Heading Toward a Second Nakba

Nathan Thrall argues that the accident in which Abed Salama’s son died was a predictable, even inevitable, outcome of the Israeli occupation in its quotidian forms.

On a stormy winter day in February 2012, a Palestinian bus carrying schoolchildren on an outing collided with an Israeli trailer truck on the notoriously dangerous Jaba‘ Road near the West Bank village of A-Ram, not far from Ramallah. The bus burst into flames; six young children and one teacher were killed and others were seriously injured. Among the dead was Milad, the five-year-old son of Abed Salama, from the town of Anata. Nathan Thrall has made the story of that accident and that family the thread that binds together A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, a penetrating, wide-ranging, heart-wrenching exploration of life in Palestine under Israeli occupation.

I know of no other writing on Israel and Palestine that reaches this depth of perception and understanding.

There is indeed something emblematic about the accident. The Jaba‘ Road is entirely within Area C, the 62 percent of the occupied West Bank that is under full Israeli control, where today there are close to two hundred settlements and settler outposts. Because of the nightmarish maze of roads in the Ramallah area—some of them closed altogether to Palestinians, others blocked by army checkpoints to keep Palestinians without special permits from entering Israel—rescuers were slow in reaching the site of the accident. They were also slow in evacuating the injured, many of them badly burned, to hospitals in Ramallah or inside Israel. Fire trucks, army medics, and ambulances were only a mile or two away in nearby Jewish settlements but failed to arrive quickly. Israeli ambulances coming from Jerusalem were held up for critical minutes at the checkpoints. Moreover, Palestinian neighborhoods in the vicinity of the Separation Barrier had (and some still have) almost no emergency or police services.

As one of the Palestinian rescuers at the site of the accident later formulated what had happened: “If it had been two Palestinian children throwing stones on the road, the army would have been there in no time. When Jews are in danger, Israel sends helicopters. But a burning bus full of Palestinian children….”

Thrall takes his readers through Abed Salama’s biography in the years preceding the tragedy and its aftermath. It’s a Palestinian life, in many ways typical: Salama’s passionate childhood romance and its failure to reach fulfillment because the prospective bride’s father was opposed; his participation in Palestinian politics and resistance on the village level, including his involvement with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; his consequent arrest and imprisonment; the torture followed by the much longer and harsher imprisonment of his older brother Wa’el, who had been recruited by Fatah to deliver hidden explosives; the many melodramas in his extended family, such as desperate attempts to find employment and occasional violent clashes between cousins and in-laws; his marriages; the birth of his children; and then, at the end, the desolation of a loss that could have been averted. Israelis, some of them from the higher echelons of the army and government, also appear in the story, their acts and decisions interwoven with those of Salama’s people. Hovering over this rich tapestry, moment by moment, as in any Palestinian biography, lurks the dark threat of mortal danger, endless insult, and despair.

One could read the book as a précis of modern Palestinian history embedded in the personal memories of many individuals, each of them drawn in stark, telling detail. To get to know them even a little is a rare gift, far more useful than the many standard, distanced histories of Palestine. Critical junctures such as the first and second intifadas, the Oslo years of the early 1990s when formal agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were signed, and the building of the Separation Barrier between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank come to life through the experiences of these seemingly ordinary—in some cases clearly extraordinary—people. Thrall was a regular visitor to the Salamas’ home over a period of three years. He is the right person to tell their story.

No one wanted to kill those children along with one of their teachers. Israeli rescuers and soldiers who finally reached the accident site did their best to save the injured. But the central point of Thrall’s narrative is that this disaster, like today’s ongoing violence in the Palestinian territories in general, was a predictable, even inevitable, outcome of the occupation system in its quotidian forms. It is a regime of state terror whose raison d’être is the theft of Palestinian land and, whenever possible, the expulsion of its Palestinian owners. I have seen this system in operation over the course of the past twenty-odd years.

One of the mysteries attendant on Israel’s decades-long occupation of the Palestinian West Bank (and indirectly of Gaza) is that relatively few people know that reality for what it is. Mainstream Israelis by and large don’t want to know, though the West Bank is only a few miles from the big Israeli cities. Outside of Israel, an efficient smokescreen created by the Israeli government has largely hidden that reality from the world. Those who do know it well, from the inside, are Palestinians living under the occupation and human rights and peace activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, who are regularly present there.

Over the past several years the human rights situation in the occupied territories has continually worsened; under the present extreme-right government in Israel, state violence against Palestinians has escalated dramatically. In the first half of this year alone, at least thirty-four Palestinian children were killed by Israeli fire. Some of them were allegedly throwing stones at soldiers; others, like Muhammad al-Tamimi, age three, were killed for no intelligible reason.

