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A Day in the Life of Abed Salama

Ihab Jadallah

Abed Salama, West Bank, March 2021

I

On the day before the accident, Milad Salama could hardly contain his excitement for the kindergarten class trip. “Baba,” he said, addressing his father, Abed, “I want to buy food for the picnic tomorrow.” Abed took his five-and-a-half-year-old son to a nearby convenience store, buying him a bottle of the Israeli orange drink Tapuzina, a tube of Pringles, and a chocolate Kinder Egg, his favorite dessert. 

Early the next morning, Milad’s mother, Haifa, helped her fair-skinned, sandy-haired boy into his school uniform: gray pants, a white-collared shirt, and a gray sweater bearing the emblem of his private elementary school, Nour al-Houda, or “light of guidance.” Milad’s nine-year-old brother, Adam, old enough to walk to school on his own, had already left. Milad hurried to finish his breakfast, gathered his lunch and picnic treats, and rushed out to board the school bus. Abed was still in bed.

On most days, Abed worked for the Israeli phone and Internet service provider Bezeq. But that morning, he and his cousin had plans to go to Jericho. They stopped at the nearby butcher’s, in Dahiyat al-Salaam, “neighborhood of peace,” beneath the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The owner, Atef, was a friend of Abed’s, and it was unusual for him not to be at the shop. Abed asked an employee to check where Atef was. Atef lived in a different part of municipal Jerusalem, Kufr Aqab, a dense urban neighborhood of tall apartment towers that, like Dahiyat al-Salaam, is cut off from the rest of the city by an Israeli military checkpoint and a gray twenty-six-foot-high concrete wall. To avoid the daily traffic jams and what are sometimes waits of several hours at the Qalandia checkpoint, Atef drove to his work through a far more circuitous route, following the snaking path of the separation barrier. 

Atef reported that he was stuck in horrible traffic. It was a wet, gray, and extremely windy February morning in 2012. He said there appeared to be a collision ahead of him, on the road between the Qalandia and Jaba checkpoints. A few minutes after hearing of Atef’s delay, Abed received a call from his nephew: “Did Milad go to the picnic today? There was an accident with a school bus near Jaba.”


II

Two and a half weeks after the June 1967 war, Israel annexed what had been Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem and the historic Old City at its core, as well as the lands of more than two dozen surrounding West Bank villages. It declared the entire annexed area to be part of a vastly expanded Jerusalem, that would now stretch from the outskirts of Ramallah in the north to territory within what had been the municipal limits of Bethlehem to the south. Milad and Abed grew up in one of these twenty-eight localities, Anata, but in a part of it that Israel did not formally annex.

Possibly named for the Canaanite goddess Anat or the biblical city Anathoth, the town of Anata was once among the most expansive in the West Bank, stretching eastward from the tree-lined mountains of Jerusalem down to the pale yellow hills, rocky canyons, and desert wadis at the edge of the district of Jericho, in the Jordan Valley. Today, Anata is much smaller, the bulk of its lands confiscated to create the Israeli military base of Anatot, four official settlements, and several unauthorized settler outposts. Abed, like all West Bank Palestinians, is forbidden from entering the settlements, including those built on Anata’s lands. Any Israeli or tourist may enter, but Palestinians require a special permit, granted only to the laborers who clean or do construction or landscaping inside.

Among the settlements on Anata’s lands is Allon, named after the Labor party minister Yigal Allon, architect of the first decade of Israel’s West Bank settlement policy. It lies about eleven miles from Jordan, further east than the West Bank’s nine largest Palestinian cities. A nearby settlement, also on Anata’s lands, is Kfar Adumim, whose notable residents include Israel’s former ambassador to the US, Sallai Meridor, and Danny Tirza, who designed the route of the separation barrier that twists and winds around Palestinian communities in the West Bank, in some cases completely encircling them, as with the rump that remains of Anata.

Kfar Adumim is part of the large Ma’ale Adumim settlement bloc, which includes parks, playgrounds, public schools, health clinics, branches of major banks, a city hall, a police station, a post office, a courthouse, a regional fire station, restaurants, wineries, a bowling alley, an industrial zone with some three hundred businesses, and a cemetery containing the graves of several generations of Israeli citizens. Although the bloc itself is not officially annexed to Israel, Jewish immigrants from Los Angeles or London may move directly to it, or to any other settlement, and receive a basket of government aid that includes free air travel, a financial grant, subsistence allowances for one year, rent subsidies, low-interest mortgages, Hebrew instruction, tuition benefits, tax discounts, and reduced fees at state-recognized day care centers, of which the bloc contains several. 

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In its guide to communities in Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh, the main organization partnering with the Israeli government to facilitate Jewish immigration from the US, Canada, and the UK, makes no mention that Ma’ale Adumim is a settlement. Instead, it advertises it as an ideal suburb, “surrounded by palm trees and a breathtaking desert view,” one that offers “all the advantages of a city: an enclosed mall and several strip malls, a municipal government center, intra-city transportation, an extensive library, health services, an art museum, sports and recreational facilities, a lake, a music conservatory, parks and more.” 

Not just settlers, but Israelis from all over the country pass through Anata’s lands as they drive to the Dead Sea on Highway 1, Israel’s main east-west thoroughfare. And on weekends and holidays, Israeli families travel to what was once Anata’s natural pool and spring, known as Ayn Fara, but now called the En Prat Nature Reserve. The reserve, managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, lies close to land owned by Abed, which Israel does not allow him to access. 

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The Palestinian Shuafat Refugee Camp in the foreground, walled off from the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev in the distance, in annexed East Jerusalem, West Bank, January 2021


III

On the third morning of the June 1967 war, the day that Israel conquered the West Bank, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan received reports that Palestinian residents were in flight. He ordered the army brigades to slow their advance and keep the roads open, telling Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin that the aim was to empty the territory of its inhabitants. Rabin in turn issued orders not to blow up the bridges to Jordan, “in order to ease the emigration” of Palestinians. Psychological operations units of the Intelligence Branch accompanied Israel’s fighting brigades throughout the West Bank, broadcasting messages in Arabic from vehicles equipped with loudspeakers. In Bethlehem, an army van blared commands to residents to take the road to Jericho—the West Bank city adjacent to the main crossing to Jordan and its capital, Amman—“or face the consequences.” Two days later, the threats intensified: Bethlehem residents were told they had “two hours to leave your houses and flee toward Jericho and Amman; if not, your houses will be bombarded.” 

In the areas around Jerusalem, Latrun, Hebron, and particularly the West Bank towns near Israel’s pre-1967 armistice line—known as the Green Line, because of the color in which it was drawn on the 1949 armistice maps—thousands of Palestinian homes were dynamited or bulldozed. Standing in Jerusalem at the Western Wall after Israel had conquered it, along with the rest of the Old City, Dayan said, “We have returned to our most holy places; we have returned and we shall never leave them.” Days later, Israel told the residents of Harat al-Magharibah, the Moroccan Quarter, that they had two hours to vacate before their homes, mosques, and landmarks were razed. The neighborhood was flattened and transformed into a prayer plaza next to the Western Wall, in time for the arrival of Jewish pilgrims for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. 

The destruction of these areas and the eviction of their inhabitants were not defensive measures with a military purpose—Dayan admitted that “the Palestinians on the West Bank had not taken part in the war.” Israel’s campaign to clear the land of Palestinians reflected its intention to keep the territory. Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, wrote to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol that “we had been fortunate with the flight of 350,000 [people] from the administered territories.” The commanding general in the West Bank, Major General Uzi Narkiss, recalled that “we certainly hoped that [the population] would flee, as in 1948.” 

Yet the removal of Palestinians in 1967 was not as comprehensive as it was during the 1948 war, when four out of five Palestinian inhabitants of the territory that would become Israel were made refugees and were banned from returning to their homes. A Palestinian majority became a minority within the Green Line. During the 1967 war and its immediate aftermath, the portion of Palestinian residents exiled from the newly occupied territories was considerably smaller—about one in four. As a consequence, the share of Palestinians living under Israeli rule increased, rising from 14 percent before 1967 to 37 percent afterward. Israel became a state of 2.4 million Jews controlling 1.4 million Palestinians: one million in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the rest of the West Bank, plus nearly 400,000 non-Jewish citizens within the Green Line, most of them Palestinian. Eshkol summarized Israel’s strategic dilemma with a line that he often repeated: “We won the war and received a nice dowry of territory, but along with a bride whom we don’t like.”

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Efforts to rid the land of its Palestinian inhabitants continued after the war. The prime minister established a secret unit dedicated to encouraging Arab emigration. During the first days of the occupation, the Arabic service of Israel’s state radio, Kol Yisrael, announced that “any inhabitant of the West Bank area living in Jerusalem and its surroundings” could cross to Jordan. Buses bearing Arabic signs that read “To Amman for free” transported frightened and in many cases homeless Palestinians to Jordan. Major General Chaim Herzog—a future president of Israel, the brother-in-law of Abba Eban, and the West Bank’s first military governor—later boasted that, as a result of these efforts, “approximately 100,000 people crossed over to the East Bank.” 

During a postwar cabinet discussion on the Palestinians fleeing the occupied territories, Dayan said, “I hope they all go.” He also predicted that “in two days’ time, the whole of Jerusalem will become Jewish.” He reported that some four hundred Palestinians from the West Bank and six hundred from Jerusalem were leaving each day. “It adds up to approximately one thousand a day,” he said. “This is terrific.”

Under direction from Dayan and the cabinet, Israel initially banned the return of Palestinians who had crossed to Jordan. But the month after the war, hoping to thwart a UN resolution demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal from the occupied territories, Israel caved to mounting international pressure by agreeing to let some Palestinians return. Prime Minister Eshkol voted against the decision, a stance he later explained, revealingly, by referring to the West Bank as part of the country: “We cannot increase the Arab population in Israel.” The state let in only a negligible number of those who applied, vetoing the return of most residents from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, and the West Bank camps that housed refugees of the 1948 war, now displaced once again. It offered a mere twelve-day window for hundreds of thousands to return, stating that it could take in no more than 3,000 refugees per day—a total of 36,000—and in the end it accepted far fewer: 14,000, which was less than the number of Palestinians crossing that month in the opposite direction. In later years, when Palestinians who had fled in 1967 applied to reunite with their family members in the West Bank, Israel barred large categories of people: men aged sixteen to sixty; the twice-exiled refugees of both the 1967 and 1948 wars, whose original claims to return still nettled Israel; former residents of Jerusalem; and landowners, because there were plans to build settlements on West Bank property that Israel defined as “abandoned.”

map of Israel including the Green Line

Mike King

Israel and the Occupied Territories

In Gaza, Israel was intent on removing Palestinians from the territory in order to annex it. Future prime minister Golda Meir, then the head of Mapai, the precursor of the Labor party, said Israel should retain Gaza while “getting rid of its Arabs.” Minister of Labor Yigal Allon said, “I am prepared to encourage emigration of non-Jews in general.” Israel forcibly expelled three thousand people from Gaza in the weeks after the war. Tens of thousands more left in the year after, some of them taking Israeli financial incentives to emigrate to South America. Prime Minister Eshkol expressed hope that, “precisely because of the suffocation and imprisonment there, maybe the Arabs will move from the Gaza Strip.” He added, “Perhaps if we don’t give them enough water they won’t have a choice, because the orchards will yellow and wither.” Even the Palestinian citizens of Israel were not spared from these schemes: at a 1967 cabinet meeting, Minister Allon recommended “thinning the Galilee [inside the Green Line] of Arabs.”

On October 13, 1967, the cabinet approved a set of “Operational Principles for the Administered Territories.” These prescribed “the departure of a maximum number of Arabs,” while “blocking the entry of Arabs from the outside”; required that “special emphasis is to be placed on the evacuation of the Gaza Strip”; and noted that “the imposition of the Israeli tax system in the territories could play a significant role in encouraging departure across the borders.” 

Ultimately, however, none of these policies could overcome the combination of Palestinians’ determination to stay on the land, known as sumoud, and birth rates that were far higher than those of Israeli Jews. In October 1968, Eshkol said of the Palestinians in Gaza, “I still don’t know how to get rid of them.” Not even the more than one million new immigrants from the Soviet Union and its successor states in the 1990s and 2000s could stem the loss of a Jewish majority. By 2018, the fifty-first year of the occupation, an army official reported to Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, that there were more Palestinians than Jews in the territory under Israel’s control, from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River. 

