A Palestinian bus crash that killed six kindergarteners represents an oppressive system - but a father's story offers hope

02/04/2024 | 5 mins

This article by Senior Lecturer in English and Literary Studies at The University of Western Australia Ned Curthoys originally appeared in The Conversation on 2 April 2024.

Nathan Thrall’s stunning book A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: a Palestine Story explores a dreadful accident, where six Palestinian kindergarteners and a teacher died in 2012 after their bus collided with a semitrailer, on the Jaba road, northeast of Jerusalem. At the book’s centre is bereaved father Abed Salama, who tragically loses his five-year-old son Milad.

Thrall, an American-Jewish journalist who’s lived in Jerusalem since 2011, reveals the accident to be influenced by a range of political decisions. These include the elaborate system of control that governs the West Bank, particularly the byzantine ID system, borders and sections that restrict the everyday access of Palestinian residents.

The Palestinian children, unable to play in a nearby Jewish settlement, were taking “a long, dangerous detour” to a playground along a notorious “death road” when their bus crashed. Originally one of many bypass roads designed to enable Jewish settlers to easily access Jerusalem, the “badly maintained” Jaba road was now mostly used by Palestinians.

Emergency services in the Israeli-controlled area failed to attend to the scene quickly: the bus burned for more than half an hour before official help arrived.

In the accident’s excruciating aftermath, it was unclear which children had died and which hospital or morgue they had been taken to. The first paramedic on the scene, Palestinian Nader Morrar, could only take his badly burned patients to Ramallah:

"If they attempted to go to Jerusalem, they could waste valuable time or even lose a patient while waiting at the checkpoints for permission to carry the victim on a stretcher to an Israeli ambulance on the other side."

Change is possible

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama is based on interviews Thrall conducted with parents, family members and first responders to the accident.

The book has the hallmarks of a play, with a contents page listing “characters”, and five acts or “parts”. As it tells the story of the accident, it takes us through the life stories of some of the story’s participants, including Salama – who found his interviews with Thrall therapeutic.

The story plays out within the larger narrative of a community still experiencing the affects of the Nakba, the mass expulsion and flight of more than 80% of Palestinians from the territory now known as Israel – and continuing everyday obstruction and frustration in its aftermath.

Thrall’s harrowing account begins with an illuminating epigraph by American philosopher Stanley Cavell:

We do not see our hand in what happens, so we call certain events melancholy accidents when they are the inevitabilities of our projects, and we call other events necessities merely because we will not change our minds.

Change is possible, this suggests, if we use our imaginations and release ourselves from dogma. Thrall’s powerful narrative is not just an act of witnessing – and a lament for an avoidable tragedy. It also shows, through individual human stories, that Israeli and Palestinian coexistence remains possible.

Arrested, tortured and undermined

Thrall’s lucid recounting of these events documents the compounding traumas Palestinians continue to experience.

Abed Salama has had his aspirations confounded and his dignity undermined by the Israeli occupation at every turn. He was unable to receive a degree, after the Israeli military shut down all Palestinian universities during the first intifada – the popular uprising against Israeli military rule that spanned 1987 to 1993. And while he hoped to study abroad, he couldn’t get a passport. “Israel didn’t give passports to its occupied subjects.”

The disruption of Palestinian education, which undermines Palestinians’ future intelligentsia and political leadership, runs throughout the book.

It’s illustrated, too, by Palestinian paramedic Nader, who like many Palestinians, was wounded while protesting: he’d been shot in the leg after calling for Israel to reopen Birzeit university, after it closed the main road to the school in March 2001, during the second intifada, preventing students from starting their new semester.

After his university hopes were dashed, Salama joined a radical wing of the Palestinian Liberation Authority (PLO), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an illegal organisation whose local leader was his brother-in-law. It appealed because it seemed “the most serious about building a local movement to liberate Palestine”. In 1989, writes Thrall, Salama was arrested by the Israel Defence Forces and tortured.

He was represented by a prominent Israeli Jewish lawyer, Lea Tsemel, who had “spent nearly two decades waging a quixotic battle against the laws and military orders that denied Palestinians their basic civil rights”.

Salama was sentenced to six months imprisonment. He was convicted solely on the basis of a third-party statement, which he had no right to cross-examine or test. The conviction rate for Palestinians under military administration is, Thrall reports, 99.7%.

Israel’s incarceration of Palestinian young men includes: journalists, attorneys, physicians, professors, students, trade unionists, civil society leaders, advocates of nonviolence, members of Israeli-PLO dialogue groups, which were illegal.

Ketziot, Israel’s largest prison, where Salama was eventually held, was at one point “holding one in every fifty Palestinian men”.

Thrall describes an ongoing sociocide (though he doesn’t use the term). The Russell tribunal on Palestine defines sociocide as the widespread or systematic destruction of a society’s social and political structures, and its material and immaterial elements of shared identity. In other words, it’s the deliberate undermining of the basis on which a future Palestinian nation might be constructed.

As Thrall details, a UN report found some 700,000 Palestinians had been arrested since the occupation began – representing roughly 40% of all men and boys in the territories. These are lost years, lost childhoods. These levels of incarceration affect an entire society – and continue a process of disempowerment and humiliation.

