Palestine painted with human faces

Monday Book Reviews

October 28, 1991|By Louis J. Cantori

A SEASON OF STONES: LIVING IN A PALESTINIAN VILLAGE. By Helen Winternitz. Atlantic Monthly Press. 303 pages. $21.95.

UNLESS THEY are affected personally, most Americans find international conflicts both geographically and humanly remote. The long Iran-Iraq war is an example. These struggles lack the tangible, a sense of human contact and therefore of human meaning.

This book is a dramatic and successful effort in the opposite direction. In its pages the Israeli-Palestinian conflict acquires a human face, and Palestinians become real people. The author treats seriously the fates of the two brothers, Fawzi and Farouk, as victims of arbitrary arrest and torture and the massacre that occurred in their West Bank village, Nahalin.

Helen Winternitz, a former reporter for The Sun who previously had written on Africa ("East Along the Equator"), decided to try to live in Nahalin on the West Bank for one year. She selected that village because it was located in a valley off the Bethlehem-Hebron road and therefore was seemingly remote from the unrest of the Palestinian intifada and presumably "typical." She sought a place to stay in the village and initially benefited from warm Palestinian hospitality.

Soon, however, things began to get tense. She found that her presence was becoming uncomfortable because of her single-woman status and because of rumors circulating that she was an Israeli spy. She overcame the latter, however, by going to the mukhtar (headman) and convincing him that she was indeed a professional journalist. Meanwhile, she began to dress more modestly, polished her Arabic, shared in harvesting the olive crop and learned the techniques of Palestinian embroidery.

Winternitz became aware of the construction of Israeli settlements high in the hills, historically part of Nahalin's grazing land. They were being constructed in addition to the historical one at Kafr Etzion. The expansion of these settlements began to radicalize the youth (shabab) of the village, who began throwing stones at the settlers -- hence the book's title. This incurred the retaliation of the Israeli army and resulted in further radicalization.

In the midst of this, Winternitz discovered that there were two clans in the village, and she had been a guest of one of them. The rumors of her being a spy continued. To dispel them she sought and was granted the hospitality of the other clan. She then discovered that her first clan was aligned with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, while her new hosts were aligned with Fatah. Both are groups within the Palestine Liberation Organization. Her "typical" Palestinian village turned out to be typical indeed: It was committed to the Palestine resistance.

Soon the brothers Farouk and Fawzi, who had been her original hosts, were seized by Israeli authorities and disappeared. Farouk's whereabouts were unknown for weeks until Winternitz, using her press credentials, and others finally located him in a secret police interrogation center. No charges were brought against him, but after weeks of torture he broke and signed a confession in Hebrew, a language he did not understand.

On April 13, 1989, in the midst of the increasing violence -- stone-throwing, arrests, searches and beatings -- a unit of Israeli soldiers came to Nahalin and began to fire automatic weapons indiscriminately. Five men were killed and dozens of other men, women and children wounded.

Winternitz had returned to the village just as the massacre was ending and recorded the details. Soon after, she began to be harassed herself by a new political faction in the village that was gaining adherents, the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas). She decided to leave Nahalin and now tells us its story. The story is informed and objective. Ironically, given the reason for Winternitz's selection of Nahalin, her tale is too sadly typical.

The reader should be aware, however, that Winternitz's story concentrates on the Palestinian purgatory on the West Bank. The Palestinian hell in Gaza, where conditions are far worse, awaits an equally effective Western chronicle. Meanwhile, Winternitz has given us an accessible, readable account of the realities facing the negotiators in this week's peace talks.

Louis J. Cantori is professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the editor of the forthcoming "Democratization in Egypt."

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