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, 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. 


IV

Nader Morrar grew up in the West Bank village of Beit Duqqu, north of Jerusalem. His family arrived there after the 1948 war, when the Israeli army assaulted their village of Salbit, now Sha’alvim, a Jewish religious kibbutz in central Israel. Beit Duqqu sits within a confined enclave of eight villages, walled off from surrounding West Bank towns, Israel within the Green Line, annexed East Jerusalem, and the large Israeli settlement of Givat Ze’ev, which is built partly on Beit Duqqu’s land. The separation barrier encloses the enclave on three sides. A fourth side is blocked by a fenced West Bank highway, Route 443, built for settlers and other Israeli citizens and effectively closed off to most Palestinians. It serves as the shorter of two main routes from Jerusalem to Israel’s international airport, which West Bank Palestinians cannot use. 

At the height of the Second Intifada, the 2000–2005 Palestinian uprising against Israel, when more than a thousand Israelis and three thousand Palestinians were killed, Nader was a student at the West Bank’s top university, Birzeit, studying English literature. Israel had shut the main road to the school, preventing thousands of students and hundreds of faculty members from entering it. At a student protest calling for the school to be opened, an Israeli soldier shot Nader in the leg, fracturing his femur. It took him two surgeries and a year of rehabilitation to recover. He dropped out of school. Inspired by those who had cared for him, he enrolled in courses to become a paramedic. 

A decade later, working as an emergency medical technician for the Palestine Red Crescent, he was shot in the leg by Israeli forces once again. During the past two decades, Israeli soldiers have injured hundreds of members of Palestinian emergency medical teams, killing several. The day before the school bus accident in Jaba, two Red Crescent ambulances had been attacked by the Israeli army, one of them hit with rubber-coated bullets near the Ofer Prison, between Ramallah and Givat Ze’ev, the other struck at a protest in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, which sits on the slope beneath Hadassah Hospital at Mount Scopus, facing Milad and Abed’s home in the Anata enclave. 

Harriet Salem

Emergency medical technician Nader Morrar treating a wounded patient in his ambulance in al-Bireh, West Bank, 2015

On the morning of the crash, Nader received a call from dispatch at 8:54 AM: a bus had rolled over on the road leading to the Jaba checkpoint. The caller did not say if the bus was empty or full. Nader knew the accident site, which some referred to as the death road. Originally built for settlers to get to Jerusalem without driving through Ramallah, it had been carved straight through an escarpment, forming a deep chasm, with tall rocky walls on both sides, dozens of feet high. At the time it had two lanes heading northwest toward the Qalandia checkpoint, and only one lane in the opposite direction, which was the main route around Jerusalem to the southern West Bank for some 200,000 people in the greater Ramallah area. The road had no center divider. Frustrated southbound drivers, having finally escaped the maddening gridlock at the Qalandia checkpoint, would often overtake slower vehicles by veering momentarily into one of the two lanes of opposing traffic. 

Nader assumed Israeli ambulances would arrive there first. He was stationed at the Red Crescent headquarters, downhill from the entrance to the al-Amari refugee camp in al-Bireh, next to Ramallah. To get to the accident site at rush hour, he would have to drive south through al-Bireh, into the municipal Jerusalem neighborhood of Kufr Aqab, past the standstill traffic near the Qalandia checkpoint, and then through the pile-up on the single southbound lane leading to the accident, a distance of about four miles. It was a wet, windy morning, with poor visibility. Nader wondered how quickly he could get there via the dilapidated roads in Kufr Aqab, which often flood, worsening congestion. 

To his surprise, he made it in ten minutes, arriving at 9:04. He and his partner, who drove the ambulance, were the first emergency responders to get there. Nader was shocked by what he saw. Crowds stood above him on the tops of the stone cliffs overlooking the road, waving their arms and shouting. In front of him, a damaged twelve-wheel trailer truck had come to a diagonal halt in the northbound lanes, facing the wrong direction. To his left, against the stony northbound wall, lay a school bus, flipped on its side, doors against the ground, crumpled in front, and engulfed in flames. Nader was thirty-three years old at the time. His wife was six months pregnant, and his eldest daughter not yet two. Screams of children and teachers came from inside the bus. Men darted in and out of the smoke, putting themselves at enormous risk to pull people from the flames. Several charred bodies lay in the road. Nader radioed in to headquarters, calling for backup: “Mass casualty incident.” 

A video taken that morning shows the scene before Nader arrived. Dozens of people gather around the overturned bus, which is taller than all of them, with red flames shooting into the air and thick black smoke rising above the rocky wall. A woman is heard shrieking from inside the bus. “There are kids inside,” someone yells. “Extinguishers! Extinguishers! Extinguishers!” 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?” Two men run forward holding a child between them: “The boy is alive. He needs resuscitation quickly.” Someone points to an adult on the ground: “Bring a car. This man is alive.” A blurry figure jogs from near the bus carrying a kindergartner, her hair in braids fastened with pink ties. She seems to be unhurt and in a kind of dream state, not responding when he sets her down and asks, “Do you need anything, dear?” Other men start to bring more children, one by one. They are put in private cars to take them to the hospital. The wailing from inside the burning bus continues.

As soon as Nader got out of the ambulance, people tried to hand him the corpses. By this point, the fire was so intense that there was no way to approach the bus and rescue the remaining students and teachers inside. He saw two adults lying on the asphalt, each with third-degree burns, major fluid loss, and difficulty breathing. One was the bus driver, who had multiple fractures to his lower limbs; the other was a teacher. Nader and the ambulance driver performed triage and loaded them on to the ambulance for immediate evacuation. For Nader, there was no question but that he would take them back to Ramallah, though they were less than a mile from municipal Jerusalem, which had superior hospitals. Palestinian ambulances bringing patients to Jerusalem had to wait at the checkpoints for unpredictable lengths of time before permission was granted, or denied, to carry the victim on a stretcher to an Israeli ambulance on the other side. Scores of people have died, according to Amnesty International, B’Tselem, and other human rights organizations, because the passage of Palestinian ambulances was prevented or delayed. 

For Nader, in a crisis, the separate legal statuses of Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinian subjects of Israeli military rule, and Palestinian permanent residents of annexed East Jerusalem no longer mattered. This was an accident between a yellow-plated Israeli tractor trailer and a green-plated Palestinian school bus with many permanent residents of Jerusalem on board, yet Nader knew that the only thing that mattered was whether the patients were Palestinians or Jews. Under no circumstance would he bring a Jewish citizen to a Palestinian hospital. But in order to avoid delays at checkpoints, he had brought numerous Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to West Bank hospitals—and for all he knew, he was now carrying two more. As they rushed back toward the medical center in Ramallah, passing next to the Qalandia checkpoint with sirens blaring, Nader treated the teacher and bus driver simultaneously, giving oxygen and stemming the loss of fluid. “I still hear their screams,” he told me. 

Nader learned later that he hadn’t arrived on the scene until twenty-nine minutes after the 8:35 AM crash. The first call to dispatch hadn’t come until nineteen minutes after the accident, at 8:54. The crash was so close to the checkpoint, nearby settlements, and Jerusalem that it didn’t occur to any of the bystanders that Israeli ambulances, fire trucks, police, and soldiers were not on their way. The crash involved an Israeli trailer truck and had occurred in Area C, the 61 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli civil and security control. Every settlement and road serving settlers in the West Bank is in Area C, which is a single contiguous territory. On Area C roads, which are formally under military occupation but have been de facto annexed by Israel, the Israeli national police—not the army—hand out tens of thousands of traffic tickets to Palestinians each year. The Palestinian police are not allowed even to drive on Area C roads without Israeli permission, typically requested days in advance. For Israel’s National Fire and Rescue Authority, not just Area C but the entirety of the West Bank is treated as being within the sovereign state of Israel, its website listing the regional fire stations responsible for “all localities throughout the country,” from Jaffa to Jaba to Jericho.  

A Palestinian Authority report on the accident notes that “Israeli ambulances and fire engines arrived late, after the end of fire and rescue operations, and this despite the proximity of the accident site to Israeli fire and rescue services, as the nearest Israeli ambulance, emergency and fire station is only a minute and a half away.” The accident site was seconds away from the Jaba checkpoint, manned by Israeli soldiers, less than a two-minute drive to the settlement of Adam, and several minutes from both the police station at the Sha’ar Binyamin settlement industrial zone and rescue services at the settlement of Kokhav Ya’akov. 

The fact that the driver of the tractor trailer was an Israeli permanent resident operating an Israeli-registered vehicle, violating Israeli traffic laws by crossing a double line into opposing traffic, and striking the bus in a location that is under full Israeli control, where Palestinian Authority vehicles require permission to enter, “places a moral and legal responsibility on the Israeli side,” according to the Palestinian Authority report. It further states that rescue operations were impeded by the “suffocating traffic” caused by the Israeli checkpoints on both ends of the road, and that previous Palestinian requests to install lighting and a concrete barrier between opposing lanes had been “rejected by the Israeli side.” 


V

Abed and Milad’s house lies within an area that is surrounded on three sides by the towering concrete slabs of the separation barrier. On the fourth side is a different sort of wall, made of yellow stone and topped by a tall metal fence. It runs through the center of a four-lane highway, a section of the Eastern Ring Road that is widely known as the “apartheid road,” which forms what is now the eastern border of Anata. On one side of the highway, Israeli drivers, most of them traveling to and from West Bank settlements, overlook an eastward view of the rolling hills of their biblical patrimony. On the other side, Palestinian drivers, forbidden from entering Jerusalem and walled off from the view of Israelis on the other side of the road, look west toward the Anata enclosure, in front of which lie heaps of old cars, stripped and abandoned. 

Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

Route 4370, dubbed the “apartheid road” because its western side serves Palestinians, who cannot enter Jerusalem, whereas the eastern side serves settlers, who can, West Bank, 2019

Within these walls are also several neighborhoods of municipal Jerusalem: Ras Khamis, Ras Shehadeh, the Shuafat Refugee Camp, and the part of Anata known as Dahiyat al-Salaam. Their residents pay taxes to the city but receive almost no services. Sewage runs through the streets. Roads are unpaved and potholed, lacking lanes, traffic lights, parking places, pedestrian crossings, and sidewalks. There are no parks or playgrounds. Piles of garbage rot beside the separation wall. Because of inadequate municipal collection, several tons of trash are burned within the Shuafat-Anata enclave each day, releasing dangerous emissions. Israeli ambulances, fire engines, and other basic service providers do not enter without a military escort. The Border Police, which fights alongside the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the occupied territories, drives into the area in armored vehicles, carrying assault rifles and wearing shielded helmets, kneepads, and body armor. “The Jerusalem Police did not operate in the east of the city”—that is, in all Palestinian areas, not just the neighborhoods separated by the wall—“as a traditional policing force,” said Arieh Amit, the former police commander of the Jerusalem district, in 2001. “Its operations were based on the model of a small army, and it saw its principle function as being to protect from the residents of the east of the city, rather than to protect them.” A decade later, another former police commander of the Jerusalem district, Mickey Levy, said of the Palestinian neighborhoods, “We have no need for them.” Unlike the Border Police gendarmerie, “the Israel Police doesn’t go in there.” This is still the case today. 

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

A crane completing a section of Israel’s separation barrier near the Shuafat Refugee Camp, East Jerusalem, West Bank, December 20, 2011

Nearly all of the dead and most severely injured on Milad’s bus were from the Shuafat Refugee Camp and its outgrowths, within the western half of the Shuafat-Anata enclave that is part of annexed municipal Jerusalem. The infrastructure of the camp and its surrounding neighborhoods is collapsing. Power outages are frequent. In 2014, tens of thousands of residents were left without any water for several weeks. The area is so neglected that Israel does not know how many people inhabit it. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel estimated that the half of the enclave that is within municipal Jerusalem had 80,000 residents in 2019, equivalent to one fourth of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population. They live within a municipal area of less than half a square mile—more than double the population density of Manhattan—in a concrete jungle of dilapidated, unplanned, and unregulated buildings. 

There are only two exits from the enclave, which slopes downhill from Shuafat camp to Anata. One exit, which leads into the rest of the West Bank, is at the bottom of the hill, next to the entrance to the “apartheid road.” The other, which leads into the rest of Jerusalem, is a traffic-clogged military checkpoint at the walled entrance to the Shuafat camp. Most checkpoints are either internal, controlling Palestinian movement within the West Bank, or external, controlling Palestinian exits from and entrances to Gaza and the West Bank. The Shuafat checkpoint, which is staffed by IDF soldiers, Border Police, and private security guards, is neither: it controls the movement of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, who line up each morning to cross through metal turnstiles separating one part of the city from another, all within what Israel considers its sovereign capital. 

