If it’s hard to make people care about someone they’ve never met, it’s even harder when that someone is behind a wall. But in A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, the journalist Nathan Thrall makes that a virtue of that. The book reports a profoundly difficult story—a father searching for his five-year-old son at the scene of a fiery school bus crash—made more difficult by where it occurs: On the Palestinian side of Israel’s separation barrier.
“There is so much discussion—of abstract statistics and talking points and two states and one state, analyses of the 30th anniversary of Oslo ad nauseum,” Thrall says, from his Jerusalem home. “And I feel that all of that is an enormous distraction from the actual present-day reality of people in this place.”
“This place” is the territory known for centuries as Palestine, but for the last 75 years has defied simple description. In 1948, a Jewish army established the state of Israel on part of it, then 19 years later conquered the rest. The victors built an extraordinary nation while subjugating an Arab population that claims the same land.
So, while the 2012 school bus crash is the event that propels A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, the subject of the book is the control of the Palestinians by the Israelis. Its 272 pages take in the life stories not only of Salama and his household, but also the roles played in their lives by the officials, passersby, and first responders who, eventually, showed up at the scene that day.
TIME: How did you come to find Ahmed?
NATHAN THRALL: I had decided that I wanted to write about this accident before I met Abed. You know, the parents and teachers who were involved in the crash live two miles away from me, but on the other side of a 26-foot tall concrete wall and, I drive by that walled ghetto all the time, and it’s really easy to ignore it.
But after this crash took place I couldn’t stop thinking about the lives of the parents and children who were involved and were sharing the city with me and living a radically different existence than mine. And so when professionally I found the time to actually work on a book, it just so happened that a very close family friend told me that she has a distant relative who was a father of one of the children who passed away. And I came to his home and met him and started asking him questions about an accident that was nearly a decade old.
And he opened himself up to me. We immediately had a connection, and he started kind of telling me about his entire life. It wasn’t just interviewing him. It was a process of getting to know him and getting to know his whole family. There was this cloud of silence around the accident and everyone is so afraid of upsetting the bereaved that no one talks about it, and as a result he really felt hungry to talk about it. He yearns to talk about it because it made him feel closer to his son.
Not a lot of people write about Palestinians these days.
Talk about that. Everyone’s writing about Israel at the moment.
People will say “it’s too complicated.” They have a Get Out of Jail Free card with respect to having a position on this issue, because it’s too complicated.
There is real complexity, there’s no doubt, but the way to address that is was not to write yet another analysis that “clarifies the situation.” What you really needed was to show the people who live within that complexity and their lives and what it actually means to navigate it. That’s not complex at all. That’s totally comprehensible and it grounds people in a situation that is, you know, grossly unjust. And that every American citizen is complicit in.
It is complicated, though. You take a whole book to make that clear. In fact you manage to find drama in the most boring thing the Israelis do—which is bend the situation to their will through administration, the most boring word in the world. The Israeli general who runs the occupation of the West Bank has the title Civil Administrator.
An invasion in Jenin and several Palestinians are killed, or an attack in Tel Aviv—those things make headlines. But they are the foam on the surface of the sea. And the sea doesn’t make headlines. The sea is this enormous system of control and the only way to get to that system is to show people ordinary people struggling through it.
I wanted an everyday occurrence—a car accident. What does it mean to have a car accident in this awful set of circumstances where there’s an elaborate system of rules that makes it difficult for a parent to find his child, to access a hospital that his child might have been taken to? There’s an elaborate system of color coded IDs that dictate who can go where even within the same family. There’s a wall that snakes through and circles a community, and its route is actually dictated by a logic. All of that is the everyday reality of all of these people, and they faced it on the worst day of their lives.
And what is the logic of that wall? [Israel announced the separation barrier at the height of the Second Intifada as a means to impede suicide bombings.]
