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The Endless Occupation, a New Understanding

Nathan Thrall, interviewed by Matt Seaton

On March 19, 2021, we published Nathan Thrall’s extraordinary piece “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama.” It describes the experience of one Palestinian father after a deadly road crash in the West Bank in 2012, in which a school bus carrying Salama’s son collided with a large truck on its way to an Israeli-owned quarry. With this wrenching story as his starting point, Thrall explores the long history of how the West Bank came to be first occupied and then widely settled by Israel, creating the conditions that led to this particular human tragedy.

Courtesy the author

Thrall is the former director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group, one of the most respected independent research and analysis organizations in the foreign affairs arena. He is now a full-time writer, based in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and their three daughters. A contributor to the New York Review (and, once upon a time, an editorial assistant at the magazine), he has published a series of articles over recent years—notably in The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, and the London Review of Booksthat have defined the new intellectual and political parameters for what is increasingly recognized as Israel-Palestine’s one-state (or post-two-state) reality.

I was excited to publish Thrall’s article this week not only because of its ambition and scope, but also because it breaks new ground for him as a writer, liberated from the strictures of being purely an analyst. In this new register, his account made viscerally real for me anew much that I thought I knew about the conditions of life under the endless occupation. In the hope that it will reach as many readers as possible, we have made the story freely available for the next two weeks, including through the period of Israel’s general election.

My first question to Nathan this week was about what he saw as his overriding purpose in putting this piece in front of our audience. It begins, he said, with “the view prevalent among American elites that in Israel-Palestine there are two national movements—Jewish and Palestinian—that have equally legitimate legal and moral claims to the same piece of land, which must be divided in the form of a partition, with 78 percent or more for the Jewish-controlled state and a maximum of 22 percent for the Palestinians—a fair resolution because ultimately the main dispute is over the West Bank and Gaza territory that Israel conquered in the 1967 war.

“Every aspect of that analysis is wrong,” he told me. “Because most of the liberal elite support a two-state partition, the starting point of their understanding is not the reality on the ground but rather their preferred ‘solution.’ I wanted to put aside these ideological framings and simply describe reality as it exists today: Israel not just controls but fully administers over 90 percent of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and the Palestinians have very limited autonomy in the remaining less than 10 percent.”

The article reminds us of the moment back in 2013 when Secretary of State John Kerry sat before a House committee and predicted that the two-state solution then had no more than two years’ life left in it. The next year, Kerry caused a storm by saying that Israel risked becoming “an apartheid state.” Amid the diplomatic and public relations rumpus that followed, he was obliged to walk the comment back, but that use of the A-word marked a stunning moment of recognition from a member of that same US liberal elite. It was, in effect, a signal of an opening for Thrall, too.

“Today, we’re at an unusual moment in American understanding of Israel-Palestine,” he said. “There is now agreement across the political spectrum that there is no point in conducting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because a resolution of the conflict is not even on the horizon, let alone imminent.

“The question is, where does this new point of agreement lead?” he continued. “There is no denying that the current reality—whatever name you choose to use for it, whether ethno-nationalist domination or apartheid or colonization—is one of deep injustice and domination based on the ethnicity of the dominated group. Today’s reality in Israel-Palestine is at odds with everything the United States claims to stand for. So what is the justification for the US to continue to provide Israel with economic, military, and diplomatic backing, when we can all agree that this situation—of ethno-nationalist subjugation—is, if not permanent, at least indefinite?”

That is, in effect, the very big question his piece leaves with its American readers. I wanted to know how he’d come to make this whole arena his avocation, his cause even. In a strange resonance, given the central incident of his article, the answer involved a fatal road accident.

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“On their way back from visiting me in Los Angeles in 2003, my grandparents drove off the side of a road, their car tumbling down a steep embankment. My grandfather survived. My grandmother did not,” he explained. “I immediately quit my job—I was then working as a low-level cog in the wheel of Hollywood film-editing—and moved back home to the Bay Area to help my family pick up the pieces. A couple of months later, my mom said to me, ‘You know, your grandmother always wanted to live with you in Jerusalem. Why don’t you take one of these free Birthright trips?’ I’d never been to Israel before that. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Except that another bit of that history involves the Review—and Robert Silvers. “I was working as one of his editorial assistants, occasionally proposing, meekly, that I might write something for the paper,” he said. “Finally, he agreed that I would report on Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s so-called ‘state-building’ program—‘Fayyadism,’ as Thomas Friedman enthusiastically called it, was all the rage in Washington at the time—which was supported as a matter of wall-to-wall bipartisan consensus. My piece took a dissenting view, and Bob did me a great honor by putting it on the cover.”

It got noticed, including by Rob Malley, then at the International Crisis Group (and now the Biden administration’s special envoy to Iran), who soon saw to it that Nathan was hired. I wonder now how he, established as a longtime resident of Jerusalem with his family, navigates issues of belonging, loyalty, and indeed dissent.

“Part of the appeal of living here,” he answered, “is that I’m an outsider. That has its costs, of course, but also its advantages. One of those advantages is that I can be critical without it stirring an inner torment; my identity is not grounded in being of this place. I am not an Israeli. But I do feel responsibility for what is happening here, not least because these policies are being carried out in the name of all Jewish people, and also because, as an American, I’m paying for it.”

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