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A tale of two Jerusalems: From a bus crash to war in Gaza and Israel

Abed Salama holds a photo of his son, Milad, who was killed in a school bus accident near Jerusalem.
Ihab Jadallah
/
Nathan Thrall
Abed Salama holds a photo of his son, Milad, who was killed in a school bus accident near Jerusalem.

Updated November 21, 2023 at 6:53 AM ET

In 2012, a traffic collision outside Jerusalem set a school bus full of Palestinian children on fire. The bus burned for over 30 minutes before help arrived. One of the children on that school bus was Abed Salama's son, 5-year-old Milad Salama.

At the time, Abed Salama didn't know whether his child was dead or alive. As he desperately tried to find Milad, he came up against barriers, both concrete and bureaucratic, that divided his Palestinian neighborhood of Anata from the rest of Jerusalem, which is controlled by Israel.

/ Henry Holt
/
Henry Holt

In Nathan Thrall's new book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy, Thrall doesn't just trace Salama's search for his son. He profiles the many people, both Palestinian and Jewish, who come into contact with that accident. Through the story of these dead children, their parents, the emergency responders and the civilians who jump into action, Thrall paints a brutally honest picture of life under Israeli authority for both Jewish citizens and Palestinians who live under Israeli occupation.

The accident happened over a decade ago, but Thrall says it is as relevant today as it was then.

He and Salama sat down for an initial interview before the devastating war between Israel and Hamas began. Hamas' attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and the ensuing Israeli air and ground invasion of Gaza changed so much about the reception of Thrall's book and about Salama's life.

This Q&A with Nathan Thrall and Abed Salama is condensed from interviews conducted two weeks before and after the horrific Oct 7. attacks and the onset of the Israel-Hamas war. It has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Listen to an audio except from the book here.

Before Oct. 7

Leila Fadel: How did you meet each other? And Abed, what made you decide to spend time and talk to Nathan, tell your story and be part of this book?

I really hoped that by telling human stories and by telling stories of love and cruelty and devotion and selflessness and guilt that I would be able to touch people and have them break through that kind of hardness that everyone has toward a conflict that they are sick of hearing about.

Nathan Thrall: Well, I met Abed because I was investigating this terrible accident, and a family friend told me that one of the parents of the children who had passed away was a distant relative. So I asked if she could put me in touch with him. I was eventually put in touch with Abed and found myself at his home.

Abed Salama: I decided to show Nathan everything and share my story when he told me maybe your story will make a difference in America and for others who read the article — maybe it would make some difference about our Palestinian issue.

LF: I know this is a hard story for you to discuss. You lost your 5-year-old son, Milad. What was it that made you think, "I want to talk about it"?

AS: It was horrible for all the people in and around Palestine because they were only kids. The only thing they want is to go to a place to play. But because we didn't have any playgrounds, they had to make this trip. And someone was driving quickly. He crashed over their bus and killed them. And after the accident, the police, the Israeli government and the Palestinian government didn't really give us the results of the investigation into anyone. The Israeli court didn't even accept my case because my son and I have a Palestinian ID, and at the same time they took all the other cases related to the accident [because they had different IDs].

LF: What was it like to read this book?

AS: I like it because he writes from the bottom of his heart. And when I read the article, I read it in English. I'm not strong in English, but I understand every word because he's telling the truth.

LF: Nathan, why did you choose this day, this horrific accident in which Milad was killed and other children were killed and burned on a school bus as they tried to get to a playground for a field trip? Why did you choose this story with these people who live in or around Jerusalem?

NT: There are a few reasons. One is that I live right next to where these children and parents and the teachers live. My apartment is about 2 miles from the wall that encircles and encloses these people who live in my same city but live an entirely different existence. And I would drive past this walled ghetto every week and hardly notice it. When this accident occurred, I couldn't stop thinking about the people who live on the other side of that wall, some of whom are, as I discovered, connected to me or relatives of close friends of mine.

I felt that the accident really embodied the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict: You had people living in the same community, half of whom have blue IDs, residents of Jerusalem, which entitles them to travel across the checkpoint that separates them from the rest of the city. Their relatives who live in the same community have green IDs. And this entire enclave, when you go into it, you can't tell the difference between the part that Israel has officially annexed and the part that is officially unannexed. It's all relatives living in this one community, some with green IDs, some with blue IDs and with very different rights. The color of their IDs has enormous repercussions every day.

I really hoped that by telling human stories and by telling stories of love and cruelty and devotion and selflessness and guilt that I would be able to touch people and have them break through that kind of hardness that everyone has toward a conflict that they are sick of hearing about.

LF: How did you go about this, and what were you trying to do? What was your process?

Part of the telling of the story was to dig into family histories, to show people who are incredibly strong. But if you just scratch the surface, you see a universe of suffering.

NT: The main thing I was doing was talking to everyone and anyone involved in the accident, Jewish and Palestinian, from the founder of the settlement that is adjacent to the accident site, who ran out on that morning to try and see what had happened, to a group of settlers in a settlement adjacent to Anata where Abed lives. [They] came with a TV crew and entered his home a month after the accident and talked to him and tried to convince him that they had no ill will toward the people of Anata. I was talking to parents and teachers and doctors and nurses and a heroic man, a mechanic who just happened to be driving his car on the road on the day of the accident and ran into this burning bus and rescued dozens of children with the help of one other person.

There's just tremendous pain in the lives of all Palestinians. Part of the telling of the story was to dig into family histories, to show people who are incredibly strong. But if you just scratch the surface, you see a universe of suffering.

