Inside Story

The wall

A Palestinian father’s story of life and death in the Occupied Territories

Sara Dowse Books 24 April 2024 1841 words

Rescue workers and medics at the site of the collision between a truck and school bus transporting Palestinian children between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah on 16 February 2012. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Ever since my review copy of Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama lobbed onto my doorstep, I’ve been thinking of synchronicity, that twentieth-century psychoanalyst’s term for the uncanny appearance of a cluster of coincidences. For Carl Jung, synchronicity is a sign of what he chose to call humanity’s collective unconscious.

I was in the middle of reading Apeirogon, the Irish writer Colum McCann’s novel based on the lives of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan. You may already be familiar with these two men, one a West Bank Palestinian, the other a Jerusalem Israeli, who in separate incidents lost their schoolgirl daughters to what has been euphemistically called a “conflict.” Together, they have gone around the world speaking of how profoundly the girl’s deaths changed them, presenting themselves to whoever is willing to listen as living examples of the possibility of peace.

You may have seen the documentary about them; you may have been in the audience on one of their speaking tours. Though the incidents they speak of occurred long before 7 October, their stories have thrown much light on what has gone wrong on that tiny sliver of land I prefer to call Israel–Palestine.

And who today hasn’t been thinking about Israel–Palestine?

Though A Day in the Life of Abed Salama is a brilliant work of non-fiction and Apeirogon a magnificent fiction (McCann himself calls it a “hybrid novel”) they are nonetheless remarkably similar. Each is a window on life as it has been lived on that portion of land the Los Angeles Times compares with “the slice of California from San Diego to Fresno.” For over half a century, since Israel became Israel in what Palestinians call their Nakba, it’s been the site of a preposterously unequal struggle between a nation obsessed with the need for security and an occupied people seeking to break free from the harsh oppressions imposed on them.

What makes both Thrall’s book and McCann’s novel so rivetting is that, while each account is based on true events, the authors skilfully navigate between their stories of real people and the historical and political complexities that enmesh them.

Since 7 October this struggle has erupted into what may become a Middle Eastern, or possibly even a global, war. In the intervening months Israel has invaded and mercilessly bombed the Gaza Strip, with an estimated 34,000 Palestinians dead and those still alive enduring unimaginable suffering, including the risk of starvation. The crisis threatens all the players — Israel, Hamas, the United States and its allies to boot. More and more people around the world are out on the streets demanding an immediate ceasefire.

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama had its genesis in a fifty-page article published in the New York Review of Books in 2021. But Thrall insists that what he wrote there forms a very small part of the book, which came out only eighteen days after Hamas had breached Israel’s seemingly invulnerable defences. So who is Abed Salama, and what is it about this man that made Thrall write these two substantially different works about him?

When we first meet him it is 2012 in the West Bank town of Anata, some time after he’d learned on the radio of a road accident involving a semi-trailer and a school bus taking kindergarteners to a picnic at a nearby theme park. Salama had lived most of his life in Anata, once a Palestinian village but today encircled by the separation wall and lying within Palestinian Authority–governed East Jerusalem.

The changes began around the time Salama was born, after Israel had won its war of 1967. “Year by year,” writes Thrall, “Palestinians from Anata found themselves absorbed into the urban fabric of an expanding Jerusalem, which had swallowed up the Old City and the rest of East Jerusalem, as well as the lands of more than two dozen outlying villages, all annexed by Israel.” In the process the Salama family’s fortunes plummeted.

When the first intifada broke out in 1987 Abed was a year and a half out of high school. His hopes for a Russian law degree were dashed when the Soviet Union dissolved; then Israel shut down the Palestinian universities. He couldn’t even get a passport to study in Jordan. Needless to say, he was radicalised. He rose as a construction worker in the union controlled by a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, organising protests, clandestinely disseminating literature and spray-painting texts on walls. Eventually a faction leader, it was only a matter of time before he was arrested.

Israeli soldiers came for Abed at night, which appears to be standard operating procedure. Beaten and tortured, he landed in a prison near Hebron where security officers interrogated him and tortured him again. He was then moved to another detention facility in Anatot, a nearby Israeli settlement ironically “built on land confiscated from his family,” Thrall writes.

From there he was shunted between various prisons before being shipped to one earmarked for political prisoners in the Negev (what Palestinians call the Naqab). Nearly 13,000 Palestinians were in Israeli jails at the time. Yet when the Oslo Accords got underway, ending the intifada, restrictions on Palestinians actually increased.

Released from prison, Abed was issued with a green ID card. This was to distinguish him from those issued with orange or blue cards, each of which indicated the extent of movement permitted for their holders. His card not only marked him as an ex-prisoner but indicated the length of his incarceration.

