On a wet, gray February day in 2012, Abed Salama was plunged into every parent’s worst nightmare. His son Milad had left for kindergarten early that morning, carrying an orange drink, a sleeve of Pringles, and a chocolate Kinder Egg — special treats for a class picnic. When Abed got word that there had been an accident involving one of the school buses carrying Milad’s class, he panicked. Getting to the scene required navigating sluggish traffic, past high walls and fences, then running on foot when soldiers wouldn’t let his vehicle go any farther; he asked for a ride in a military jeep but was refused. Getting answers about Milad — where was he? was he alive? — was even more punishing. Abed didn’t have the right information, the right papers, the right ethnicity. He is Palestinian, and in his world, as writer Nathan Thrall details in an astonishing feat of reporting for the New York Review of Books, every parent’s worst nightmare is compounded by Israel’s decades-long efforts to make Palestinian lives all but unlivable:
For over half a century, Israel’s strategic dilemma has been its inability to erase the Palestinians, on one hand, and its unwillingness to grant them civil and political rights, on the other. Explaining his opposition to giving Palestinians in the West Bank the same rights as Palestinian citizens of Israel, [former foreign minister] Abba Eban said that there was a limit to the amount of arsenic the human body could absorb. Between the two poles of mass expulsion and political inclusion, the unhappy compromise Israel found was to fragment the Palestinian population, ensuring that its scattered pieces could not organize as one national collective.
Administratively, fragmentation was implemented by imposing varying restrictions, decrees, or laws on Palestinian residents of the different sub-units Israel defined for them: Gaza; the West Bank; East Jerusalem; Israel within the Green Line; and refugees outside the state. Nowhere were Palestinians granted rights equal to those of Jews. Physically, fragmentation was achieved through the establishment of Israeli settlements and their surrounding roads, national parks, archaeological sites, and closed military zones, which left Palestinian communities isolated from one another and surrounded by fences, walls, checkpoints, closed gates, roadblocks, trenches, and bypass roads.
In the case of the accident, fragmentation meant that no one placed a call for assistance until 19 minutes after the school bus collided with a tractor trailer, flipped over, and burst into flames. Israeli emergency services were just a minute and a half away — a military checkpoint was even closer — so onlookers assumed help was coming, but it wasn’t. A video shot at the scene shows a tragedy unfolding in real time:
Men rush forward with small fire extinguishers taken from their cars. Others bring plastic bottles, helplessly pouring them onto the blaze. The flames continue to grow. A man paces desperately in a circle, gripping his face with both hands. Another hits himself on the head. A third, his small fire extinguisher emptied, storms away from the bus, yelling, “Where are you people?! Dear God!” as he raises the extinguisher over his head and slams it to the ground. A small blackened corpse lies on its back in the middle of the road. “Cover him, cover him,” one man tells another. “Where are the ambulances?!” someone else yells. “Where are the Jews?”
Fragmentation also meant that, in the aftermath of the crash, which ultimately claimed several lives and left many children injured, it wasn’t possible to hold Israeli institutions accountable. “Left unsaid,” Thrall writes, “were criticisms of the policies the parents and politicians alike were powerless to change.” Abed would eventually learn what happened to his son, but not from Milad himself. The little boy died, and his body was so badly burned that a DNA test was required to identify him:
Several years after the accident, when Abed was working as a taxi driver, he gave a ride to a mother and her children traveling from Ramallah to their home in the Shuafat Refugee Camp. As they approached the accident site on Jaba road, Abed whispered the Fatiha, the opening prayer of the Quran. From the back seat the mother said, “May God protect them.” Abed was surprised. “You know about the accident?” he asked. She said that her son, sitting beside her in the taxi, was among the students on the bus that day. Abed insisted that the family come home with him for lunch right then. They passed Milad’s school, where, on the anniversary of the crash, Abed would bring Kinder Eggs to the students in Milad’s old classroom, and stopped at a store, where Abed bought a toy for Milad’s former schoolmate. At his home, Abed worked up the courage to ask the boy if he remembered anything about Milad that day. The boy said he did: “Milad was in the front of the bus. He was scared, and he crawled under his seat.”