The ‘spring’ of the title has a double meaning. Mainly it refers to the life-giving spring in the village of Nabi Saleh on the West Bank, taken over by illegal Israeli settlers and for years the focus of weekly protests by the villagers. It is also an ironic reference to the ‘Arab spring’ and why that did not – could not – spread to Palestine. The book is full of such deft interweaving of the immediate and local with the wider political picture, essential to an understanding of the events Ehrenreich describes so vividly.
The author is an American journalist who spent more than four years in Palestine, building close relationships with families who are bearing the brunt of Israel’s expansion and annexation. In Nabi Saleh he gets to know three generations of the Tamimi family, in particular Bassem, leader of the village protest movement and a veteran of both the First and Second Intifadas against Israel’s military occupation.
Bassem is nostalgic about the First Intifada in the eighties, which he sees as a time of true solidarity among the Palestinian people. He now views the tactics of the Second Intifada, which took violence into Israel itself, as mistaken. Currently he and his co-workers across the West Bank are forging a new approach, based on unarmed resistance. This involves close cooperation with international activists, using mainstream and social media and wherever possible capturing incidents on film. He supports stone-throwing which, he says, may be ineffectual in the face of Israel’s overwhelming military power but it is both legally and morally justified. The message the stones send to the occupiers is simple, he says: “We do not accept you.”
As we get to know the Tamimis and other families we start to marvel at their tenacity. Practically every adult member – and many children – have been arrested several times under the military court system, and been beaten up by soldiers or settlers. Many bear visible scars: a broken jaw, a limp, an eye or teeth missing. Most have lost a close relative, some have spent years in jail. Daily life is punctuated by gas canisters chucked through windows, by the ‘skunk trucks’ trundling through the village dispensing their noxious load, by night raids which terrify the children. And yet they persist. Why?
One answer that emerges is that they have no choice. Even absolute submission to the occupying army is no guarantee to being left in peace. Anyone can be harassed, detained, stripped, humiliated. According to one of Ehrenreich’s Israeli interlocutors, a former soldier, the arbitrariness is not due to mindless sadism. There is a purpose. “If we go into their houses all the time, if you arrest people all the time, if they feel terrified all the time,” his commanding officer told him, “they will never attack us. They will only feel chased after.”
The role of the Israeli high court is also intriguing. Occasionally, it will rule in favour of Palestinians seeking to halt demolitions or the seizure of their land or water supply – though the army or settlers may go ahead with their plans anyway. Are such rulings a sop to Israel’s self image or the image it wishes to project abroad? Possibly. But court cases are lengthy and costly and some Palestinians get deep in debt to buy what often proves to be only a temporary reprieve. Hope, too, can be exploited.
Ehrenreich explains the apparently crazy route of the ‘separation barrier’ (here, as elsewhere in the book, maps are a great help): it twists and turns, sometimes looping back on itself, throwing a noose around a village, incorporating a settlement, scooping up tracts of good farming land, cornering valuable water resources. And always impeding the free movement of the indigenous inhabitants.
While life may seem scarcely bearable in villages like Nabi Saleh, in the city of Hebron in the south it is worse. As Ehrenreich puts it: “Hebron’s realities are the same as those in the rest of Palestine, only boiled down under tremendous pressure until they have been reduced to a thick and noxious paste.”
Small communities of armed settlers in and around the city are able to terrorise the Palestinian inhabitants, with the full backing of the Israeli army. Some families have to run the gauntlet of settlers who throw trash, nappies, bottles of urine, even acid down on them in the narrow streets of the now almost deserted old city, where they have to live in metal cages as protection against settler violence.
The settler leaders that Ehrenreich is able to meet are deeply resentful that their government is reining them in, in so far as they have succeeded in controlling ‘only’ 10 per cent of the city. But there is optimism: “I am sure that one day all of Hebron will be Jewish,” says Tzipi Schlissel.
The author’s scrupulous documentation might have proved unbearably grim, were it not for the powerful elegance of the writing and moments of surreal irony. Deprived of a proper water supply by adjacent settlements, one villager looks on the bright side of her recent incarceration. At least in jail, she says, “You could take a good shower…” Or when Bassem’s young daughter Ahed is catapulted to fame due to a picture that went viral on Facebook. From her tiny village, she suddenly finds herself invited to Turkey, greeted by President Erdogan and ferried to Istanbul in his private jet.
Above all, Ehrenreich introduces us to unforgettable cast of characters, from Nariman Tamimi, the indomitably hospitable matriarch, to Eid al-Hathalin, the other-worldly artist/philosopher of the South Hebron hills. Hani Amer, living in a ‘cage house’ completely surrounded by the Wall can still take great pleasure in the fruit and vegetables he’s growing in his surviving patch of garden. “There are military victories, where people destroy and conquer,” he says, “but there is also the sweeter victory, where people try to create death and you create life out of that.”