In early 2017, Israeli police raided a Palestinian cartological office, welded shut its doors, arrested its director, and seized its computers and documents—all on the suspicion that it was illegally operating in Jerusalem, which Israel forbids Palestinian institutions from doing. Israeli police have used the same allegation in recent years to shut down Palestinian children's puppet festivals, academic conferences, soccer tournaments and hospital dedication ceremonies. But this time, they got it wrong.
The Palestinian village of al-Ram is in the occupied West Bank, not in Israel. For whatever reason, when Israel built a 30-foot concrete wall completely surrounding and cutting off entire Palestinian neighborhoods in the urban sprawl between Jerusalem and Ramallah, it left around 100 buildings in the Dahiyat al-Barid neighborhood of al-Ram on the "Israeli side."
After hours of interrogation in Israel's notorious Al-Moscobiyeh jail, known to Israelis as the Russian Compound, Palestinian cartographer Khalil Tufakji finally convinced Israeli police of their error and they summarily released him. How could the Cartographic Section of the Arab Studies Center be illegally operating in Jerusalem if it's not in Jerusalem?
Looking past the political context that makes map-making legal on one side of the street and illegal on the other, it's worth considering the irony of this story—that members of an oppressed population always tend to know the contours of the invisible borders and systems that control their lives far more intimately than their oppressors who designed and implement those systems.
Israel's walls, checkpoints and permit regime transform daily routines into labyrinths. One of the worst yet invisible consequences of occupation and apartheid is the theft of Palestinian time itself. A 2019 study by the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem found that the Palestinian labor force loses nearly 60 million hours a year due to Israeli checkpoints and walls, at a cost of $274 million annually.
Time is not just money, of course. Time is how we measure life. In the moments during or after a tragedy, time can be the difference between life and death. Each passing second—or in the case of Abed Salama, whose son was killed in a horrific school bus accident in 2012 on a highway near al-Ram, each passing hour and day—can be its own well of agony. All the more so if you're desperately trying to learn what side of the wall your child was brought to and whether they are alive or dead.
A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, published this week by Metropolitan Books, doesn't settle for telling the story of that tragedy. Author Nathan Thrall sets out to explore each of the conditions that led to Abed's personal tragedy, down to the route of the walls that extend his agony. Why did neither Palestinian nor Israeli first-responders show up to the site of the accident? Why is Abed's neighborhood, Dahiyat al-Salaam, cut off from Jerusalem by a towering concrete wall—the inverse of Dahiyat al-Barid? How is it that children in East Jerusalem don't have access to public education, which led to dozens of students being put on a dilapidated and unsafe school bus to get to their unregulated private school?
Thrall excels at weaving together those stories by exploring the humans at the center of each development and following their human connections wherever they may lead. A former analyst with the International Crisis Group and author of The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, he most recently received attention for teaching the first-ever university course on "Apartheid in Israel-Palestine" in the United States, at Bard College in New York.
Through Abed's story, Thrall manages to tell the stories of a dizzying number of historical developments and circumstances: the Nakba and Palestinian refugees; the complicated system of permits, statuses and restrictions on movement that Israel uses to control Palestinian lives; the plight of Mizrahi Jews in Israel; the motivations of Israeli settlers; and Palestinian collaboration with Israel's apartheid regime. Or in other words, the story of Israel-Palestine.
At times, that includes uncomfortably sympathetic portrayals of characters who could easily be described as Abed's oppressors and war criminals. Thrall insists on creating space for telling their own motivations and decisions to steal and carve up Palestinian land. In other moments, unexpected anecdotal connections, like Abed's family owning the land on which the village of Khan al-Ahmar sits, create opportunities to tell more familiar Palestinian stories from unfamiliar points of view. (Israel has long-standing plans to demolish Khan al-Ahmar, forcibly displace its Palestinian residents, and eventually install Jewish settlers in their place, a move many experts warn would completely bifurcate the West Bank with Israeli settlements and thereby preclude any chance of a viable Palestinian state.)