Well, first and foremost, a logic of the wall that specifically encircles the enclave of Anata [where Abed lives] and Shuafat Camp—that was dictated by the Israel’s overriding goal, which was to minimize the number of Palestinians in the center of Jerusalem and to route the wall in such a way that would put the maximum number of Palestinians outside the heart of the city while retaining, for Israel, the maximum amount of land.
Your previous book, The Only Language They Understand, made clear that the “language” that has moved the conflict in either direction was coercion, was force. The force is all on one side now. Are the Palestinians as bad off as they’ve ever been?
I would say that the Palestinians are in the worst situation they’ve been in since the Nakba, since 1948. The book is called A Day in the Life of Abed Salama but it’s not just a day. It’s the entire life and family history of several characters, both Jewish and Palestinian. And those everyday experiences described in the book include a mother whose teenage boy throws stones at occupying soldiers and is entirely helpless to do anything to protect her son when at 1:30 in the morning the army comes and takes him away and refuses to tell her where they’re taking him and what he’s done. And she spends over a week just trying to find where her son is located after this happens. That feeling of total powerlessness that every Palestinian family feels, those are the experiences that are in this book. And those experiences are as widespread and as far from being alleviated as they’ve ever been.
What do you make of the crisis in Israel? [The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is passing legislation sidelining the Supreme Court, the only check on its power. Massive weekly protests call it an existential crisis for Israeli democracy.]
The fundamental element that unites all of the people who are involved in this debate over the judicial reform, both for it and against it, is the notion that Israel is a democracy, and it exists within the pre-1967 borders. Because that’s the only way you could imagine that Israel is a democracy, when for the majority of the state’s existence it’s held millions of people of a different ethnic or national group without basic civil rights.
All of the debate is about preserving democracy, the threats to democracy.
And yet, if you actually ask any of these people they will tell you, “No, Israel doesn’t actually end at the Green Line at the pre-1967 border.” One in ten Israeli Jews lives beyond the Green Line [in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank], and when they go home, they don’t have to stop at a checkpoint; they just drive on a highway and go straight to their homes. And when they vote, they vote in their settlements. And the Central Bureau of Statistics, when it lists the number of residents of the country, it lists the people in the settlements. In every respect these people are living inside Israel. And they have millions of Palestinians without rights living in the same territory, next to them. And so to me, the entire debate over the preservation or threat to Israeli democracy is entirely mis-characterized.
The book mentions young Israelis posting gleefully on Facebook about Palestinian kindergarteners dying in a burning school bus. It’s grotesque, but it’s not weirdly out of line. More than 70 percent of Israeli young people characterize themselves as right wing.
This was 10, 11 years ago. There was a left wing Israeli TV news anchor, and what he was most shocked by was, they were posting under their own names. He was horrified by the fact that his society had this strong element of unvarnished racism, and so he actually wanted to, as he put it, put a mirror up to the society and to go and interview the people who were posting. And in a way you could say that that his report was prescient because the young teens he interviewed are now probably voters for people like [Itamar] Ben Gvir, who’s the National Security Minister and espouses openly racist views.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia offered Israel diplomatic relations with Arab states in exchange for a Palestinian state. Going by reports of the negotations being steered by the Biden Administration, the price for diplomatic relations is down to the kind of concessions U.S. officials historically jawboned Israel about—easing up on settlements and the like.
That is part of the reason that the Palestinian situation has never been this bad since 1948. The Palestinian national movement has long held out hope that at the very least the Arab states would back them and it’s become abundantly clear to every Palestinian that’s not the case. They are truly alone.
And yet it appears that in the U.S., the Palestinians are gaining sympathy. At least among Democrats and young people, public opinion is moving in line with the European perspective.
There’s no doubt that younger Americans and Democrats and younger American Jews are all coming to a position that is less blindly, you know, Israel, right or wrong. But at the same time we are eons away from any kind of significant change in policy. That’s part of part of the reason that I feel ordinary people just need to get a better sense of what it actually is to live in this place.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.