coming months?
Silent witness to the turmoil in this land is borne by olive trees, which are a major agricultural crop in the West Bank and can live to be as old as 1,500 years. Some of these trees also have witnessed what Ehrenreich describes as “a vanished past of genuine diversity in which Jews and Arabs, whatever their differences and the occasional catastrophic breakdowns of relations between them, shared a single culture, one that was not Jewish or Muslim or Christian, but Hebronite, and Palestinian.”