Most residents of Shuafat camp work in Jerusalem on the other side of the wall, some of them as pharmacists, nurses, cooks, and cleaners in the now-Jewish neighborhoods from which their families fled or were expelled in 1948. A number of Shuafat’s families come from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Qatamon, a prosperous, mostly Christian neighborhood that they fled after the Haganah, the main pre-state Zionist militia, blew up the Semiramis Hotel in January 1948, killing twenty-six civilians. They were among the 250,000-300,000 Palestinians who were made refugees before May 14, 1948, when Israel declared independence and Arab armies invaded; over the following months, another half million Palestinians became refugees. Some of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren now throw Molotov cocktails and colored paint at the soot-covered Israeli watchtower that looms over the high walls of the Shuafat-Anata enclave. Also overlooking this ghetto, within eyesight, are the manicured grounds of the Hebrew University, one of Israel’s most prestigious academic institutions. 

Like all Palestinians legally present in the occupied territories, Abed was issued a unique ID number registered by Israel’s army and Interior Ministry. Without that number and accompanying Israeli ID card, a Palestinian cannot cross a checkpoint, open a bank account in Ramallah, or leave the occupied territories. In Gaza, where two million people live among ponds of sewage, without drinkable water or regular electricity, every inhabitant must be registered with an Israeli ID number in order to gain permission to leave the territory. Such permission is granted to very few—mostly businessmen and medical patients in need of care unavailable in the impoverished coastal strip. Despite Israel’s claim to have ended its occupation of Gaza, tens of thousands of people are stranded there because they lack an Israeli ID number—many of them children of Palestinians who entered on tourist visas—and consequently are unable to leave under any circumstances, even at the border with Egypt. Thousands of others from Gaza now live in the West Bank under threat of deportation because Israel has not approved their relocation from one part of the occupied territory to another.

map of Jerusalem area with locations referenced in the article

Mike King

The northern area of annexed East Jerusalem and its surroundings showing the principal landmarks involved in this report (based on cartographic data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)

Inside the Shuafat-Anata enclosure, Abed could move around without needing to worry about whether, at any given moment, he was crossing from the West Bank into annexed East Jerusalem. As they bought picnic treats in Dahiyat al-Salaam, which is the annexed part of Anata, he and Milad were, technically, “illegal infiltrators” to Israel, even though they were simply walking inside the town in which Abed, his parents, and his grandparents were born and raised. Abed and his wife hold the green ID cards issued to Palestinians in Gaza and the unannexed areas of the West Bank. Some of their relatives, like Abed’s cousins, have blue ID cards, indicating that they are residents of Jerusalem, who may vote in Israeli municipal but not in national elections. Palestinians from one part of Anata, with green IDs, have been arrested for working without permits in another part of Anata, in municipal Jerusalem. But no barrier exists between annexed Dahiyat al-Salaam and unannexed Anata. To determine where one ends and another begins, you would have to find the last building affixed with a small blue and white address plaque, written in both Arabic and Hebrew. 

As a young man, Abed’s brother, who held a green ID, married a young woman with a blue ID. Like all such couples, they were forbidden from residing together in municipal Jerusalem, unless they took their chances by living illegally in one of the distressed Jerusalem enclaves cut off from the rest of the city by the wall. His wife could not legally bring her husband to Jerusalem until he turned thirty-five and was eligible to apply for a temporary Jerusalem residence permit, which must be renewed annually and does not confer the health or national insurance benefits of a blue ID. She could have applied for Israeli citizenship, which would allow her to live with her husband in Anata, but the process is lengthy and cumbersome, and the rate of rejection is high. It is also a politically fraught act because it is seen as conferring recognition on Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Neither would it solve her fundamental problem, since by law Israeli citizens, too, may not obtain citizenship for their spouses residing in the occupied territories, unless the spouse is Jewish. When presented with challenges to this law, which discriminates between citizens on the basis of their ethnicity, in order to reduce the population of Palestinians in Israel, the Supreme Court rejected the petitions in 2006 and 2012. In the court’s 2012 ruling, its deputy president wrote, “Human rights are not a recipe for national suicide.” 

Abed’s sister-in-law could not move out of municipal Jerusalem herself, even to an unannexed area just nearby, such as the eastern half of the Shuafat-Anata enclave. If she did, Israel could revoke her blue Jerusalem ID, forever exiling her from the city in which she grew up and where her family resides. As it was, inspectors from Israel’s national insurance provider, accompanied by private security contractors, regularly visited her apartment in Dahiyat al-Salaam, to demand proof that the residence was indeed her “center of life.” Such inspectors often arrive in the middle of the night, aiming to prove that blue ID holders have left the city, typically for nearby towns in the West Bank. By imposing onerous conditions on the city’s residents and monitoring any relocation outside it, Israel has managed to strip nearly 15,000 Palestinians of their right to reside in Jerusalem. In the West Bank and Gaza, Israel has exiled an additional 240,000 former residents, many of them for being absent during a given Israeli-conducted census or for having left to study or work abroad. 

Israel’s revocation of Palestinian residency rights in Jerusalem is part of a broader strategy of pushing Palestinians out. In 1973, a ministerial committee recommended that the government maintain the existing “demographic balance” in Jerusalem at that time: 73.5 percent Jews and 26.5 percent Palestinians. Israel failed to meet its target, subsequently amending the desired Jewish-to-Palestinian ratio to 70:30, and then to 60:40. The current master plan guiding municipal policy in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem 2000 Outline Plan, warns that “the continued proportional growth of the Arab population in Jerusalem is bound to reduce the ratio of the Jewish population in the future” and calls “to prevent such scenarios, or even worse, from taking place.” 

As the share of Palestinians in Jerusalem has grown, so has the pressure placed on them to leave. The primary lever has been housing policy. Since 1967, the Israeli government has initiated the planning and construction of more than 55,000 housing units in East Jerusalem settlements, whose residents now make up 24 percent of the city’s overall population. By contrast, in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, whose residents make up nearly 40 percent of the city’s population, the government has initiated the construction of six hundred. Due to discriminatory planning, Palestinians are forced either to move to the West Bank or to build without permits. As a result, more than a third of the city’s Palestinian homes were built without permits, putting some 100,000 people under threat of eviction and home demolition. More than 2,500 Palestinians in East Jerusalem have had their homes pulverized in the last decade, hundreds of them forced to destroy their own homes in order to avoid paying heavy fines. 

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

An excavator demolishing a row of shops in the Shuafat Refugee Camp, which the Israeli authorities said were built without a permit, in annexed East Jerusalem, West Bank, November 21, 2018

Another lever has been the neglect of Palestinian infrastructure. Many neighborhoods in East Jerusalem have roads too narrow for municipal garbage trucks, creating filthy streets and smoke from trash burning on the hillsides. These neighborhoods exist as small islands, surrounded by major traffic arteries designed to connect the city’s Jewish neighborhoods, which are mostly served by separate bus lines. The main north-south thoroughfare for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the old Bethlehem Road, is just wide enough for one vehicle in each direction, at least on the parts of it with no cars parked on the side. It is steep and dangerous, with hairpin turns, few guardrails or sidewalks, and no lanes, traffic lights, streetlights, or pedestrian crossings. The main north-south artery serving West Jerusalem, the four- to six-lane Begin Highway, was recently extended, seamlessly connecting the settlements south of Bethlehem to the Jerusalem city center and beyond. The expansion was built on lands expropriated from the annexed Palestinian neighborhoods of Sharafat and Beit Safafa, both of which the highway cuts in half. 

A third lever has been discriminatory policy in education. The shortage of classrooms in Palestinian neighborhoods is severe. Fewer than half the Palestinian students are able to attend public schools. A third of Palestinian students—compared with 1.5 percent of Jewish students—drop out. In the western half of the Shuafat-Anata enclave, which is within municipal Jerusalem and is home to some 80,000 residents, the municipality has built only one school, in a former goat pen. Lacking access to adequate public education, many parents in the enclave are forced to enroll their kids in private schools. One of these was Milad’s, Nour al-Houda. It is within the enclave but outside the Jerusalem municipal lines, in one of the buildings most closely abutting the wall. On the other side of the separation barrier, a few hundred yards away, stand the red-roofed garden villas of the Jerusalem settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev.


VI

Ihab Jadallah

The Nour al-Houda school, Anata, West Bank, March 2021

As soon as Abed got the call about the accident, he and his cousin rushed out of Atef’s butcher’s shop, heading to Jaba. Abed’s cousin drove them through morning traffic toward Anata’s only exit, past the teenage boys starting work in the car-repair garages with signs in Hebrew for settler customers, past the Nour al-Houda school and the separation wall beside it, and onto the road leading to the Hizma checkpoint, the main one used by settlers entering Jerusalem from the north. The road hugs the wall at the Palestinian village of Hizma, then climbs the steep hill to the settlement officially called Geva Binyamin but known locally as Adam—which happens also to be the name of Milad’s older brother. 

At the Adam settlement junction, soldiers were stopping traffic from driving toward the accident site. Abed left his cousin and hurried ahead on foot. He hailed a passing army jeep, saying that his son was in the bus accident and asking for a lift. The soldiers refused. 

By the time Abed reached the site of the crash, Nader was long gone. Abed couldn’t see the bus at first, his view blocked by the twelve-wheel tractor trailer standing crookedly across the lanes. There were dozens of people on the road, including other parents who had rushed to the scene. 

“Where is the bus?” Abed asked. “Where are the kids?” A moment later, he saw it, tipped over, burned out, and empty. Israeli ambulances and fire trucks still had not arrived. Later that day, the head of the Jerusalem office of ZAKA, an Israeli emergency response organization, explained the delay: his teams, which first had “to get the necessary permits,” had trouble finding the scene because it was close to Palestinian villages, with which they were unfamiliar.

Rumors swirled around Abed, passing from one onlooker to another: the kindergarteners were taken to a health clinic in al-Ram, two minutes up the road; they were at the Israeli military base at the entrance to al-Ram; they were at the medical center in Ramallah; they had been transferred from Ramallah to the Hadassah hospital at Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Abed had to decide where to go. With his green ID, he had no way to enter Jerusalem. The rumor about al-Ram seemed unlikely, given that it had no hospital. He asked two strangers for a ride to Ramallah. They were headed in the opposite direction, having just traveled two and a half hours south from Jenin. They agreed without hesitation. 

It was a scene of chaos at the Ramallah hospital, a maelstrom of shouting parents, victims on stretchers, medical staff, police, photographers, television crews, and Palestinian officials. Abed made his way to the reception desk and gave Milad’s name. “Your child is registered on the second bus,” he was told over the din. “That one wasn’t in the accident. They took it to al-Ram.” This was the first Abed had heard of a second bus. He called a friend whose child was in Milad’s class, asking him to check with his wife, a teacher at the school. She called back right away: “Milad is registered on the second bus. He’s fine.”


VII

The West Bank is often described as a lawless frontier territory, where rogue Jewish fanatics haphazardly park mobile caravans on hilltops, in defiance of the Israeli state. In fact, the entire map of West Bank settlements has been meticulously planned by the Israeli government. An executive branch ministerial committee approves the settlements. A legislative branch subcommittee is devoted to advancing their connections to Israel’s water, electrical, sewage, communications, and road infrastructure. The legislature passes certain bills that apply solely to the West Bank. The state comptroller supervises government policy in the West Bank, overseeing everything from wastewater pollution to road safety. The attorney general enforces guidelines that direct the Knesset to explain how every new bill passing through the legislature will apply to the settlements. The High Court of Justice—which exercises judicial review over all government bodies and agents, and is the court of last instance for every Israeli and Palestinian, whether citizen or occupied subject—issues rulings that entrench the segregated legal system in the West Bank, where, in the same territory, there is one set of laws and rights for Israeli settlers and another, inferior set for Palestinians. The Justice Ministry oversees local courts in the West Bank that apply Israeli laws to settlers but not to Palestinians. The Israel Prison Service extends its reach across the entire territory, holding both Palestinian subjects and Israeli settlers in jails within the Green Line. 