The result is a book that is difficult to put down and which even a close follower of developments in Israel-Palestine can learn from. Walking in the shoes of Abed Salama, the experience of what many describe as a one-state reality truly comes to life in ways that are far more convincing than any geographic or policy analysis ever could.
I spoke with Thrall a few days before A Day in the Life of Abed Salama was published. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This place is temporal, especially for Palestinians. It's about not just the theft of land but the theft of time.
- Nathan Thrall
Michael Omer-Man: Many people have told the story of Israel-Palestine through microcosms. Usually, those microcosms are spatial or about certain systems. You went in a different direction. Why did you decide to do it this way? What appealed to you about using Abed's story as a vehicle to tell the broader story of Palestine? What hurdle were you attempting to overcome?
Nathan Thrall: You're right, it is very much intended to be a microcosm. My particular interest in this event was that it allowed me to touch on virtually everything I wanted to touch on with respect to Israel-Palestine. This school bus was filled with a mix of students who came from families with blue Jerusalem IDs and green West Bank IDs. And yet, they lived in the same community and they were in a walled enclave, half of which Israel annexed in 1967 and half of which was not.
Yet when you walk through this community, you would be hard-pressed to identify where the state of Israel—as it sees itself—and where the West Bank begin. To do so, you'd have to come up close and see where the last building with a little rectangular blue and white placard with the street address is. That is the only way you could tell where the municipal boundary is.
This place is temporal, especially for Palestinians. It's about not just the theft of land but the theft of time. Analyzing an event allows you to depict time and the obstacles that people face in just getting from one place to another, trying to find their children on the day of an accident.
And of course, that the accident was in Area C but involved both green ID holders and blue ID holders, and being adjacent to a checkpoint, and a military base, and a very unique settlement. All of those things made it a very rich story. So on a purely utilitarian level, the particular characteristics of the event allowed me as a writer and an analyst to touch on different subjects that I wanted to.
But that was dwarfed by the emotional pull of this event, of this catastrophe, which is that hundreds of thousands of people on the other side of the wall live in a state of total neglect with very major consequences when normal things like car accidents happen. The fact that the way this horrible tragedy unfolded was entirely predictable—the emotional power of that was what really drew me to this event.
What do you think you're able to do by telling this story this way that's difficult to accomplish through other ways of writing about these issues?
I've spent so much of my career writing in an analytical mode about Israel-Palestine, and this project took me in the exact opposite direction. I'm actually trying to do something that's as simple as it gets. The technical issue of putting the story together was an enormous challenge. But in terms of the actual ambition, of what is it supposed to make a person come away with? That's the simplest thing in the world. This is a moral catastrophe. This is what it feels like to actually be a part of it and be subjected to it and be a victim of it and be a participant in it. And really, that is the ambition of this book—to make people feel what it is to live in this place.
I think back to my time reporting in Palestine and a question that I would get asked every once in a while that I always found very difficult to answer, which is, Will this make a difference? Will this change anything? I'm wondering how you approached that question in your reporting process. You told me now in retrospect, after having written the book, what you hope it can impart for readers. But I'm wondering how you described that ambition to your interviewees. Beyond simply building trust, how did you get all these dozens of people to tell their personal stories to you with such an amazing level of detail?
I didn't make any promises about the impact of the book. I don't believe that they had any expectation of a major impact with the book. What I found was that there was incredible silence in most of the families that I talked to about the most horrible thing that had ever happened to them. So there was actually a hunger to talk about it on the part of—not all, because there were people who didn't want to talk to me—but many of the people who I did talk to, who told me during our conversations that this was the first time that they had really talked about it since the week of the accident.
And there were times when I was sitting, for example, with Abed and his family and he had brought many relatives to come at once for my benefit to talk about everyone's recollection of different pieces of that day. He warned me in advance that his eldest son, Adam, had never said a word about the accident. I had spent time with Adam and we'd been around each other many times, but we never talked about the accident. During this particular conversation, Abed warned me and said, "Don't ask him questions because he refuses to talk to us. He's never said a word out loud about this day." Yet during this conversation where the family was gathered, somebody recalled one thing and Adam interjected and said, "No, that's wrong. This is what happened." And then he just started talking.