It was soon apparent that the efficacy of the system depended on its baffling arbitrariness. Abed was back at his old construction job once he managed to get the orange card that meant he could enter Jerusalem, though newly installed checkpoints slowed movement along the way. After a doomed Romeo and Juliet–style love affair, he agreed to an arranged marriage. His wife bore him four daughters, but the marriage failed. He married again, this time by choice. It was Haifa, his new wife, who gave birth to a boy, Adam, and three years later another boy, Milad.

All the while Israeli control of the Occupied Territories intensified and Jewish settlements spread on the West Bank. Palestinians were neither free nor independent. As Thrall writes:

In fact, Oslo had furthered Israel’s goal of holding on to maximal land with minimal Palestinians on it. The agreements had fractured the West Bank into 165 islands of limited self-government, each one surrounded by a sea of Israeli control. Trapped in these islands and watched over by PA [Palestinian Authority] security forces that were subservient to Israel, Palestinians mocked the impotence of their Authority, their sulta, calling it a salata, a salad instead.

The second intifada erupted from these accumulated frustrations. Its immediate trigger was Ariel Sharon’s incendiary visit to Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. When Palestinians protested, Israel reacted, killing four unarmed Palestinians and wounding 200.

That intifada ended when Palestinian leaders eschewed violence as their method of resistance, opting instead for black South Africa’s example. To halt the murderous cycle of suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals they sought international community support through boycott, sanctions and divestment, or BDS as it’s known.

Israel quickly intervened after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, reinstating the PLO’s Fatah on the West Bank and pulling Jewish settlements out of Gaza and leaving Hamas in control there. It was a brutal, classic divide-and-rule tactic, its realisation too convoluted to detail here. But we know the rest — all of which affected Abed Salama — in broad outline, though some of us more than others.

On the morning of the school bus crash, Salama slept in. It was his day off work. While he was sleeping, five-year-old Milad and his friends climbed onto the bus. Rain was falling heavily by the time Abed rose. He left with a cousin to buy meat from a butcher in another part of Jerusalem, but the friend who was to accompany them rang to say he’d been stuck in traffic. Then a nephew rang to ask if Milad had gone on an outing. “There was an accident with a school bus near Jaba,” he said.

Abed left his cousin’s vehicle immediately and ran through the rain to find the bus. Spotting an Israeli army jeep, he hailed it down, saying in Hebrew that he thought his son was on the bus. The driver refused to give him a lift. He ran again. He didn’t spot the bus at first — a large, jack-knifed semi-trailer blocked the way. People had gathered, among them other parents.

Then he saw it, “flipped on its side, an empty burnt-out shell.” Where were the kids? Where were their teachers? Nobody could tell him much. “They carried the burned bodies out of the bus and laid them on the ground,” said a Palestinian Authority official, one of Israel’s enforcers.

At that stage, all any parent could do was hope that their child hadn’t died. Rumours swirled. The children appeared to have been taken to different hospitals, but no one could tell which of them had been taken where.

The rest of Abed Salama’s day was a nightmare pilgrim’s progress, with impediments every single step of the way. Along that way, Thrall narrates the stories of many others caught up in the tragedy. We learn about the bus driver, the paramedics, an onlooker, teachers, social workers, nurses. So many; all enmeshed in the horror. And looming above them all, that wall.

Called the “separation wall” or the “apartheid wall,” for Palestinians it’s as much a symbol as a barrier. Originally meant to follow the 1967 “green line,” it has proceeded in stages, departing from that line considerably, wiggling in and out of the Occupied West Bank, surrounding or segmenting towns and villages, cutting off farmers from their fields, kin from kin.

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama is a granular damnation of its effects. Small things: from a soldier’s refusal to give a terrified father a lift in the rain to the narrow, winding, pot-holed road the kids take to a picnic site, contempt for the occupied rules. Kids disappear into different hospitals, some in Ramallah, none of them to far-closer ones in Jerusalem. The checkpoints, overseen by gun-toting adolescents, ever delay.

The stories Thrall interweaves are cumulatively scarifying. Even readers like me, who have known of such oppression for some time, will learn much about the utter injustice of the present situation. Others who should learn are unlikely to pick up A Day in the Life of Abed Salama. But for those whose hearts and minds are still open, this is the book.

As for Abed Salama he, like Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, is talking around the world to those who are willing to listen. Peace may very well depend on them. •

A Day in the Life of Abed Salara: A Palestine Story
By Nathan Thrall | Allen Lane | $36.99 | 255 pages