As for the settlements themselves, they are integrated into Israel’s system of local government, forming cities, regional councils, and local councils under the authority of the Ministry of Interior. And Israel’s ministries—housing, education, economy, interior, agriculture, water, and transportation—spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on developing the settlements. Far from being the enterprise of a small minority of settler ideologues, Israel’s absorption of the West Bank is a national project undertaken by every branch of the government

Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

Traffic waiting in line at the Qalandia checkpoint on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, West Bank, September 6, 2005

There have been four major plans for Israeli settlements in the West Bank since 1967. They share a few basic principles. Each one sought to expand Jewish settlement; encircle the Palestinian population by solidifying Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley; fragment Palestinian communities within the encircled territory; prioritize settlement in the greater Jerusalem area, in order to sever Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank; and, with the exception of the two holiest cities of Hebron and Jerusalem, avoid planting settlements in densely populated Palestinian areas. In their main objectives, these plans have succeeded.

The first of the four plans, the Allon Plan, named after Yigal Allon, the former minister of labor who also served as chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Settlement, was never formally adopted but it did serve as guidance for government settlement policy from 1967 to 1977. It was the only settlement plan that simultaneously served as an Israeli peace proposal, though not one that had any chance of success. It called for Israel to annex a third of the West Bank along its eastern border, as well as an east-west strip in the narrow center of its kidney-shaped territory, leaving two, disconnected northern and southern cantons for the Palestinians, each one surrounded on all sides by Israeli territory. Israel later proposed that Jordan take over these cantons, which would be connected to Amman by a narrow corridor. Allon himself admitted that, as a peace proposal, it was a ruse: “No Arab would ever accept the plan and nothing will come of it, but we must appear before the world with a positive plan.” The lines of the proposed partition plan did not constrain its architect: Allon promoted Jewish settlement not only within the areas his plan allotted to Israel, but also inside those designated for the Palestinians, such as Hebron. 

By the time the right-wing Likud party came to power, in May 1977, the governments led by the center-left Israeli Labor party and its predecessors had established forty-eight settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, mostly in the areas that Israel planned to annex according to the Allon plan. 

The next plan was developed in 1977 by a subsequent chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Settlement, Ariel Sharon. It built on Allon’s plan, though Sharon promised that the settlements “will be more extensive than in the past”—a pledge on which he delivered. Sharon’s primary innovation was to add a new east-west line of settlements that would split the West Bank into not two, but three Palestinian cantons, while simultaneously adding a north-south strip of settlements inside one of them. Sharon said his goal was to insert a wedge of Jewish settlement between the large northern West Bank cities and those Palestinian citizens of Israel who lived in dense concentrations near the Green Line, so as to prevent Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank from developing into a “solid Arab bloc.” Within the Green Line, too, Sharon-era settlement policy aimed to increase the proportion of Jews and reduce that of Palestinians. Describing plans for an area within the Green Line, Raanan Weitz, then the head of the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division, which is funded by the state and implements its policy, said: “In Galilee, our solution must be to have a preponderance of Jews, with a very small Arab minority.” 

The third plan arrived a year later. Written by the joint head of the World Zionist Organization settlement division, Matityahu Drobles, it was essentially a more detailed version of the Sharon plan, further fragmenting Palestinian areas of the West Bank, referred to by the Israeli government as Judea and Samaria. Among its chief aims were to obliterate the Green Line by creating new Jewish settlements on either side of it, and to deploy Jewish settlements “not only around” Palestinian communities, but also as wedges “among them, in accordance with the settlement policy adopted in the Galilee” (within the Green Line). The plan explained the purpose of these wedges thus: 

To minimize the danger of the development of an additional Arab state in this territory. Since it will be cut off by Jewish settlements, it will be hard for the minority population to create territorial contiguity and political unity. There mustn’t be even the shadow of a doubt about our intention to keep the territories of Judea and Samaria for good. Otherwise, the minority population may get into a state of growing disquiet which will eventually result in recurrent efforts to establish an additional Arab state in these territories. The best and most effective way of removing every shadow of a doubt about our intention to hold on to Judea and Samaria forever is by speeding up the settlement momentum in these territories. 

The Drobles plan, updated in 1980, was implemented by the Israeli government, even as it was negotiating with Egypt over a possible arrangement to grant the Palestinians limited autonomy under Israeli rule. At that time, the Palestinians categorically rejected limited autonomy. But a little over a decade later, when their leadership was internationally isolated, financially depleted, thinned out by Israeli assassinations, and operating from exile in far-away Tunis, they accepted it. 

side by side view of two plans for the West Bank, Drobles and Oslo Accord

Mike King

The 1978 Drobles Plan for settlement development in the occupied West Bank; the redesignation of West Bank lands according to the 1995 Oslo II Accord

For its part, Israel wanted to stop having to police Palestinian cities. It was exhausted from more than five years of combatting a Palestinian popular uprising, the First Intifada. That revolt began with unarmed protests, shop closures, labor strikes, and consumer boycotts, but by its final years, the popular movement had petered out, giving way to the Intifada’s most violent period. In response, Israel imposed a closure on the West Bank and Gaza beginning in March 1993, while its security chiefs urged the government to find a political solution. The prime minister authorized Israeli officials to pursue secret talks with Palestinian representatives, whom Israel urged, through to the final negotiating session, to find a way to stop the uprising. The resulting autonomy agreements—the September 1993 Oslo Accord and its offshoots—established the Palestinian Authority; they still dictate its responsibilities and areas of operation to this day. 

By the time of Oslo, there were more than a quarter million settlers, including 111,000 in 120 West Bank settlements and 152,000 in a dozen settlements in East Jerusalem. The Oslo map was guided by two central principles: first, not a single settlement would be removed; second, Israelis would have territorial contiguity and the Palestinians would not. As a result, the Oslo map looks nearly identical to the Drobles map—except as a photo negative: whereas the Drobles map had the West Bank as a Palestinian kidney covered with twenty-two amoeba-shaped settlement blocs, the Oslo map, in order to make the blocs contiguous, turned the West Bank into an Israeli kidney dappled with 165 islands of Palestinian autonomy. 

The land of the Palestinian islands was divided into two types: the areas Israel was most eager to stop policing, the city centers, were categorized Area A; together, its disconnected parts make up 18 percent of the West Bank. Here, the Palestinian Authority administers most civil affairs and internal security, although Israeli forces are still present not just around but inside it every day. Palestinians have no judicial authority over Israelis anywhere in the occupied territories, including in Area A, where Israeli forces can and do arrest Palestinians at will, including for crimes such as car theft. Area B islands, which contain Palestinian towns and villages, make up another 21 percent of the West Bank. Here, Israel is in charge of security and the Palestinian Authority handles civil matters like health and education. 

The remaining 61 percent of the West Bank—in effect, the sea in which the Area A and B islands float—is annexed East Jerusalem and Area C, where Israel controls both security and civil affairs related to territory, including land allocation, planning, building, and infrastructure. Outside annexed East Jerusalem, every West Bank settlement, settler bypass road, national park, and military base is in Area C. In total, Area C, annexed East Jerusalem, the no man’s land near Latrun, and Green Line Israel constitute 91 percent of the land area of Israel-Palestine, excluding the annexed Golan Heights. The areas of limited Palestinian autonomy, in Gaza and the West Bank, make up the remaining 9 percent. 

There are roughly 300,000 Palestinians and more than 475,000 Israeli Jews living in Area C. Palestinians may legally apply to build only in communities for which Israel has approved a master plan, which is a rare occurrence. Lacking master plans in some 90 percent of their communities in Area C, Palestinians can apply to build legally in less than 1 percent of that area. Even within that 1 percent, Palestinians almost never receive the permits they request. From 2000 to 2020, according to official Israeli figures, Israel rejected more than 96 percent of Palestinian building permit applications. During the same period, Israel demolished thousands of Palestinian housing units, leaving some 10,000 people homeless. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of West Bank housing units were built for Israeli Jews. Of the public lands in the West Bank that Israel has allocated for any kind of use, approximately one quarter of 1 percent went to Palestinians. Israeli settlements and infrastructure were granted the remaining 99.76 percent. 

The Oslo agreements were designed to be temporary, to regulate affairs for a “transitional period” of five years, by the end of which Israelis and Palestinians were to agree on more permanent arrangements. Presenting the Oslo II Accord to the Knesset, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said that the permanent arrangement he envisioned would give the Palestinians “an entity which is less than a state.” The Palestinians hoped to get more. One month later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli implacably opposed to the accords.

In 1997, the year mandated by Oslo for negotiations over a permanent arrangement to begin, the World Zionist Organization settlement division published the fourth major settlement plan. Known as the “Super Zones” plan, it took Sharon’s three Palestinian cantons and turned them into four, surrounded by “buffer zones” and “super zones” of Jewish settlement. The zones covered half of the West Bank. The plan aimed to add nearly 115,000 people in forty-six new sites for West Bank settlement—goals that the Israeli government long ago surpassed. Today, there are more than 250 settlements in the unannexed parts of the West Bank—including cities, suburbs, industrial zones, rural communities, and “outposts,” which are settlements built without formal approval though in fact supported by the state with funding, construction, infrastructure, and defense—and more than a dozen settlement neighborhoods in the annexed areas of Jerusalem. Together, they have a population of more than 683,000 Israelis, one in every ten Jewish citizens. 

All plans for the West Bank have accommodated these settled facts on the ground. Oslo—the only Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that has been implemented—set a precedent by drawing a line that included every settlement within the area under full Israeli control. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later constructed the separation barrier, it was routed to include many of the major settlements, conforming very closely to the lines of his 1977 map. Sharon had originally planned a second separation barrier in the east, putting walls on both sides of the West Bank’s major population centers and taking over the rest for Jewish settlement, just as in his 1977 plan. And every peace proposal introduced by the US or Israel, from President Clinton’s 2000 parameters to President Trump’s 2020 Vision for Peace, has called for Israel to annex lands that contain either all or most of the settlers. 

Israeli leaders have offered different names for the Palestinian entity in the remaining, unannexed territories. Rabin called it “less than a state.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a state-minus,” or “autonomy-plus.” Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said, “From my standpoint, they can call it the Palestinian empire.” And Ariel Sharon, who did use the words “Palestinian state” and led the first Israeli government to officially endorse one, also described, in a conversation recalled by former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, the outcome he envisioned with a different word: “Bantustans.” 


VIII

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The burnt-out school bus at the crash site, near Jaba, West Bank, February 16, 2012

At the hospital in Ramallah, Abed heard from another parent that Milad was among three children who had been transferred from there to a different Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, at Ein Kerem, formerly the Palestinian village of Ayn Karim. Barred from going himself, he called a cousin in Dahiyat al-Salaam who had a blue ID. Over an hour later, the cousin reported back: there were indeed three victims of the accident there, but none was Milad. Then news came that the second school bus was returning to Anata. Abed called one of his brothers, asking him to go greet it. A few minutes later, his brother called: “Milad is not here.”

Further whisperings made their way to Abed throughout the day: your son is at the military base opposite al-Ram; your son is in an Israeli hospital; Israel has permitted Nour al-Houda parents with green IDs to cross the checkpoints to Jerusalem. Abed continued to stand at the door to the emergency room, refusing to answer questions from reporters. By late afternoon, most of the parents concerned had located their children among the roughly seventy-five kindergartners who had been riding on the two buses. Only Abed and a handful of others had not. 

Unbeknownst to Abed, in the room next to where he waited lay six corpses. One belonged to a thirty-nine-year-old teacher, Ula Julani, who had escaped from the bus, extricated several kindergarteners, and died after returning to rescue more; the school would later be renamed after her. The other five were children. Three of them were too burned to be recognized. Two others, a girl and a boy, were not. 

Although he wanted to go search for his son in Anata, Abed had a feeling that Milad was near him. Something inside told him that he shouldn’t leave. As the parents and children around him departed, he learned from the hospital staff that there were bodies in the adjacent room. He desperately wanted to go inside. His nephew, who worked in Ramallah and had joined him at the hospital, urged him not to. A doctor came out, saying that he wanted to select parents to identify the bodies that were recognizable. The doctor asked Abed the color of his son’s hair. “Blond,” Abed replied. “You need to stay here,” the doctor said. “The hair of the boy who can be recognized is black.”

