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A powerful indictment of Israel's occupation

BOOKS: Amy Wilentz, Martyrs' Crossing, Simon & Schuster, 2001, 311 pages, $24.00.

Review by REBECCA WESTON | May 25, 2001 | Page 11

GIVEN THE near-total pro-Israel bias of mainstream U.S. publications, prize-winning journalist Amy Wilentz's first novel is a breath of fresh air. Written with an eye for detail and immediacy, the novel tells a story about Israeli violence at a military checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Through the novel--and especially its first several chapters--Wilentz makes Palestinian oppression vivid and accessible to readers who may not be familiar with the day-to-day reality of life in occupied Palestine.

For that alone, it's worth reading. But there are parts of the book that are disappointing.

The novel is at its most powerful when it portrays a Palestinian uprising at the Shuhada ("Martyr") checkpoint. We can feel how the uprising emerges out of the innumerable, daily humiliations that Palestinians endure--endless lines, endless identification questions, endless arbitrary orders from arrogant Israeli Defense Force soldiers.

Caught in the uprising is Marina, who is trying to enter Jerusalem to get health care for her 2-year-old son Ibrahim, who has asthma. Showered by Israeli tear gas, Marina's little boy can't breathe.

Although Ibrahim is visibly dying, the commanding Israeli, Ari Doron, won't let him pass. Under pressure from a Palestinian protester, Doron finally tries to allow the family through the checkpoint.

But a high-ranking official overrules Doron--because Marina is married to a Hamas political prisoner and the daughter of George Raad, an outspoken Palestinian intellectual living in Boston. Tragically, Ibrahim dies for lack of medical attention.

Weaving back and forth in perspective--from Marina to Doron to George and back again--the beginning narrative is moving, exhilarating and convincing. It makes for a powerful indictment of the Israeli occupation.

The remainder of the book describes the political and emotional aftermath of the tragedy. And though it is a suspenseful and well-crafted story, the novel falters.

Essentially, Wilentz sets up parallels between Israeli and Palestinian politics. Two characters--the racist Israeli military bureaucrat, Col. Daniel Yizhar, and the morally conflicted Lt. Doron--represent Israeli politics. Doron's transformation into a critic of Israeli propaganda and IDF brutality represents part of the moral center of the novel.

Wilentz develops the Palestinian perspective through several characters. One is Ahmed Amr, the number two to Yasser Arafat in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Amr revels in nepotism, corruption and power politics.

Opposed to the corrupt PA is Mahmoud Sheukhi, the politically unaffiliated Palestinian protester who helped Marina at the checkpoint, and Hassan Hajimi, Marina's husband.

But Sheukhi is portrayed as a vigilante, with little trust in the PA. And Hajimi is the voice of Hamas--which is depicted as a group of hardened bombers who can't distinguish between "innocent" and "non-innocent" Israelis.

Marina and her father George are the novel's political and moral middle road--the Palestinian counterparts to Doron. Brought up in the United States, Marina comes to regret her decision to move to Palestine and marry Hajimi in her search for Palestinian "authenticity."

George, an elderly man, is a prominent doctor long exiled in the U.S. He remains isolated as a vocal critic of the peace process and the PA's corruption.

Marina and George reject the violence of "both sides." Neither is ever able "finally to say that any slice of humanity was wrong or evil or bad," Wilentz writes.

Linked through tragedy, Doron, Marina and George are also linked through the moral and political vision that they ultimately embrace. Without revealing the end of the story, Doron, Marina and George ultimately condemn as hopeless the endless cycles of violence and retaliation.

Unfortunately, Martyrs' Crossing doesn't offer a way out of the hopelessness.

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