Abed's wife, Haifa, then interjected to comment on something that Adam was saying and Abed immediately started snapping his fingers to signal to her to stop talking—to let the boy speak. He had opened his mouth for the first time. That wasn't the only incident like that. There were many conversations that felt almost like therapy for the people who were recounting their experiences to me.
So to answer your question, I don't think their decision to speak with me had anything to do with their expectation that this might change how the world sees Palestine. They have every right and every reason to be extremely cynical about the value of any reporter or any article or any book. They see that Western policy is not changing and so I wouldn't even dare to make any kind of promise or hint to them.
Hundreds of thousands of people on the other side of the wall live in a state of total neglect with very major consequences when normal things like car accidents happen.
- Nathan Thrall
But beyond impact, just looking at importance, did you discuss with anybody—the ones you spent more time with—the way that you saw their personal story as an opportunity to discuss the broader reality as a microcosm of all these things that you do talk about? Did anybody else see that too?
No, I think most people did not see that because they just felt that they were telling me their life story basically. They were telling me about this event and we're focused on this event, but they were all telling me their life stories and they didn't really have a sense of what I was going to use or what I wouldn't.
Abed didn't read the book until it was finished. He didn't realize how much of a role he was going to have and how many other characters there would be. I didn't really know exactly who was going to be in it and what was going to go into it until I had gathered the materials and started to put it together.
You tell so many different stories in this book. It's the story of the accident and through that you tell the story of Israel-Palestine. I really enjoyed the way that it's constructed and that it doesn't feel like you're just jumping back and forth between history and the present. But rather my impression was that you were trying to dissect and truly understand the circumstances and decisions that led to this accident, to this life-changing event for all these people.
You tell the story of the Nakba and refugees and Jerusalem, and all the aspects of annexation and borders, of Palestinians with different statuses and IDs and checkpoints, and the Mizrahi Jewish-Israeli story—from immigrant camps to the Israeli Black Panthers to the kidnapped babies episode. And in a very subtle way, the story of Palestinian collaboration in both official and unofficial ways.
In the Mizrahi thread in particular, you tell the origin story of the settlement of Adam. What was it like for you? Did you intend to elicit sympathy, maybe not for the settlement movement, but for the decisions and circumstances that led to the creation of this particular settlement?
I definitely intended to paint as real and human a portrait as possible. I didn't know who I was going to meet, and I didn't know what would result, and it's possible that I would have had some character who was just entirely unlikable and unsympathetic. But my ambition going into it was that I would paint real human beings who are not black and white. My hope was that you would see humanity in all of the characters.
I didn't have an express goal of eliciting sympathy for the founder of Adam, or for Adam or the settlement movement, but I definitely had the goal of making everybody's motives intelligible and making you understand why these people make these decisions in a way that actually makes sense and isn't just writing them off as whatever epithet you want to use.
Your decision to highlight and tell the story of Dany Tirza, who plotted the route that Israel's separation wall takes through Jerusalem and much of the West Bank—you take the same approach of humanizing him. But his story is as much about his professional role as his personal story, which in a way makes it the story of the systems of apartheid and occupation that he designed. What are your thoughts on humanizing the occupation itself through Dany? Not in terms of how others might judge you, but rather how does his story advance what you're trying to achieve with this book?
I'm not too worried about it. I truly believe that the book cannot succeed as a whole unless people feel that it's real and fair. Maybe fair is the wrong word—everybody has an opinion and nobody's exactly lines up on what they think is fair or not fair—but that it's a full picture and that you didn't obstruct and attempt to paint one side as better, or more virtuous than another side.
Dany's character is the most abstract in connection to the accident. Everybody else has a very direct connection to the events of that day, and he has a connection insofar as he engineered so much of the circumstances that brought about the particular chain of events on that day. In earlier drafts, there was a lot more about his family history and early Zionism.
