The West Bank’s new normal

The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine by Ben Ehrenreich, Penguin Press (2016)

About two-thirds into The Way to the Spring, Ben Ehrenreich, an American novelist and journalist, describes a video recorded in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron. An Israeli settler had climbed onto a rooftop to take down a Palestinian flag and was entangled in razor wire, “unable to go up or down.”

The Palestinian videographer Shadi Sedr tried to help the settler but was rebuffed: “[The settler] couldn’t advance, but he couldn’t back down either. He couldn’t move at all without tearing his own flesh …”

Yet the settler reiterated throughout the incident: “ ‘This is the Land of Israel … This is my country. And everything that is here is mine.’”

Ehrenreich’s narrative derives its power from stories like this, which reads almost like an allegorical lesson on human folly.

But Ehrenreich is clear that his book is “first of all a collection of stories about resistance” and that any “argument it makes, it makes along the way.” The author is scrupulous in his concern not to explain the Palestinians (or Israelis) to an English-speaking audience. If there are lessons to be learned, they are left for the reader to discern.

Ehrenreich spent three years — between 2011 and 2014 — traveling throughout the West Bank. The resulting book is divided into four sections. The first two focus on both the residents of Hebron and Nabi Saleh — the latter being where villagers tried to protect a local spring from an encroaching settlement. The third and fourth sections circle a wider range and build up to the Gaza war in the summer of 2014.

The new normal

In the section on Hebron, Ehrenreich shows how extraordinary events have become part of the fabric of reality. He presents a devastating list of examples of what is considered “normal:” “Soldiers firing tear gas at schoolchildren to mark the beginning and end of each day of classes. This is in fact perfectly normal. You could set your watch by the blasts” (emphasis in original).

Crucially, the book also makes visible some quieter corners of the West Bank. Ehrenreich spends time in the village Umm al-Kheir, where he admits there is “little drama.” He however witnesses “the steady curtailment of possibility, the gradual amputation of each and every condition of an entire way of life” as the Bedouin village is encroached on by the settlement of Carmel.

The narrative is punctuated with interludes describing particular situations, such as the growth of Rawabi, the so-called Palestinian “planned city” in the West Bank, which Ehrenreich deconstructs in a methodical but angry way.

He shows that Rawabi is not a private-sector solution to housing and development problems for Palestinians in the West Bank, but a project that has only benefited the super-rich who invested in it. The city remains largely uninhabited, with apartments there beyond the reach of even middle-class Palestinians.

As this structure suggests, the book contains an abundance of stories. Some include vignettes from Palestinian history, such as an especially sympathetic account of the first intifada.

There are constant hints of a generational divide in the West Bank, exacerbated by the fact that Palestinians under the age of 25 are what Ehrenreich calls “the Oslo generation, born into the humiliation machine” who have grown up inside the particular structures of oppression and division created by the Oslo peace accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s.

The art of refusal

The stories are rendered in prose that can be taut or understated, and which regularly captures the revelations of everyday speech.

Ehrenreich notes that the word Oslo “fell off people’s tongues like a curse.” He glimpses a woman at a checkpoint: “Her eyes were somewhere on the other side of patience, so exhausted by rage that she almost looked calm.” And he recalls running into a friend in Ramallah: “ ‘Did you hear?’ he asked. Good news rarely follows those words.”

At other times, however, it feels as if the author is straining too hard for these moments of revelation. One example is in the conclusion of a passionate and effective section in which a young woman, Mariam Barghouti, accepts a deal to avoid prison.

Ehrenreich reports from the courtroom that he “could see that something inside of her was broken” and tactfully ends the section with Mariam’s own words: “The one thing that hurts is that I can’t ever tell anyone to just fight harder again.”

Yet these details are almost overshadowed by an attempt to narrate Mariam’s inner feelings: “She learned that she wasn’t as strong or as brave as in the furor and innocence and righteousness of youth she had imagined herself to be. And for a while at least — until she learned to make it something else — that knowledge would sit in her heart like a sharp little stone.”

This may be speculation or an indirect report of Mariam’s state of mind as she described it to the author. Either way, it reveals less than the words quoted in her own voice.

Ehrenreich is wrestling with dilemmas that are common to all writing that takes other people’s lives as its subject. He is aware of the risks and gamely makes them an explicit part of his story.

For example, he reports a conversation with Bassem Tamimi, one of the central protagonists in the Nabi Saleh grassroots resistance: “I poured Bassem another coffee. ‘Ben,’ he said, laughing, ‘fuck you. Why do you ask all these questions?’”

Ehrenreich’s stake in what he witnesses is not always clear. He writes about an incident in Hebron in which a soldier tries to discern whether Ehrenreich is of Jewish descent, which he refuses to disclose: “I come from a long line of people skilled at the art of refusal.”

Yet the art of refusal is central to this account of how Palestinians in the West Bank resist the occupation every day. This is a thoughtful and moving collection of stories about courage and persistence.

Tom Sperlinger is the author of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, which is published by Zero Books.