At that moment, Abed confronted the very real possibility—what now seemed, in fact, like a near-certainty—that Milad’s badly charred corpse was on a table in the next room. He and his son Adam gave the medical staff DNA samples. Even so, Abed held out hope that Milad might be alive—there were still more parents missing children than there were corpses in that room; one family did not find their son at the Hadassah hospital until the following day. Perhaps Milad was at the Israeli military base, after all. Perhaps he was at a different hospital. Perhaps one of the bystanders who had transported victims in private cars had taken Milad to a home in al-Ram or Jerusalem, where a family was now feeding him and trying to locate his parents.


IX

In April 2014, National Vision—The Center for Zionist Leadership, a program for the political education and training of Israeli youth, hosted a lecture in Haifa by Dani Dayan, who was then the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of settlement municipal councils. Dayan had recently stepped down as chairman of the organization, which he had led from mid-2007 to 2013. Among his hires at Yesha was Naftali Bennett, now a prominent right-wing politician and a former minister of, among other portfolios, economy, education, and defense. During Dayan’s tenure at the Yesha Council, the West Bank settler population increased by more than one third. This despite the fact that it was the period of President Barack Obama’s first term, which Israeli officials had characterized as extraordinarily tough on settlements. “I am convinced that at some point in my tenure as chairman,” boasted Dayan, who was invited to meetings at the Obama White House, “the settlement [enterprise] in Judea and Samaria became irreversible.” 

Dayan was born in Argentina to a Jewish family that had come from Ukraine. On his parents’ wall there hung a portrait of Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, leader of the Revisionist movement that evolved into today’s Likud. In 1971, when Dayan was fifteen, his family immigrated to Israel. A decade later, his father became Israel’s ambassador to Guatemala. Dayan spent seven years in the Israeli army, and then founded and became chairman of Elad Software Systems, a technology firm with roughly one thousand employees. In 2016, he followed his father’s footsteps into the Foreign Ministry, becoming Israel’s Consul General in New York. Ahead of the March 2021 election, Dayan joined New Hope, a party recently founded by former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar.

That day in 2014, Dayan was introduced by National Vision’s founder, Ariel Kallner, who was then thirty-three years old. Today, he is a Likud legislator in the Knesset, where he is a member of the Caucus for Sovereignty (a parliamentary group that presses for annexing the West Bank), chair of the Caucus for Strengthening the Status of the Temple Mount (increasing Jewish prayer and presence at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in annexed East Jerusalem), and chair of the Caucus for the Fight Against Delegitimization and Anti-Semitism (combatting criticism and boycotts of Israel and its settlements). Kallner told the audience that before Dayan’s lecture on hasbara, the Hebrew word for “explanation,” which also has the sense of “propaganda,” his organization thought it important to provide havana, understanding, about the conflict. To that end, Dayan’s talk would be preceded by another one, delivered by David Bukay, a professor of political science at the University of Haifa. Dr. Bukay’s lecture was later posted to National Vision’s YouTube channel under the title “The Palestinians: The Parasites of the World.” 

Articles in the Israeli and international press often describe Dayan as charming. He has a friendly demeanor, portly frame, and cherubic face. His presentation that evening, “The Palestinians Talk About Justice, We Talk About Interests,” began with an analogy. The settlement enterprise, he said, was a table that stood on four legs. The first of these—“bringing a critical mass of people to Judea and Samaria”—was in place. If, in 1993, “there hadn’t been over 100,000 residents in Judea and Samaria,” he said, not counting settlers in annexed East Jerusalem, “the Oslo Accords would have included Israel’s total withdrawal. Just the fact that there were many residents, albeit many fewer than there are today, prevented an even worse agreement.” In fundraising, too, the settlements had done well: “We have a lot of moochers, in the good sense of the word, who go abroad and bring money for an ambulance, a synagogue, a school.” Missing, however, were the other three legs: political support within Israel’s main parties; backing by the Israeli public; and global advocacy “among opinion leaders—first and foremost in the US and Europe, the two elements that have the greatest influence and as a result have an effect on Israeli public opinion.” It was the absence of these three legs, he asserted, that had allowed Yesha to suffer its only significant setback in decades of settlement: Israel’s decision to “expel” its citizens and withdraw from Gaza at the height of the Second Intifada. 

Dayan was speaking in the final weeks of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry. A little over a year earlier, Kerry had told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time—a year, a year-and-a-half to two years—or it’s over.” Dayan mocked Kerry’s intelligence—“I was going to add an adjective to describe how smart he is, but I won’t”—and said his diplomacy was certain to fail. But with Kerry’s prediction of the imminent demise of Palestinian statehood he agreed: “We are currently, to some extent, at a historical point in the conflict, for the first time since the Peel Commission in [19]36–[19]37 that recommended partition,” he said. “The global community will realize that this issue”—a division of the land under Israel’s control—“should be taken off the table. It’s not going to happen. Not because the world doesn’t want this to be the solution, but because it understands that this isn’t the solution; it isn’t doable.” 

Dayan stressed that there were still many obstacles ahead, some of them self-created. “One of the things that most hinders settlement in Judea and Samaria is the Israeli standpoint that supports two states. It’s very hard—I admit—very hard to explain Israel’s policy that on the one hand says two states and on the other builds in Judea and Samaria.” For Dayan, this does not mean, however, that Israel should now promote alternatives, such as giving citizenship to the Palestinians, as some settlers, as well as leaders like Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, have proposed. “I think the ideas that are being voiced, also among us, about one state, granting citizenship, these are very dangerous ideas. We must head in entirely different directions. But to that end we must have enough time to increase the number of Jews who live in Judea and Samaria.” 

In many ways, Dayan was echoing the Zionist leaders of the pre-state era. They, too, had argued that international efforts to settle the conflict must be parried and delayed until Jews had achieved their goal of taking over the land and becoming a majority. Yet the task before the Yishuv, as the Jewish community in Palestine was called before the foundation of the state of Israel, was immeasurably more difficult than that of settling the West Bank today. In 1882, Vladimir “Ze’ev” Dubnow, a member of Bilu, the first group of Zionist settlers, sent a letter from Palestine to his brother, the renowned Russian historian Simon Dubnow. He wrote that the ultimate aim of the Jewish pioneers was “to take possession in due course of Palestine and to restore to the Jews the political independence of which they now have been deprived for two thousand years. Don’t laugh, it is not a mirage.” Jews were then 3 percent of Palestine’s population. “The means to achieve this purpose could be the establishment of colonies of farmers in Palestine, the establishment of various kinds of workshops and industry and their gradual expansion—in a word, to seek to put all the land, all the industry, in the hands of the Jews…. Then the Jews—if necessary, with arms in their hands—will publicly proclaim themselves masters of their own, ancient fatherland.”

Theodor Herzl, whom Israel’s declaration of independence calls “the spiritual father of the Jewish state,” was critical of what he referred to as these early “attempts at colonization,” arguing that it was mistaken to establish settlements before Jews had been granted a state. In his influential 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, Herzl wrote:

Important experiments in colonization have been made, though on the mistaken principle of a gradual infiltration of Jews. An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the Government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless we have the sovereign right to continue such immigration.

Herzl thus called for the Zionist movement to first win the support of the great powers for a Jewish state, preferably in Palestine: “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.” The Ottomans, however, rebuffed Herzl’s overtures, and in 1905 the majority of Zionists—who were then mostly from Eastern Europe and, contrary to widespread perceptions, religious—rejected the offer he had secured from the British to settle in East Africa, preferring to try their luck in the Land of Israel instead. 

From that moment until today, the Zionist movement has sought to explain the justness of its cause, which was the focus of Dayan’s lecture on hasbara. Why did a small number of Jews, coming mostly from the Russian empire, have the right to take over Palestine against the will of the native majority? In 1918, the Jewish Yishuv, which by then had grown to nearly 8 percent of Palestine’s population, argued against applying the normal principles of democracy and self-determination to Palestine. Ahead of the Paris Peace Conference, which decided the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, Yishuv leaders drafted a plan for a provisional government that “in all matters” would ensure “a decisive voice belongs to the Jewish people throughout the world.” The Russian-born Jabotinsky, a co-drafter of the plan, explained the need to thwart the establishment of representative democracy: “If there is a normal constitution here, responsible for the ‘majority,’ then the majority of us would never enter.” At a Zionist Congress debate thirteen years later, the Revisionist leader defended his illiberal demand that no democracy be established until Jews had a majority, arguing to his fellow Zionists that Herzl’s proposals had been even less democratic. In Herzl’s vision, Jabotinsky argued, “the country would be ruled by a Jewish administration before the Jews became the majority, as an instrument, a kind of mandatory power, for settlement.”

Even when presented for the first time with a proposal for partition that would establish a Jewish majority, which is what the Peel Commission plan of 1937 did under the British Mandate, the Yishuv’s leader, David Ben-Gurion, said that he would accept it only as a step toward obtaining the whole of Palestine. The Peel plan followed the same principle as its two-state successors: Jewish territory was assigned by drawing a line to encompass nearly all existing Jewish settlement. This left a small number of Jews in the area allotted for the Arab state, about 1,250 of them, and a large number of Arabs in the area of the Jewish state, 225,000. The plan called for both these populations to be transferred, noting that “room exists or could soon be provided within the proposed boundaries of the Jewish State for the Jews now living in the Arab Area. It is the far greater number of Arabs who constitute the major problem,” as there was no surplus of cultivatable land for them in Palestine. 

The most appealing aspect of the plan for the Polish-born Ben-Gurion was the idea of population transfers, which provided the Jews “an undreamed of possibility, one which we could not dare to imagine in our boldest fantasies.” Ben-Gurion was not alone. Both before and after the British had proposed it, many other Zionist leaders had also favored transfers, beginning with Herzl, who had written in his diary in 1895: “We shall try to spirit the penniless populations across the border by procuring employment for them in the transit countries, while denying them employment in our own country.”  

For Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leadership, the great flaw of the Peel plan was that it didn’t give Jews all of the land. During the dramatic Yishuv debate over partition, Ben-Gurion argued for accepting the proposal as an interim step toward obtaining Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. “A Jewish state on only part of the land is not the end but the beginning,” he wrote in a letter to his son, “[…] a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.” The Jewish state would have “an advanced defense force—a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best armies in the world,” he continued. “At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbors, or through some other means.”

His words proved prescient. It was only after the establishment of a state that the Zionist movement could undertake what Ben-Gurion, speaking then as prime minister, in 1951, called a “project of colonization far greater than all of the last seventy years.” When the UN had proposed its partition plan in 1947, giving to the 31 percent Jewish minority the majority of the land, the Yishuv then possessed less than 7 percent of the territory. Most of this land had been bought, largely from absentee landowners. After the ensuing 1947–1949 war had ended, Zionist organizations and the new state of Israel were able to take over most of the land in Mandatory Palestine, not through purchase but confiscation. By 1953, 350 of 370 new Jewish settlements had been established on Palestinian-owned land. Palestinian refugees of the war were not permitted to return. Thousands of Palestinian refugees were shot and killed as they tried to sneak back to their homes and reunite with their families under the cover of darkness. The land and property of Arab refugees was seized. So, too, was much of the land of the Palestinians still under Israel’s control, many of them internally displaced by the war and prevented from returning to their villages. 

Israel gave citizenship to the Palestinians within the Green Line, and trumpeted its democratic values to the world. But it placed them under a repressive military regime that imposed curfews, permit requirements, travel restrictions, bans on political parties, detention without trial, and closed security zones where Jews but not Palestinians could travel freely. In addition, Palestinian villages were blocked from accessing roads used by neighboring Jewish communities. The 1948–1966 military government meted out cruel punishments, such as forcing Palestinian citizens to walk several miles to report to a police station three times per day or to stand under a tree from sunrise to sunset for a period of six months. Children as young as eight were interrogated about their political views. Youth were clubbed during random ID checks. Punishments were given to those who failed to greet the military governor. Israel’s military rule could not be justified on security grounds: the Palestinian citizens of Israel were quiescent. Shortly before Prime Minister Ben-Gurion left office in 1963, Minister of Labor Yigal Allon told him that dismantling the military government would be “one of the smallest risks we have undertaken in the eighty years of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.” The main purpose of military rule, as in the West Bank today, was to facilitate land expropriation. 