He's a good friend of Micah Goodman, who lives nearby. In Micah Goodman's most recent book, The Wondering Jew, he talks explicitly about the anti-Semitism of the early Zionist movement—including, in Dany's view, that early Zionists demonized their own Haredi relatives who they left behind in the Pale of Settlement and came to create the new Jew in Israel. In order to justify and motivate settlement, they were casting those in the diaspora in very anti-Semitic terms. Practically every street in Tel Aviv is named after someone who has a horribly anti-Semitic quote that you can dredge up about diaspora Jews. And so I actually found Dany's entire family history to be fascinating, and it was one of the most difficult things for me to cut from the book because I had a lot of material through his family that would have been about early Zionism.
Regarding the risk of humanizing the occupation, what does it serve? It sounds terribly naive, but I do believe that the truth is its own value and nobody is served by obfuscating the truth. Dany has motives that are explicable, and I wanted to explicate them.
As you were writing, I imagine there would have been a lot of mapping out and keeping track of different pieces and plotting story lines and connections. Were there parts of the larger Israel-Palestine story that you sought out hooks for in the story of the accident, or vice versa—pieces of the story of the accident or Abed's story that you struggled to connect to the larger piece?
It was more that one of my many flaws as a writer is that, when I'm writing an op-ed, I want to stuff in every single thing I possibly have to say on this subject and even tangential things that are related to the subject into one piece. I knew that one of the great challenges of this book was that I could not do that. If I did, this book would fail. I had to be disciplined in a way I'd never been before about keeping to the narrative.
So really, I'm constantly thinking about all of these different things and my ears are perking up the second I hear certain things, like, when Abed said, "My grandfather actually owns the land of Khan al-Ahmar."
Or, when Abed told me, "I actually married a Palestinian [with Israeli citizenship] in order to keep my job and try and eventually get permanent residency in Israel.
Or when Beber Vanunu said, "I am the founder of the Adam settlement and I'm actually a former Black Panther."
So it wasn't that I was looking to find a way to put Black Panthers or Khan al-Ahmar in the story. It was that my ears were ready to grab on to anything that would allow me to incorporate the bigger story.
It's been two and a half years since you published an essay in The New York Review of Books of the same name, and over a decade since the accident. Looking back through both of those time frames, what stands out to you the most as having changed?
In the big picture, I think the change is pretty incremental. In fact, in my former role working for the International Crisis Group, I would brief diplomats, who typically would have a three-year or four-year tour. They would always ask for a meeting as soon as they came. Those were the meetings I most dreaded, because they know nothing and it's just a waste of your time to teach them the ABCs. One of the things that would frequently happen is they would ask me for reading recommendations in those first meetings. I often would recommend to them books from the '70s and '80s. They were almost always very upset when I told them that, because they're so green that they actually do come with the ambition of making some kind of a difference. To hear that the analysis from three decades ago is the best thing that they could read to understand this place was very depressing to them. But I still basically hold to that view.
But in terms of the last 11 or 12 years, and certainly the last two years, I don't feel like much has changed other than a continuation or acceleration.
Including gender, how do you think about your identity as the storyteller in shaping the way that you tell the story? What are the advantages and disadvantages to you being who you are and how you were able to report and write this, but also how the story might be received?
You're asking a few different things. How did my identity shape how I view this incident differently than other people would? And I think a second question that you're asking is, How did the characters relate to me, because of my identity? Did they tell me things to me as a result of who I am? It's very hard for me to answer the first question because we're so inside of our own heads. It's really hard to know how I would see it differently if I were a woman or if I were a Muslim or if I were a Palestinian.
With respect to the second question, I think there were instances where I was told more things as a result of being an outsider. Many of the intimate details of family life and marriages never would have been revealed to a Palestinian interviewer. The society is too close. There are too many close connections. There is just a deep reluctance to air any kind of dirty laundry that could come back. For the most part, I actually was told many things that I maybe shouldn't have been told because their guard was more down with an outsider—the human story of a marriage unraveling or how someone really feels about this relative or that relative, whereas with somebody who is in the society, you'd be much more careful.
The downside of that is that they can then come to regret that they revealed as much as they did. In the case of one character, he told me, "Everything's true. I'm ready to pay the price. This is my story and I own it. But this is going to get me in a lot of trouble."
I think that's the main effect of my coming as an outsider.