Israel’s policies of mass incarceration remind Palestinian parents they are now powerless to protect their children. Traditional roles of community authority crumble. Abed comes from a long line of mukhtars, or village chiefs, but his father had refused that role: “it now consisted largely of pointing occupying soldiers to the homes of men they wanted to arrest”.

Arrested for throwing stones

Fifty-one-year-old endocrinologist Huda Dahbour, one of the first respondents at the scene, is another character who’s stayed with me. Her experience – and the aftermath of the bus accident – illustrates Israel’s obstruction of medical services to Palestinians, which has become an egregious feature of Israel’s current assault on Gaza.

Huda once ran a mobile health clinic at the Jerusalem headquarters of the UNRWA, the UN organisation for Palestinian refugees. However, at the time of the accident, she was treating patients in a mobile clinic in the West Bank, as she was unable to enter Jerusalem.

That day, Huda’s clinic was on its way to minister to members of the Bedouin Jahalin tribe, who had been expelled from the Naqab desert in the years after the founding of Israel. (Thrall writes that around 85% of Bedouin were removed from the Naqab after 1948.)

When Huda confronted the awful scene of the overturned school bus, now on fire, she was triggered – thinking of her son Hadi, who had spent a year and a half in prison after being arrested, aged 16, for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

Before his arrest, Hadi had moved schools to Abu Dis, an area now separated from Jerusalem and economically ruined by the separation wall. Hadi had feared for him: “Israeli troops were stationed outside Hadi’s school practically every day.” Soldiers would stop and frisk students, sometimes beating them up.

During her son’s imprisonment, Huda regularly visited the Naqab prison, travelling nearly 24 hours for short visits. There, her eyes were opened to the “hidden universe of suffering” caused by Israeli incarceration.

Deliberate neglect and enforced separation

Thrall deems the bus accident an avoidable tragedy, which happened because of the deliberate neglect and enforced separation of populations: one privileged and well resourced, the other neglected and underdeveloped.

In an interview, he has pointed out it was a “predictable outcome of an entire apparatus that put a wall around this community”, dividing the West Bank into administrative zones that prevented the Palestinian Authority coming onto the road where the accident took place, “but at the same time Israel not caring at all about what happens on this road”.

As Thrall notes, Anata has been deprived of funding from Jerusalem since the building of the wall, so the Anata municipality didn’t provide them with a school. What he calls “the system”:

"Forces the kids to either go through a checkpoint for hours (and the parents are frightened to have their kids interact with soldiers) or go to a dilapidated school in a former goat pen or, as these parents did, to pay to send their kids to school in the technically unannexed part of the West Bank."

As Thrall puts it:

"There is an overriding logic driving all of those micro-decisions, which is a very simple logic, which is: to keep as many Jews in the heart of Jerusalem and as few Palestinians. That dictated the route of the wall, and it’s an explicit goal of the state, to keep as high a proportion of Jews inside Jerusalem as possible. And the lives of these people are affected in a thousand different ways by that central goal."

Acts of empathy on both sides

This appalling accident also gave rise to acts of empathy and generosity on both sides of the divide. Thrall’s focus on the very human responses he finds hints at the reality of everyday coexistence – and the resilience of basic human decency.

This is a story about proximity and interaction. Israel Jewish settlements and Palestinian communities retain economic relationships and some human ties.

Adi Shpeter, a representative of the Jewish settlement of Anatot, built on land confiscated from Anata, works amicably on improving relationships between communities with Ibrahim Salama, a Palestinian Authority official – and Abed’s cousin.

An Israeli Jewish paramedic, Eldad Benshtein, suffers his own traumas after the accident. Carrying the body of a badly burnt Palestinian girl after the accident, he breaks down, weeping for the dead children he attended to after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in the 1990s.

Dubi Weissenstern, an “anti-Zionist”, works for the ultra-Orthodox (or haredi) volunteer organisation ZAKA, collecting the dead for burial. Dedicated to caring for the dead, he doesn’t think twice when assigned the melancholy duty of collecting children’s “scorched backpacks”.

Arik Vaknish and Beber Vanuno, Mizrahi Jews, with ancestry in the Middle East and North Africa, live in the nearby settlement of Adam and speaks “good Arabic”. They create a large sign at a junction near the accident site, “offering condolences in Hebrew and Arabic”.

And Anatot settler Duli Yariv collects around US$1,000 (A$1,500) for the grieving families from his neighbours.

These well-intentioned acts remind us everyday coexistence can generate respect, interdependency and the rejection of extremism.

However, even the basic right to mourn the dead is complicated by Israel’s domination of Palestinian lives. An ominous epilogue describes how some Israeli Jews, particularly young people, celebrated the deaths of Palestinian children online after the accident.

Thrall’s book enacts the intercultural respect he depicts: a Jewish-American author based in Jerusalem, he assumed the responsibility of reaching out to and befriending Palestinians living in close proximity to his home, but in another world. That is, beyond the separation barrier. He sought to acknowledge their humanity and the reality of their suffering.

A harrowing account of an avoidable tragedy and an edifying analysis of the Israeli occupation in the context of Palestinian and Israeli history, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. It is a story of people who will not be cowed by an oppressive system.

It’s a book that left me devastated, but full of appreciation for what it achieves. I think it is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the cruel realities of an everyday occupation.

The Conversation

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