Nearly a third of the territory under Israel’s control was placed under military government, a significantly greater portion than the 22 percent now under occupation. By 1964, Palestinian citizens of Israel had lost more than three-fourths of their land. At that point, the military government was no longer needed. It was shuttered in December 1966. As senior government officials decided which closed military zones would be opened and in what order, they stated that areas that had been closed to Palestinians for “land reasons”—preventing internally displaced citizens from reaching their homes—would be opened only “after stated conditions are fulfilled.” These included “demolition of structures in abandoned villages, forestation, declaration of nature reserves, fencing and guarding.” The military government ended but many of its methods of control were simply transferred to civilian bodies whose powers were expanded. The Arab affairs adviser to the prime minister said the change was mainly “psychological.” 

Six months later, when Israel conquered the Occupied Territories during the war in June 1967, a new military government was established. A new settlement project was launched. But by this time, the world had changed. So, too, had Zionism. Members of a new generation identified themselves more as Israelis than as Jews. The old ideologies that had propelled Zionist settlement in the pre-state era had withered. No longer resonant was the messianism of so-called secular (more accurately, “anti-rabbinical”) leaders like Ben-Gurion, who, in 1952, had spoken of “the great apocalyptic vision of Israel’s prophets, the vision of Jewish redemption within the framework of the salvation of humanity,” which “links national redemption with redemption of the world, Israeli independence with the reign of peace and justice for all people.” The disconnect between the hackneyed old slogans of socialist Zionism—“the creation of a classless socialist society and a world of brotherhood among peoples”—and the reality of Zionist practice was too great. 

Younger, secular Israelis lacked an ideology that could justify settling the newly occupied West Bank. Few could subscribe to the rationale of A. D. Gordon, the Russian-born ideologue of the influential second wave of Zionist immigration (1904–1914), which produced Israel’s first three prime ministers: “Whoever works harder, creates more, gives more of his spirit, will acquire the greater moral right and deeper vital interest in The Land.” What was said in 1937 by the spiritual leader of Labor Zionism, Berl Katznelson—“Never before has the white man undertaken colonization with that sense of justice and social progress which fills the Jew who comes to Palestine”—could no longer be uttered in 1967. The task of settling the Occupied Territories was thus left to the older generation of true-believing Labor Zionists—Yigal Allon, Yisrael Galili, and Yitzhak Tabenkin—as well as, increasingly over time, the religious nationalists who formed the ideological core of the settler movement. Neither group hesitated to defend Jewish settlement on the old Zionist grounds that, in Gordon’s words, “We have a deed to Eretz Israel, which has never ceased, and shall never cease, to be valid; this is the Bible.” 

In the decades that followed, a bitter conflict arose between the Israelis who believed these words and those who didn’t. Dani Dayan, pacing back and forth before his audience in Haifa, said that all Israeli governments had “dropped the ball” in their public diplomacy because they had failed to articulate the very simple fact of “our right to this land”: 

This is where it all begins. This is the basis for the entire matter. If you don’t explain your right to this land, and that doesn’t only mean Tel Aviv, but primarily your right to the sites that are the cradle of Jewish culture, the land of our forefathers, then you cannot succeed.

With the first Oslo agreement in 1993, the rift between religious Jews and secular Israelis came to a head. The influence of religious Zionists faced two challenges: first, from the influx of a quarter million non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union; and second, by the agreement to establish Palestinian autonomy in the part of the Land of Israel they called Judea and Samaria. Secular supporters of Oslo argued that the Zionist movement had always pragmatically accepted partition as a compromise, but to Oslo’s opponents, the deal was a betrayal of Zionism. There was a vast difference between what Ben-Gurion had done—accepting what he did not yet possess as a stepping-stone to obtaining all that he wanted—and what the government of Yitzhak Rabin had agreed to do—give away part of the historic homeland already in Israel’s hands. Worse still, for the opponents, the argument for Oslo undermined the entire basis of Zionism. If Palestinians had a right to self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza, then Jews did not. Which would mean acknowledging that the Bible was not, in fact, a land deed, that no group has the right to reclaim a territory after an absence of two thousand years, that refugees should not be prevented from returning on the basis of their ethnicity, that a minority group has no right to impose its will on the majority, and that, as elsewhere in the world, revanchist attempts to reclaim lost territories, even those much more recently lost, have little basis in modern ethics or law. Each of these arguments applied equally to Green Line Israel.  

Searching for a universal, non-Biblical justification for Israel’s existence, secular Zionists asserted that persecuted Jews had deserved a safe haven. But this argument contained a number of flaws. A need for refuge is not a license to dispossess. Zionists did not come to Palestine seeking to integrate into local society, but to establish their own exclusive state at the natives’ expense. The need for safe haven was not the original motivation for establishing a Jewish national home. As Michael Stanislawski, the Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, writes:

The all-too-frequent claim that modern Jewish nationalism was born in response to anti-Semitism or to the outbreak of violent attacks (“pogroms”) against the Jews which began in the Russian Empire in 1881–[18]82 is quite simply wrong: the first expressions of this new ideology were published well before the spread of the new anti-Semitic ideology and before the pogroms of the early 1880s. …the fundamental cause of the emergence of modern Jewish nationalism was the rise, on the part of Jews themselves, of new ideologies that applied the basic tenets of modern nationalism to the Jews, and not a response to persecution.

The original aim of modern Jewish nationalism was to prevent the assimilation of Jews into the nations in which they lived—the rescue of Jewish identity, not of Jews. When, in the period 1903–1905, the Zionist movement was presented with a choice between an actual, immediate refuge—offered by the British, in East Africa—and the pursuit of an uncertain dream in Zion, it was the argument for the latter that won. The pogroms that followed the rise of modern Jewish nationalism increased the attractiveness of Zionism for some Jews, but many more responded by immigrating to the United States. Even well after those pogroms began in 1881–1882, and until the end of the Holocaust, Zionism remained a minority movement, rejected by most rabbinic and lay leaders. Today, when Israeli flags are at the front of many American synagogues, it is easy to forget that during its first half-century, Zionism was a sect within a dissident sect: most Jews were not Jewish nationalists, and even many Jewish nationalists were not Zionists but members of the secular, socialist Bund, which called for Jewish autonomy in the places in which Jews resided, not in Palestine. Almost all the Jews who did seek to escape persecution chose to go elsewhere. From the start of Zionist settlement in 1882 to the outbreak of World War I, some 2.5 million Jews left Eastern Europe, mostly to America. Only 60,000 went to Palestine, of whom about 8,000 were committed Zionists—comprising less than 0.5 percent of the Eastern European Jewish emigration. More than half of these immigrants left Palestine.

In 1992, the year before Oslo, the two largest parties on the Zionist left, Labor and Meretz, secured nearly half the seats in the Knesset: fifty-six. Ahead of the general election in March 2020, the two parties decided that they had to join forces, together with a third party, Gesher, in order to cross the electoral threshold. The three parties combined won seven seats, leaving Labor and Meretz with three each. There are many reasons for the precipitous decline of the left in Israel, but among them is the ideological contradiction that Oslo revealed. The Israeli left had supported an agreement to establish Palestinian self-determination, albeit limited and fragmented, thus accepting that, at least in some parts of the historic Land of Israel, the proclaimed religious and historical rights of Jews did not supersede the rights of Palestinians. Yet the same Israeli left maintained that this principle did not apply in the rest of the land. It claimed that in Hebron, the collective rights of Jews did not take precedence over those of the native Palestinian majority, but in Haifa they did. To Dayan and the Yesha Council, today’s secular Zionism is unable to offer a convincing explanation of why Jews should have their own state anywhere in the Land of Israel. Its arguments sound, to the political right, like an insecure apology for Israel’s existence. 

Ahead of the 2015 election, Naftali Bennett, then head of the religious nationalist Jewish Home party, appeared in a campaign ad in which he dressed up as a bearded, bespectacled Tel Aviv hipster who spends an entire day apologizing—when a waitress spills coffee on him (“Excuse me, excuse me, I really didn’t mean…excuse me”), when an aggressive driver rear-ends his tiny car (“It’s my mistake”), when a woman snatches a rental bicycle out of his hands (“I really apologize, it’s OK, take it”). Then, sitting on a bench on chic Rothschild Boulevard, the epicenter of left-wing secular Zionism, he opens the liberal newspaper Haaretz, nodding in agreement as he reads a translated New York Times editorial headlined “Israel Needs to Apologize.” The ad ends with Bennett’s ripping off his hipster disguise, followed by a title card: “No More Apologizing. We Love Israel.”

Dayan himself is secular—even, according to one Israeli news article, “staunchly secular”—which, in Israel, means not non-belief but non-observance of religious commandments. In acceding to Palestinian self-determination in part of the Land of Israel, he argued, Israelis were undermining their claim to any of it. Settlers believed in a kind of domino theory, in which the renunciation of claims to part of the West Bank would eventually spell the end of a Jewish state. “Partition of the land between the Jordan [River] and the sea is also a security threat—and, to me, it’s even more than that,” Dayan said, “it’s a threat to the Jewish character of the state of Israel.” 

On the surface, the fight over the settlements and their annexation is about the borders of the state. At a deeper level, it is about what kind of state will lie within them. 

Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

Israeli and Palestinian activists protesting on Route 4370, near Anata, West Bank, 23 January 2019

Supporters of the settlements view the relinquishment of part of the historical homeland as the first step toward a liberal, universalist Israel that has renounced its Jewish particularism. The state of Israel has never recognized the existence of an Israeli nationality: Israel is the state of the Jewish people—viewed as a single nation, and spread, moreover, throughout the world. To establish an Israeli rather than Jewish nationality would be to create a separate nation from the half of the world’s Jews who live in the diaspora. This would sever millions of Jews—in Israel, of all places—from the Jewish nation that the state was founded to serve. 

This has been established in Israel’s national jurisprudence. After the 1967 war, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled on the case of Benjamin Shalit, a Jewish lieutenant commander in Israel’s navy who had married a non-Jewish woman born in Scotland. According to Jewish law, the children of a non-Jewish mother are not Jewish. Israel’s government had rejected Shalit’s request that the nationality of his children be registered as Jewish. Shalit, who was secular, then requested that his children be registered as “Israeli” or “Hebrew.” The government rejected this, too. The case created an enormous controversy, with secular Zionists asserting that anyone who believed himself to be a Jew could be registered as a Jew, and religious Zionists and others arguing that the creation of a new, non-religious definition of Jewishness, or the establishment of an Israeli identity, would sunder Israel’s ties to the rest of the Jewish nation and to Judaism itself, on which Israel’s claims to the land are based. In the words of Justice Moshe Silberg:

Whoever disconnects Jewish nationality from its religious foundations strikes at the heart of our political claim to Eretz Israel. Such disconnection is tantamount to the very act of treason.

Unlike some other nationalisms, Jewish nationalism is not territorially defined. In the United States and Australia, the colonists, who had a territorial definition of their nations, eventually absorbed what remained of the native populations, after decimating them and taking most of their land. In Israel, that outcome is not possible, so long as Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people. Every act of ethno-nationalist domination in the country stems from this: the state defines itself as belonging to one group, which millions of its inhabitants, who are part of another group, cannot join.

The Israeli “peace camp,” contrary to what the country’s political right and the settlers claim, has no desire to turn Israel into a liberal, universalist state with equality for all its citizens. It seeks, in fact, to preserve Israel as a Jewish ethnocratic state. The peace that it proposes is less one of reconciliation than of separation. In the words of Yitzhak Rabin, “It is better for the Arabs not to be swarming around here.” Religious and right-wing Zionists see enormous hypocrisy in the left’s presentation of itself as a noble seeker of peace, with the settlers cast as villains. In the Yesha Council’s monthly magazine, Nekuda, Vered Noam, a Tel Aviv University professor of Talmud and winner of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, described the Zionist left’s support for enclosing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza behind fences and walls in this way:

The left views a barrier as a didactic means, an accelerator of the Jewish recognition of the need to separate between the populations, an exercise in Palestinian statehood.… However, the central motivation is not the concern for the civil rights of the Palestinians. The continued suffocation and starvation of two million people [in Gaza] does not sit well with such a concern.…the true stimulus of the left is separation from the Arabs. The closure [of Palestinian areas] exposes a surprising similarity between the majority of leftists and the extreme right which upholds the idea of transfer [of Palestinians to other countries]. The central aspiration of both is to dispose of Arab presence.

Every Israeli settlement plan—from the Allon to the Sharon, Drobles, and Super Zones plans—discarded most of the densely populated Palestinian cities in Gaza and the West Bank, leaving them to the Palestinians for self-rule. Israel wanted to take over Palestinian land only when it didn’t require absorbing too many of its non-Jewish inhabitants. This Israeli aversion to integrating urban Palestinian areas—where Israel has instead implemented its policy of hafrada, or segregation—is the foundation of worldwide belief in the possibility of a two-state solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that “we don’t want to govern them,” and from this true statement a number of wild leaps have been made, most notably that autonomy in a handful of disconnected Palestinian cities can be stretched, bent, and twisted into a Palestinian state.