Brutal military occupation generates such casualties, just as it generates resistance on the part of the occupied. But the most telling change in the West Bank is the rapid proliferation of new settler “outposts” (ma’ahazim), as they are called, usually inhabited by young men and women imbued with a messianic ideology, burning racist hatred of Palestinians, and a proclivity for extreme violence. We activists encounter these settlers every week (some of us almost every day) in the territories. The outposts, theoretically illegal under Israeli law, have proved to be an effective mechanism for taking over large stretches of Palestinian land; the settlers and their representatives in the government have made no attempt to conceal this explicit goal. The army and the police invariably side with the settlers, sometimes by passive acquiescence in their attacks, sometimes by actively taking part in them.

Lately, settler violence has taken the form of large-scale predatory attacks on Palestinian villages—what I, in the light of my own family history, can only call pogroms. (My granduncle was murdered by Cossacks in Ukraine before World War I.) On the night of February 26 in the northern West Bank, hundreds of armed settlers descended on the village of Hawara after two settlers were shot dead that day by a Palestinian. Palestinian houses were burned to the ground, vehicles were torched, innocent civilians were attacked, and one Palestinian man—a gentle peace worker, as it happened—was shot to death. A similar outrage was perpetrated by Jewish settlers in the village of Turmus‘ayya on June 21. Such attacks, usually accompanied by machine-gun fire, are now common, though they may vary somewhat in scale. Palestinian villagers in Area C of the West Bank, where all the Jewish settlements and outposts are located, live in constant fear.

It is important to understand the political program that underlies this violence. Meir Blumkin, an activist who was in Turmus‘ayya during the attack, summed it up on Facebook on June 24:

Palestine is on fire. Settler outposts growing in number and size in the West Bank on a daily basis. Settlers storming into villages, setting fires to homes and cars, firing live ammunition. This is how you pave the way to forced expulsion. Permits, bulldozers, arson, guns.

The aim—openly espoused by government officials such as the minister of finance, Bezalel Smotrich—is to pave the way for a second Nakba, or catastrophe, as the exodus of Palestinians from their lands in the course of the 1948 war is referred to in Arabic. If life for Palestinians in the territories becomes unbearable, they will, the settlers think, just go away—maybe to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or some other Arab country. This sick fantasy turns up regularly on the settler websites.

However, no sane person believes that Israel will be able to expel all eight million or so Palestinians from the land west of the Jordan River (including the approximately two million Arab citizens of Israel, a fifth of the population of the state). What might be possible, though, and is likely the strategic plan thought up by sections of the Israeli security system and pursued by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, is to clear out all Area C’s Palestinian inhabitants and to cluster them in small, impoverished, and discontinuous enclaves in Areas A, under direct Palestinian rule, and B, under mixed Palestinian-Israeli control. Think of this as the Gazafication of what is left of the Palestinian West Bank. Area C would be officially, though of course illegally, annexed to Israel. De facto, this has already happened, as anyone with direct experience of these areas can testify. In effect, the second Nakba is already underway.

It is happening slowly, piece by piece, and largely under the radar. Here’s an example. The beautiful village of Ein Samiya, not far from Ramallah, was for years subject to continuous settler harassment. First the Civil Administration issued a demolition order for the village school—by far the most impressive and important building there. An array of European sponsors had supplied the funds to build it. The villagers went to court, and on August 10, 2022, the Jerusalem District Court decreed, unsurprisingly, that the school could indeed be demolished. In January the High Court of Justice put a freeze on executing this ruling; but on August 17, 2023, the army destroyed the school.

Meanwhile, over recent months, attacks by settlers intensified. They frequently invaded the village, beat and stoned its residents, and brought their own sheep into the Palestinians’ fields, thereby destroying the growing crops—in short, they routinely terrorized their Palestinian neighbors. The army and police, as usual, did nothing to stop any of this. What finally broke the villagers’ spirit came after a night when armed settlers came into the village, supposedly looking for sheep that they claimed had been stolen. They couldn’t find any. The next morning, one of the villagers took his flock out to graze. A policeman turned up, arrested him, announced that the entire flock—thirty-seven sheep—had been stolen, and handed it over to the settlers. Meanwhile, settlers blocked the access roads to the village and stoned Palestinians trying to reach their homes. This went on for five consecutive days.

I was there on May 24, 2023.