LF: Abed, when you first heard about the accident, I know you were searching for your son, but you have the green ID, right?

It's the moment when you lose hope, questioning whether your son is still alive, still breathing. What makes the tragedy even more unbearable is having to call your wife and son to deliver the news.

AS: Yes. Many people told me my son was at the Israeli Hadassah hospital, but I couldn't go there because I didn't have a permit. There were people who said that a lot of children were taken to an Israeli army base close to the accident, but I didn't have a permit to enter there. A minute on this day was like waiting for hours. I felt like my son was close to me. During the first hours, I was standing outside the hospital in Ramallah, and his body was in the room behind me, not far away. I just didn't know.

It's the moment when you lose hope, questioning whether your son is still alive, still breathing. What makes the tragedy even more unbearable is having to call your wife and son to deliver the news. Adam, my son, his only brother, was just 11 years old at the time. We were awaiting the results of the blood test from him for the DNA analysis. He walked 20 kilometers [about 12 miles] so they could draw blood from him. In the end, the doctors told him, "Your brother is dead."

LF: Nathan, could [you] talk about the larger system you were portraying that these parents were navigating on the most traumatic day of their lives and their children's lives?

NT: The most important factor in determining whether these people had public schools, playgrounds, paved roads, sidewalks, whether they were encircled by a wall, whether the Jerusalem municipal services came and entered their area, whether firetrucks would go in there without an army escort — all these questions are determined by the fact that they're Palestinian.

The very route of this wall, the path that it takes, was determined with one overriding logic, which was how to keep as many Palestinians as possible out of the heart of Jerusalem, for the Israeli state to relinquish as little land as possible. So all of these people are living in this extremely crowded enclave simply because of a desire to demographically engineer the city of Jerusalem and keep as many Palestinians out as possible — people who were born and raised in the city.

LF: What do you want people to take from this book?

The main thing I want is for people to feel viscerally what it is to live in this place, for both Jews and Palestinians.

NT: The main thing I want is for people to feel viscerally what it is to live in this place, for both Jews and Palestinians. I feel that we have spent too much time speaking in abstractions: two states, one state, confederation. These abstractions are a means of taking our attention away from an absolutely unacceptable present and having us all focus on debating some future that may or may not come.

AS: I hope they understand that we have the right to live and love. To play. Like others. We can live together. We can build relations together.

After Oct. 7

LF: Nathan, what did the Israel-Hamas war mean for the book that you wrote?

I've had events canceled in five cities, one of them by the U.K. police, who were targeting anything with "Palestinian" in the title.

NT: I've had events canceled in five cities, one of them by the U.K. police, who were targeting anything with "Palestinian" in the title. I wasn't alone — other events were also canceled in the U.K. An entire conference was shut down.

It's an atmosphere of total intolerance for any sympathy for Palestinians living under occupation.You know, 2.3 million Gazans are starved of food, water and electricity and fuel. These people had nothing to do with the Hamas attack, were as surprised by the Hamas attack as Israelis were. I was traveling with Abed on the book tour. He was horrified to learn of the atrocities committed on October 7th, as was I.

If a book like that is being targeted, we're in an atmosphere where virtually nothing can be said. And this is precisely the kind of conversation we need to be having in order to address the deep roots of this recurrent bloodshed.

LF: What do you mean by that?

The root cause of all of the recurrent violence that we see and the daily violence that we ignore when there isn't a war in Gaza is that 7 million Israeli Jews and 7 million Palestinians live under Israeli rule and the vast majority of those Palestinians do not have basic civil rights. There is no place in the world where you could have people living without basic civil rights for decades, with support from the United States and the whole world, where you would not have violence to keep that system in place. This is not a justification ever of killing or harming civilians.

LF: Where is Abed right now?

NT: He left the U.S. to return to his family. It was just too difficult for him to be away from them. After the attack on Oct. 7, Israel shut down many West Bank towns. A lot of them are still closed. They shut down the towns of Anata and Shuafat refugee camp. You know, every family in the West Bank relies on higher-paying jobs in Israel, in the settlements. Those employers are not allowing Palestinians to come to work right now. There is also a surge in settler violence in the West Bank such that even driving on the roads is unsafe for Palestinians. There's a spike in the killings of Palestinians in the West Bank. Abed's son Adam works in Ramallah, and his employer told him not to come to work because it's unsafe to drive from Anata to Ramallah.

After NPR's last interview with Nathan Thrall, Abed Salama shared that his wife's cousin's son, Yazan Shiha, 24, was killed during an Israeli raid in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

Salama's sister-in-law, Ruba Al-Najjar, lost her aunt Feryal Khyal and Khyal's granddaughter Dalia Khyal. They were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. The family is worried about Khyal's daughter Soha and two grandchildren, as their whereabouts remain unknown.

The broadcast version of the interview was produced by Barry Gordemer. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Majd Al-Waheidi
Majd Al-Waheidi is the digital editor on Morning Edition, where she brings the show's journalism to online audiences. Previously, Al-Waheidi was a reporter for the New York Times in the Gaza Strip, where she reported about a first-of-its-kind Islamic dating site, and documented the human impact of the 2014 Israel-Gaza war in a collaborative visual project nominated for an Emmy Award. She also reported about Wikipedia censorship in Arabic for Rest of World magazine, and investigated the abusive working conditions of TikTok content moderators for Business Insider. Al-Waheidi has worked at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, and holds a master's degree in Arab Studies from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. A native of Gaza, she speaks Arabic and some French, and is studying Farsi.