The Zionist left’s primary objection to annexation is that it would harm the goal of having as few Palestinians as possible within the borders of the Jewish state. One of the groups illustrating this was The People Against Annexation, formed in 2020. It was handsomely funded by a board member of the bipartisan pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, Stacy Schusterman, whose family foundation supports numerous Israel advocacy groups (in the 2020 election campaign, Schusterman donated $550,000 to defeat the Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and more than $1.2 million to a pro-Israel group that ran ads against Senator Bernie Sanders). The People Against Annexation was headed by the former Israel director of J Street, the Democratic Party-aligned pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, D.C. Among the ads produced by the organization was a poster demonizing Palestinians as Islamist terrorists by implying that annexation would mean renaming a Tel Aviv street after Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas. 

In addition, a slickly produced video promoted on social media displayed “the people” who were against annexation without including a single Palestinian citizen, despite their making up more than one in five Israelis. And, in a sign of how invisible the Green Line has become even for a group devoted to protecting it, the video showed imagery of annexed territory in the montage of “our country” and “the Jewish state.” The organization’s campaign partner was a group of former Israeli generals, intelligence chiefs, and other officials named Commanders for Israel’s Security, which had previously run its own anti-annexation ad meant to sow fear of a loss of Jewish control. Placed on signs and billboards throughout the country and illustrated in the Palestinian national colors, it displayed a crowd of Palestinians waving flags and raising victory signs above the words, in Arabic, “Soon, We Will Be the Majority.” At the bottom, the ad listed a phone number, “For Hebrew.” When called, a recording stated: “Are you sick of these Palestinian billboards? We are too. But they will disappear in a matter of days. What will not disappear are the millions of Palestinians who live in the West Bank. They want to be a majority. And we are supposed to annex them? If we don’t separate from them we will be less Jewish and less secure. We must separate from Palestinians now!”

For decades, the Zionist left has found itself stuck between a particularistic religious nationalism it abhors and an equally particularistic ethnocentrism that it depicts as universal and liberal. It valorizes an age of supposed liberal democracy prior to the Occupation, when the country kept its Palestinian citizens under military rule. It purports to embody the “founding values” of Zionism, while denying that those founding values are now being implemented in the West Bank. For the Zionist left, too, the annexation debate has been as much about the nature of the state as about its borders. Like those on the right, Israelis on the left believed that the decision taken over the fate of the West Bank would determine whether Green Line Israel would have a future.  

By expanding into the West Bank and erasing the Green Line, Israel had inadvertently called into question its claim to the territories it had conquered on both sides of it—not just in a moral or historical sense, but in a legal one, too. In 1977, months before he became Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Yehuda Blum, a professor of international law at Hebrew University and the primary architect of Israel’s argument that its settlements are legal, appeared before the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate at a hearing entitled “The Colonization of the West Bank Territories by Israel.” Professor Blum, whom the Israeli embassy had recommended as an expert witness, pointed out that much of Green Line Israel lay within the territory that the 1947 UN partition plan had apportioned to the Arab state, and accordingly was acquired as legitimately (or illegitimately) as the West Bank: 

I see no difference from the legal point of view between the juridical status of western Galilee and Nazareth, Ben-Gurion International Airport, and Jaffa, on the one hand, and Judea and Samaria, including East Jerusalem, on the other. Once the [1949] armistice agreement was terminated, we were back from the legal point of view to the situation as it existed prior to the conclusion of the [1948 war].

Because occupied East Jerusalem and the lands of twenty-eight surrounding West Bank villages were the only territories that Israel’s legislature had ever formally annexed, these areas were, in this sense, more part of the sovereign territory of Israel than many of the towns and cities within the Green Line.

At his lecture in Haifa, Dayan arrived at his most provocative and important point—“I want to explain why, contrary to what people say, renouncing Judea and Samaria threatens the Jewish character of Israel”—taking as his instance the centrist, secular Zionist head of the Yesh Atid party:

You are all familiar with Yair Lapid. Before he was a politician—or more precisely, before we knew he’s a politician—he hosted a talk show. He would often ask his guests at the end of the show: “How would you sum up Israeliness?” The guests replied with diverse answers. I will gather a whole group of them into one. There were answers such as: “Israeliness for me is sitting on the Tel Aviv promenade in a plastic chair, legs on the railing, opposite the sunset. Cold watermelon, Bulgarian [feta] cheese, a glass of cold beer.” No doubt, that’s a lot of fun. But if that’s what sums up Israeliness, that Israeliness cannot bear the weight of the Zionist ethos, the Zionist revolution. Because you can also sit in Santorini and have a glass of Ouzo, or the French Riviera with a glass of white wine, or even smoke a joint in San Francisco.

If we want the State of Israel to remain a Jewish state, it’s not about counting how many Jews and Arabs there are. Not that it’s not important, but it’s not the main component. In order for Israel to be Jewish at its core, it needs deep roots. Maintaining the Zionist revolution requires deep roots. We are in a neighborhood with many winds, and a tree that doesn’t have deep roots will tumble. The deep roots must be in the connection to the Land.… If Israel gives up [the West Bank settlements of] Shilo and Hebron and Beit El and Elon Moreh, with all that they symbolize, we will not be able to teach Jewish history and Bible in the schools. A child won’t be able to withstand such a vast dissonance. If that’s the case, Israel will become a superficial society, a shallow society, that doesn’t understand why it’s here. And that’s the biggest security threat to the State of Israel.

Dayan closed by offering his audience a final admonition:

I suggest you go online and search for a YouTube video of a gentile—an Arab, a Palestinian—by the name of Abbas Zaki, who was what they call a PLO ambassador in Lebanon. In this Lebanese TV interview, the interviewer asks him a question, and it’s apparent he understands what the Jews don’t yet understand. He says, strikingly: “If the Jews give up what they call Judea and Samaria and then Jerusalem is divided, there is no way the Zionist ideology won’t collapse.… It will no longer have a foundation. And then it will all be ours.” That’s why what we’re doing today is so important.


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Abed Salama

Milad Salama with his older brother, Adam, 2009

Abed received the DNA results the day after the accident. As he’d feared, Milad was among the three children too badly burned to be recognized. The family would hold the funeral that day, but because of the severity of Milad’s burns, Abed and other close male relatives could not wash him before the burial, as is required in Islam. Abed had not seen Milad since the night before the class trip. He wanted to accompany his body in the back of the ambulance as it rode from Ramallah to Anata. Abed’s brother stopped him, worried that the ride alone with Milad’s body would be too much for the father to bear. 

People from all over Palestine turned out for the funeral. “It all happened so quickly,” Abed told me, “I had no time to breathe.” From teachers, school staff, and relatives of other students, Abed pieced together what had happened the day before: Milad had indeed boarded the second bus that morning. It had seats for twenty people but twenty-six passengers were crammed inside. The larger bus, with room for fifty passengers, was also overfull. The larger bus was driven by the owner of the bus company, who lived in Jaba. When the buses arrived at the Jaba checkpoint, he got out and was replaced by one of his employees. The driver of the smaller bus objected to carrying too many passengers. Once his boss had left for Jaba, he demanded that the six extra students on the smaller bus be moved to the larger one. Despite the overcrowding, its new driver didn’t object. Milad was among the six told to move. The larger bus was a twenty-seven-year-old model, with flammable wood paneling inside. It was not properly licensed for a school trip. The back windows had been replaced with sheets of tin. 

Other details reached Abed later, from the Israeli indictment of the truck driver, Ashraf Qiqs. He was a Jerusalem resident from the annexed village of Beit Safafa, near Bethlehem, in his early thirties. He had received a license to operate a heavy vehicle only the previous year. His charge sheet contained twenty-five earlier traffic offenses. At around 6:30 AM the day of the accident, he left Beit Safafa to go to his job at a building materials factory near the northern tip of annexed East Jerusalem, in the Atarot Industrial Zone. He drove the tractor trailer through the nearby Qalandia checkpoint, heading north to stop first at a stone quarry at the settlement of Kokhav HaShahar, northeast of Ramallah.

Qiqs waited for the trailer to be loaded with cargo. The quarry was originally co-owned by the wife of a Kokhav HaShahar resident named David Kishik-Cohen, whose mother was an Argentine-born Mossad spy in Lebanon and whose brother was the Israeli ambassador to Egypt from 2009 to 2011. For more than two decades, Kishik-Cohen himself headed the Civil Administration unit in charge of supervising construction in the West Bank. Mostly, this involved evicting Palestinians and destroying their homes. But in his case, it also meant advancing a plan for a quarry that his wife would soon share ownership in. Qiqs left the quarry once his cargo was loaded, driving past the Jaba checkpoint on his way back to the factory. He dropped off the mined materials, then headed back out to the Qalandia checkpoint and on toward Kokhav HaShahar to pick up a second load. 

Located on a major West Bank road named after Yigal Allon, Kokhav HaShahar, which translates as “the dawn star,” was established by a 1976 cabinet resolution of the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin, with the encouragement of Defense Minister Shimon Peres. The lands on which it was built were seized by military order from the neighboring villages of Deir Jarir and Kufr Malik. The nearby Kokhav HaShahar Quarry is one of ten Israeli-owned quarries in the West Bank. They transfer 94 percent of their natural stone product to Green Line Israel, where it is used to construct buildings and roads, accounting for a quarter of all mined materials consumed by Israel. The remaining 6 percent of material goes to Israeli settlements, the Palestinian construction sector, and the Civil Administration, the Israeli governing body in the West Bank. Over the years, the royalties and fees paid by these quarries to the state has steadily risen, reaching $21 million in 2015. Since 1994, Israel has not issued a single permit for Palestinian quarrying in Area C, which contains most of the land that can be mined. The World Bank estimates that the Palestinians lose $241 million per year from Israel’s refusal to grant quarry permits to non-Israeli mining interests.

Seven weeks before the accident, Israel’s High Court of Justice had ruled on the legality of the Kokhav HaShahar Quarry, as well as nine other settler quarries in the West Bank. International law is not ambiguous about whether an occupying power is permitted to plunder the resources of the occupied. The laws of occupation are designed to prevent the colonization or annexation of conquered territory. Pillage is a war crime. But Israel’s High Court, which has approved nearly every internationally prohibited policy that Israel has carried out in the occupied territories—including deportations, assassinations, widespread use of imprisonment without trial, home demolitions, land confiscation for Jewish settlement, and collective punishments like mass curfews, school closures, and withholding electricity from millions of people—ruled unanimously that Israel was permitted to exploit the West Bank’s natural resources. The reason given by the court’s president at the time, Dorit Beinisch, who is considered a liberal justice in Israel, was that international humanitarian law, which defines all occupations as temporary, had to be bent because of the much more enduring situation in the West Bank:

As has been held on many occasions under our rulings, the belligerent occupation of Israel in the Area has some unique characteristics, primarily the duration of the occupation period, which requires the adjustment of the law to the reality on the ground.

When Qiqs drove back to the quarry, his Israeli indictment notes, rain was pouring, and the roads were very wet. He was on a long, straight stretch, with signs clearly marking the speed limit: 50 kilometers per hour (just over 30 mph). Qiqs was going 84 kph (about 53 mph) when he lost control. The truck crossed the double lanes and the trailer began careening across the entire width of the road, banging against the tractor’s cabin, whose front right corner hit one of the rocky walls without stopping. The truck kept moving toward the bus, its trailer swinging wildly. The bus slowed down but couldn’t avoid the truck, whose damaged cabin struck the front of the bus, shoving it backward. A moment later came the fatal blow of the lurching trailer, slamming into the bus and flipping it over. The impact caused a short circuit in the bus’s fuse box, igniting a fire that was fanned by that day’s strong winds. (Qiqs’s lawyer claimed—though the prosecutor disputed this—that the fire had actually started after bystanders rushed to help, tearing off the tin sheeting that had replaced the bus’s back windows and inadvertently opening a “wind tunnel.”)

