Israel’s Rule Over the West Bank Is an Apartheid Regime

World attention has understandably focused on the horrific violence Israel is inflicting upon the people of Gaza. But the brutal apartheid system in the West Bank has also been intensifying, along with the lethal violence used to enforce it.

Street views of the Israeli wall that divides the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem from Israel, January 6, 2024. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

Nathan Thrall published A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy on October 3, 2023, four days before Hamas and other Palestinian militants launched a deadly ground invasion of Israel from the Gaza Strip. After October 7, one-quarter of Thrall’s book tour appearances in the fall were promptly canceled, in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, DC, all for more or less the same reason.

Venues did not want to stoke “controversy” by hosting an event that seemed remotely critical of Israel or sympathetic to Palestine. But Thrall’s speaking engagement at the University of Arkansas was canceled for a different reason — because Thrall, an American Jewish journalist who lives in Jerusalem, refused to sign a pledge to not boycott Israel. Arkansas is one of thirty-seven states in the United States that has passed a law that restricts participation in the Palestinian Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement.

Given that Thrall is a Jew who lives in Israel, it’s ironic that his refusal to formally repudiate the BDS movement would prevent him from performing a speaking engagement in Arkansas. However, it’s also fitting, given the way BDS is modeled after the Anti-Apartheid Movement opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. Thrall’s book documents the Palestinian experience of living in what nearly every human rights organization in the world has called an apartheid state.

The Death Road

An elaboration of an essay Thrall wrote in 2021 for the New York Review of Books, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama details a horrific school-bus accident that occurred north of Jerusalem in 2012. All of the school children riding in the bus, which collided with an oncoming semitruck, were Palestinian.

Even though the accident occurred in an Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank, on an Israeli-controlled road, authorities from Israel did not reach the scene for over thirty minutes. By this time, a fire had already ravaged most of the school bus and all of the children had either been rescued or recovered by bystanders.

What would be a nightmare for any parent took on a Kafkaesque dimension for Palestinians living in the West Bank. The bystanders who rescued and transported the children from the school bus could only admit the children to hospitals which they, the drivers, could access. The parents of the children, upon learning about the horrific accident, could similarly only search for their children at the hospitals that their IDs would permit them to enter.

The West Bank, which has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967, is divided into three areas: A, B, and C. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has full de jure (if not de facto) control over Area A, partial control over Area B, and no control over Area C. Area C comprises over 70 percent of the West Bank and is the only contiguous area in the territory, while Areas A and B are archipelagos surrounded by swaths of Israeli control. To travel between these islands of “Palestinian control,” which are often enclosed by walls and fences, one must pass through Israeli military checkpoints.

The school-bus accident occurred in Area C on what is known as a “bypass road.” These bypass roads were built by Israel to accommodate the movement of Israeli settlers, helping create continuous corridors in which Israelis can travel from Jerusalem to the settlements in the West Bank while minimizing contact with Palestinians.

This particular bypass road had been abandoned by settlers after Israel replaced it with a newer one and is now almost completely used by Palestinians. It is nicknamed “the death road” because it is so steep, winding, and narrow.

A Beam of Light

A single event like a collision between a school bus and semitruck can act like a beam of light that refracts through the multifaceted prism that is Israel-Palestine, exposing a tale of two cities (quite literally, in the case of Jerusalem and East Jerusalem). It’s a powerful literary device, but not a contrived one: the story is entirely factual, and the well-researched book includes dozens of pages of endnotes.

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama collapses and expands both time and space, dedicating multiple chapters to the minutes-long rescue operation, described in excruciating detail based on interviews with those involved, while spending a few paragraphs in another chapter summarizing decades of Israeli policy. The effect of this is not disorienting, although at times the flow of the book can feel somewhat halting and the prose a little barren. Given that this is a work of nonfiction, though, I would much rather engage with clear, direct, and concise language than have to bushwhack my way through overwrought sentences full of polemics or sentimentality.

The book not only documents contemporary life under Israeli occupation but also touches upon the process and fallout of the Oslo Accords, as well as long-running disagreements between Palestinian political groups. It discusses tensions between Palestinians who stayed on their land within Israel and those who were forced to flee after 1948, as well as between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews living in Israel and West Bank settlements, the dynamics of the first and second intifada, and much more.

Thrall accomplishes this sweeping tour of history through the rendering of compelling vignettes of over a dozen people, Israeli and Palestinian, who are in some way implicated by the accident. Each one of these characters helps the reader understand not only the accident but the historical, sociopolitical context in which it occurred: the female United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) field doctor who leads the rescue effort; the Jewish settler who lives less than a mile way; the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) colonel who is close friends with Abed’s cousin, who works, to the dismay of the Salama family, for the PA’s security forces; the Israeli Reserves colonel who drew the post-Oslo West Bank maps with the directive to exclude as many Palestinians as possible without ceding any Israeli territory.

Though these character sketches are in some sense instrumental, Thrall manages to also portray subtle folds of their individual personalities. In general, he is careful not to flatten the humanity of any of the characters, who are indeed real people, by subsuming them into historical categories.

The most striking example of this is the way we are introduced to the protagonist, Abed Salama. We first learn about him through a history of his multiple marriages, the retelling of which does not always flatter him but situates him within a culture that would be unfamiliar to most Western readers. Abed’s romantic choices are not only shaped by his culture and personal feelings but also by exigent political calculations.

In order to humanize those seen as “the other,” there is a tendency to flatten people into the lowest common denominator, like an anonymous father who weeps for his lost child. Although the empathy one feels for Abed in this regard is almost automatic, and very powerful, Thrall does not rely too heavily upon this base empathy. The real power of the book is that it does not try to contort Palestinians into figures indistinguishable from the reader but rather deconstructs the very idea of “the other” by portraying a variety of complex Palestinian individuals, all of whom exist in specific cultural, political, and interpersonal contexts.

Separate but Unequal

Although attention has been understandably focused on Gaza since October 7, the situation in the West Bank has also severely deteriorated. Since the war on Gaza began, over 350 people have been killed, over three thousand injured, and over 5,600 arrested in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where millions of Palestinians have been on strict lockdown for months (farmers were not even allowed to harvest their olive trees in the fall). Over a dozen Palestinian villages in the West Bank have been evacuated because of targeted violence by Israeli settlers, who are emboldened by the Israeli government and a powerful deluge of anti-Palestinian sentiment.

An elaborate system designed to keep two populations as separate and unequal as possible should be familiar to anyone living in the United States. As should the fact that such systems are not overturned as a matter of historic inevitability but through collective struggle and public pressure. Given the prominent role of the United States in Israel-Palestine, all Americans would do well to learn more about life there and the consequences of US policy.

The purpose of anti-BDS laws and a general culture of censure pervading this country is to discourage such engagement. But as long as books aren’t banned, you can still read A Day in the Life of Abed Salama.