I saw the last Palestinian trucks leaving with the few possessions the villagers could salvage. The entire village—twenty-seven extended families, over two hundred people—evacuated their homes and moved to various sites in the territories. Most of them are now living on an arid hilltop in Area B. They believe that there they may be spared the constant raids by the settlers, but I’m not so sure about that; only a few miles away are outposts filled with notoriously cruel settlers who pay no heed to the invisible boundary between Areas B and C. I’ve seen rather a lot of heartbreaking scenes in the Palestinian territories over the years, but the flight from Ein Samiya was one of the hardest to watch. It goes without saying that the villagers’ lands have now been appropriated by the settlers, with the collusion of the army, the police, the courts, and, not least, the government.

The fate of Ein Samiya is shared by many other Palestinian sites. In the South Hebron Hills, thirteen villages are in imminent danger of expulsion, with the backing of the High Court of Justice; the excuse is that they are located within an arbitrarily imposed training zone for the army. Al-Khan al-Ahmar, slightly east of Jerusalem, was on the verge of being destroyed—the army bulldozers had already begun their work—when the International Criminal Court in The Hague declared that a war crime was being committed. That stopped the destruction for the moment, though government ministers have been demanding that the army finish the job. The village of Ras al-Tin, not far from Ein Samiya, was emptied of most of its inhabitants after savage acts by the army. (Among other things, soldiers emptied and confiscated the large water tanks that made life sustainable in the stony desert hills.) Denying water to Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley, where temperatures in summer can pass 120 degrees Fahrenheit, is a standard tactic employed by the army. You can’t survive there without water. These are random names from a longer list.

In Thrall’s words, a “hidden universe of suffering” touches “nearly every Palestinian home.” There is no way to justify any of it, unless one thinks that ensuring eternal Jewish supremacy over all of Palestine, and with it an Israeli version of apartheid, is a worthy objective. The moral foundation of the State of Israel has been severely compromised, perhaps beyond repair, and exchanged for the horrific reality of the occupation, which is further entrenched with each passing hour.

To perpetuate that reality is, to no small extent, the real rationale of the antidemocratic legislation limiting the power of the Supreme Court that the Netanyahu government pushed through the Knesset on July 24, despite weeks of huge demonstrations against it. Right-wing fanatics think, with some reason, that the Supreme Court is the last remaining obstacle to the annexation of the territories (although its record on Palestinian matters is far from good). Hence the attempt to undermine the court, indeed to sabotage the state’s entire legal system and thus to give the government almost unlimited power to do whatever it pleases. In the face of overwhelming opposition to this move from critical sectors of Israeli society (notably the army, air force pilots in the reserves, the major secret security organizations, and the tech industry) and from abroad, the legislation abolishes the so-called reasonableness clause, which gave the Supreme Court the authority to overrule government decisions on grounds that they are patently unreasonable—for example, when the prime minister appoints to a ministerial position a politician repeatedly convicted for taking bribes (this is not a theoretical example).

The Supreme Court will pronounce on the legality of the new law; major figures in the government, including the Speaker of the Knesset, have announced in advance that they will not honor the court’s decision if it invalidates the law, and Netanyahu has more than hinted that he, too, will defy the court. Israel is in the throes of a constitutional crisis (in the absence of a constitution), and the threat to democracy, coming from the government and the slim right-wing majority in the Knesset, is without precedent in the country’s history.

For Abed Salama and his family and for many others who have suffered unthinkable losses, there will be no release from pain. As long as the occupation continues on its self-destructive course, there will be many more innocent victims like Milad. It is obvious, though many refuse to see it, that the only way Israel can survive in the long run is to come to terms with the Palestinian national movement—that is, to make peace, an honest and generous peace.

I am certain that some form of mutual accord is still possible, though I may not live to see it. Palestine is in disarray, after decades of Israeli occupation and the deliberate erosion of Palestinian civil society and institutions by Israel; but there are still serious Palestinian partners for peace, including some whom many of us have known. (Some important figures, like Marwan Barghouti, one of the leaders of the second intifada, are in Israeli jails.) On the grassroots level, in the villages, most Palestinians want what most Israelis want—a livable life, without war. They also rightly want, and some day will certainly achieve, equality and an end to the current regime of discrimination, oppression, and constant threat. As my shepherd friend Jamal likes to say, “We were born to live in peace with one another. We think that hell lies somewhere beneath the earth, and heaven lies above us. But in fact people create their own hell on earth, when paradise, right here, could be ours.”

—September 20, 2023

David Shulman is the author of Tamil: A Biography, among other books. He is a Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was awarded the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in 2016. He is a longtime activist in Ta’ayush, the Arab-Jewish Partnership, in the occupied Palestinian territories. (October 2023)