Forty-six children were injured in the crash, two of them severely disfigured. The father of one five-year-old girl, Tala, testified that she had lost her nose, ear, and eyelids in the fire, was breathing through a device, and refused to leave the house because her appearance frightened other children. At the time of the trial, she had already undergone nearly a hundred surgeries and had still more scheduled. The bus driver had had to have both legs amputated and had suffered a heart attack and a stroke. The truck driver, Qiqs, sustained two broken vertebrae but was released from the hospital the day after the accident. Of the teacher and six children who died—the sixth being a boy who succumbed to his wounds several days after the accident—all but Milad were residents of Jerusalem. 

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Emergency responders at the crash site on the road between the Qalandia and Jaba checkpoints, West Bank, February 16, 2012

The families of the dead and injured victims formed a committee, with Abed at its head. The committee directed most of its energy and anger toward three bodies it held culpable to some degree: the school, which had sent the kids off in an old, unsafe bus that wasn’t licensed for school trips; the fact-finding commission of the Palestinian Authority, which didn’t meet with any family of the victims and was accused of whitewashing the negligence of the school and the ministries; and the PA Ministry of Education for its poor oversight of private schools, 90 percent of which, the fact-finding report revealed, do not comply with transportation regulations. On the parents’ committee Facebook page, one post showed a $1,000 check from the PA’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, to the family of a victim, commenting: “they underestimate our children’s value…they should open a full and impartial investigation to put things right.” 

The Palestinian newspaper al-Quds was criticized for refusing to publish the committee’s response to the fact-finding report; the group had to publish it on its Facebook page. Addressing the PA’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, the committee said, “we will not allow you to trade in the blood and torment of our children and kill them twice.” Elsewhere on the page, Fayyad was accused of not listening to the concerns of the people of Jerusalem, instead using the rare opportunity of an Israeli-approved visit to the city in order to register a new Guinness World Record for the “longest buffet of natural and organic food.” Other criticisms were directed at politicians who appeared at a dedication ceremony for a memorial placed on the stony wall of the crash site: “photo-ops at the expense of our children’s souls.” 

Left unsaid were criticisms of the policies the parents and politicians alike were powerless to change. Policies that so neglected Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents that they were forced to send their children to a private school outside the municipality, in the West Bank, under poor PA supervision, using a bus unfit for transporting kindergarteners. Policies dictating that the field trip could not take place in Jerusalem, because Israel had routed the wall around both green and blue ID holders—often members of the same family or students in the same school—yet permitted only those with blue IDs to cross the checkpoint. Policies that prevented life-saving services from arriving in time. 

Unlike parents with blue IDs, Abed wasn’t compensated by Israel after the accident. “It’s the same kids, from the same community, on the same bus, with the same teachers,” he told me. “But I received nothing from Israel, only because of the color of my ID.” After he filed for damages from an Israeli government fund for victims of road accidents, he received a letter saying his request was rejected because the accident took place in Area C. The law governing the fund specifies that those hit by Israeli vehicles must be compensated even if struck in Palestinian areas—for example, the center of Ramallah—but only if the victims are Israelis or tourists. Palestinians with green IDs are not eligible. On Area C roads, Palestinian and Israeli drivers both receive tickets from the same Israeli police, but summonses send Palestinians to military courts and Israelis to civilian ones. 

Abed scoffed at the notion that any party but Israel was responsible for roads in Area C. On the day of the accident, the PA police were obliged to request Israeli permission to travel to the site, receiving clearance only some two hours after the crash. Likewise, in the following days, Abed had had to travel to Ramallah to give testimony to the PA police, because the authority would have had to request Israeli permission days in advance in order to travel through Area C roads to reach him in Anata. “The Israeli police gives tickets on that road,” Abed said. “The Israeli government created that road. A driver with an Israeli license, operating an Israeli vehicle, hit the bus on that road. So how is Israel not responsible for what happens on it?”

Nearly a year after Milad’s funeral, Abed’s eight-month-old nephew, born months after the crash, got a high fever and died. Milad had been buried in the area of the cemetery reserved for the nephew’s family, because Abed didn’t have his own plot. Now the infant’s family wanted to bury him in the same plot as Milad. Abed didn’t like the idea at first. But then he came to see it as an opportunity to at last be reunited with Milad. 

The family dug open the grave. Before burying the infant, they left Abed, giving him the time alone with Milad that he had not been granted at the hospital or in the ambulance the year before. He paused a moment, looking down at the soil and the white shroud, Milad’s remains visible within it. Then he stepped inside the grave and said goodbye to his son. 

Ihab Jadallah

Abed Salama, with a framed photograph of Milad, West Bank, March 2021


XI

In the years after the accident, the parents’ committee had a few successes. It raised money to help pay for a portion of the surgeries and treatments for the two most severely burned girls. Anata finally got its first fire truck. USAID, the foreign aid agency of the US government, spent more than $4 million upgrading several Anata streets and enhancing the safety of the road where the accident had occurred, now fitted with a center divider. 

In its public relations materials and press releases, Israel boasts of the projects it “promotes”—that is, permits the US government and other international donors to pay for, so long as the projects conform to Israel’s long-term settlement plans. USAID paved some 236 miles of roads in the West Bank between 1999 and 2010, and continued road improvements in the following decade. 

Many of the US-funded projects in the West Bank are for upgrading main roads that also serve settlers. The Area C road of the bus accident, for example, is used not only by Israeli traffic police, but also by settler trucks and army jeeps traveling to the nearby military base. USAID has also paid to upgrade the infrastructure of a checkpoint, Jalameh, near Jenin. In the words of an official Israeli government master plan, the system of segregated roads in the West Bank—settlement roads built in order to “bypass the Arab population centers,” coupled with fenced-in underpasses for Palestinian villages Israel has blocked from accessing a main road, so that traffic is reduced for settlers—is referred to as a network of “bypass roads” for settlers and “fabric-of-life roads” for Palestinians. Among friends, however, Israeli officials can be more blunt. In a leaked State Department cable reporting on a 2006 meeting between Israeli officials and the US ambassador to Israel, both Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh and the adviser to Defense Minister Amir Peretz referred to them as “apartheid roads.” 

One day in the early years of Israel’s West Bank occupation, an official from apartheid South Africa visited Jerusalem, where he met its deputy mayor, Meron Benvenisti, and an adviser to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. “During lunch we discussed our work, and the visitor showed great interest in our ideas on how to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations by leaving the Palestinians alone to manage their own affairs,” Benvenisti recalled. “Suddenly he said, ‘How would you react if we were to invite you to advise the new regime in Transkei?,’” referring to one of the South African Bantustans that, like the areas of the West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority, were made up of separate patches of territory in which the native population had limited autonomy, with their own elections, parliament, civil servants, and flag. 

“We were shocked,” Benvenisti went on to explain. “His query implied that he considered our work comparable with their reactionary, racist schemes in the Bantustans. When we expressed our indignation, he smiled and said, ‘I understand your reaction. But aren’t we actually doing the same thing? We are faced with the same existential problem, therefore we arrive at the same solution.’”

In Israel’s liberal, anti-settlement circles, it is often asserted that the Occupation is a terrible blight, an aberration from the democratic values of the first nineteen years of the state. In fact, those years provided the template for the segregation, land confiscation, ethnic domination, and separate legal regimes for Jews and Palestinians that characterize the present-day West Bank. In more than seventy-two years of statehood, there have been only six months when Israel did not place most of the native population under military rule while it confiscated their land and deprived those people of basic civil rights. 

Since 1967, Israel’s policy has been to have its occupied subjects pay for their own occupation, primarily through Israeli-collected taxes (though also through Israel’s extraction of natural resources). The army’s blueprint “Operational Principles for the Administered Territories,” published in the war’s aftermath, states that “the economy of the administered territories should weigh on the Israeli budget as little as possible.” Today, much of Israel’s occupation is underwritten by the United States—not only through the $3.8 billion the US gives Israel every year, but also through infrastructure projects in the West Bank that are paid for from a separate USAID budget. Ostensibly, this is for Palestinian development; in practice, it means that US taxpayers are subsidizing the infrastructure of ethnic segregation in areas that Israel is steadily colonizing. In 2013, the year that USAID upgraded the Jaba road in Area C, the organization spent $440 million in the occupied territories, $50 million of it on infrastructure. The US provided an additional $3.4 billion to the Israeli military that year. 

During the 2020 presidential election campaign, Joe Biden repeatedly said that “silence is complicity.” But Biden couldn’t have been thinking of Israel-Palestine, for in the case of Israel’s ethnic domination of the Palestinians, the US is not merely complicit for its silence; it is an accomplice. 


XII

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.”

For a long while after the accident, Abed and his family had shut themselves in. Even relatives barely saw them. Seven months after the funeral, Abed deleted every video of Milad, as well as all but two photos of him. The sight of them was too painful, but in time, Abed used one of those surviving images of Milad as his profile picture on the messaging service WhatsApp. 

Then, two years ago, as the anniversary of Milad’s death approached, Abed saw a Facebook post by Milad’s cousin, Rama. Though she and Milad had attended the same school, she was several years older than him, and Abed didn’t think they had been close. Rama was now seventeen. In her post, she wrote affectionately about Milad, reminding her friends and family of the upcoming anniversary. Abed went to Rama’s home to ask her why, these years later, she was writing about Milad. “I was the last one who kissed him before he died,” she replied. “Before Milad got on the bus, he gave me a chocolate Kinder Egg, and I kissed him on the cheek.”   

One of the last times I saw Abed was at his home in Anata, on the day that the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, in a September 15, 2020 ceremony on the White House lawn. The UAE characterized the agreement as a step that would prevent Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. It seemed more like a capitulation to Israel’s de facto annexation of the lands of Anata and other West Bank towns. “Ask any Palestinian and they will tell you the same thing,” Abed said. “Israel annexed everything already.”

Weeks after my visit, Abed and his family moved to al-Bireh, part of greater Ramallah. One evening in late February this year, a few days after the nine-year anniversary of the crash, he and his brother Bashir, a video editor at Al Jazeera news, met me at a café near Abed’s new home. Abed said he left Anata because he worried about raising Milad’s older brother, Adam, there. “There is no police station in Anata, no law in Anata, just mafia rule,” Abed said. “The population is ballooning. Outsiders have moved in to be closer to Israeli jobs. The kids are using drugs. I wanted a different atmosphere for my son.” Abed told me he also felt more “freedom” in Ramallah than in the walled-off confines of Anata. It was still a Bantustan, but a larger, less shrunken one at least.

Adam, now a tall, dark-haired eighteen-year-old, joined us a few minutes later. Like most people in the café, he wore no mask. Neither Abed nor any of his relatives had received a coronavirus vaccine. A few hundred yards away from the café stood the West Bank headquarters of the Israeli Civil Administration at the Jewish settlement of Beit El. All its adult residents had been offered vaccinations, as had the rest of the Israelis in Area C, annexed East Jerusalem, and within the Green Line. So, too, had the country’s permanent residents, visiting diplomats, and foreign journalists. That week, Israel had even confirmed a promise of tens of thousands of doses to countries that had taken steps to recognize Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. But almost no Palestinian in Gaza and the West Bank had been vaccinated. To import vaccines from abroad, Palestinians need Israeli permission. Nader Morrar, the paramedic who arrived first at the site of the accident, spent a year battling the coronavirus crisis in the West Bank, and he, too, had not been given a vaccine. In February, Israel provided two thousand doses for frontline Palestinian health care workers, but Nader and his colleagues in Ramallah were not able to get any. In March of this year, he contracted the virus.

As we parted, Abed thanked me for the box of treats I’d given him, saying that his seven-year-old daughter had just asked him to bring home something sweet. Milad, whose name means birth, died a year before she was born. They named her Fidaa, which means redemption. She is a year older than my middle daughter, Tessa. And our families share a connection: Tessa’s beloved babysitter, Sana’a, is a cousin of Abed’s niece. As a toddler, Tessa would insist on calling Sana’a “mama,” even crying once when she overheard Sana’a explain to a stranger that she was Tessa’s babysitter, not her mother. Tessa is pampered most of all by Sana’a’s sister, Intisar, who showers Tessa with presents on practically every visit, and occasionally makes photo slideshows of Tessa, adorned with heart-emojis and set to music. 

Intisar, who does not have children of her own, lives close to Abed’s old home inside the walls of the Shuafat-Anata enclave. I’ve driven by that ghetto countless times without considering the lives of the people inside it. But passing it in recent months, I’ve thought often of Abed, and Milad, and especially of Intisar, who heaps affection on my daughter, a Jewish girl living a life of privilege on the other side of the wall. 

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