A few years back, I was returning to Jerusalem from Ramallah via the Qalandia checkpoint. “Checkpoint” is a euphemism. This isn’t merely a couple of Israeli soldiers checking your ID. Instead, you pass through a series of turnstiles, concrete barriers, barbed-wire tunnels that act as elongated cages, two-way mirrors, and of course X-ray machines. You are surveilled, re-surveilled, and surveilled again. No words are used. You are waved on not by hand, but by gun — a semi-automatic at groin level, indicating this way or that.
Halfway along the barbed-wire tunnel, I heard a gun being cocked close by, to my right. Startled, I looked over.
The gun was in the arms of a female soldier, flushed and giggling as a male soldier embraced her suggestively from behind, his arms around both her and the gun. She caught my glance and held it. “Look all you like,” she seemed to be saying. “We could strip down and have sex right here in front of you, and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it.”
And she was right.
This was, I knew, the most trivial of events. It was nothing compared to what I’d already seen, and not even worth noting to Palestinians, who have to put up with far worse. Yet it stays with me because I cannot forget that look. I might as well have been a dog.
“The humiliation machine,” Ben Ehrenreich calls it in his new book, The Way To The Spring: Life And Death In Palestine. And it indeed works with machinelike effectiveness. “How do Palestinians stand it?” I kept asking later. “How do you stay human in the face of those who see you as inhuman?”
These are the very questions Ehrenreich answers in this rare book of reportage from inside the Palestinian experience of occupation. And he does so with truly amazing grace and control.
There’s a hint of how he does it when he mentions a European solidarity activist newly arrived in Palestine and “still sparkling with outrage; it would mellow, I knew, into a sustained, wounded simmer.” Ehrenreich opts for calm instead of outrage, the simmer instead of the boil. And that makes his writing all the more powerful. He doesn’t indulge in his own righteousness — or in anyone else’s, for that matter. “My concern is with what keeps people going when everything appears to be lost,” he says in the preface, “what it means to hold on, to decline to consent to one’s own eradication, to fight actively or through deceptively simple acts of refusal against powers far stronger than oneself.”
What he is not doing, he emphasizes, is trying to “explain” Palestinians, or to speak for them. Instead, living on and off in Ramallah and Hebron from 2011 to 2014 — from just after the “Arab spring” through to the devastating bombardment of Gaza — he allows people and events to speak for themselves, and the Palestinians he lives with are striking not for their anger, but for their determination; not for their despair, but for their resilience.
“People in Hebron use the word ‘normal’ a lot,” he reports. What counts as normal there? Being shot at; the screaming of someone being beaten by soldiers; having settlers throw Molotov cocktails at your house; schoolchildren being tear-gassed; “administrative detention” (no charge, no trial); having your ID taken by a soldier at a checkpoint who keeps it for hours just because he can; having urine and feces thrown at you by settlers. Day in, day out — indeed hour in, hour out — a ceaseless barrage of harassment at best, outright violence at worst.
The details are all here. It’s worth knowing, for instance, that “rubber bullets” are in fact rubber-coated steel bullets, each one the size of a marble, capable of breaking bones and gouging flesh (and increasingly replaced by live bullets anyway). Or that a tear-gas canister fired in your face will kill you. But these are only part of “the almost infinitely complex system of control” exercised by Israel over the West Bank — ” the entire vast mechanism of uncertainty, dispossession, and humiliation which… has sustained Israeli rule by curtailing the possibilities, and frequently the duration, of Palestinian lives.”
In punitive raids, random doors are burst open in the middle of the night, belongings ransacked, the contents of the pantry poured out on the floor, anyone offering so much as a word of protest beaten and arrested. The purpose? A clear message: this house is not yours, this land is not yours, your person is not yours.
As a community-center volunteer held (and tortured) for three months put it: “If they could take the air from us, they would.”
The statistics are here too if you need them. Forty percent of Palestinian males have been in Israeli prison at least once, and even those sent to trial were at the mercy of a military court system with a 99.74% conviction rate. The same military has an indictment rate of 1.4% against soldiers accused of misconduct. And all the while, “settlements” — huge suburbs and townships — have been expanded; construction more than doubled in 2014, and jumped another 40% last year.
Palestinians have now been pushed from nearly 60% of the West Bank. With effective leadership systematically broken up, assassinated, or imprisoned, leaving only the venally corrupt Palestinian Authority, that percentage seems destined only to increase as Israel asserts “complete and irrevocable” control. And yet, as Ehrenreich shows, “ordinary” people stubbornly refuse to submit.
There’s no pontificating in this book — no offering of blandly confident “solutions.” I have none to put forward either, especially in this US election season when even Bernie Sanders’ mealy-mouthed statement that ” we need to be able to say that Netanyahu is not always right” is regarded as a daring political stance, a marvel of honesty and insight.
What I can say is this: if you really do want honesty and insight, read The Way to the Spring.