On a rainy February day in 2012, a semitrailer crashed into a school bus full of Palestinian kindergarteners outside of Jerusalem. One of the children onboard was 5-year-old Milad. In A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, journalist Nathan Thrall tells the story of Milad’s father, Abed Salama, a Palestinian man who lives in a walled West Bank enclave that Thrall passes nearly every day. As he traces Salama’s frantic and often thwarted search for news of his son, Thrall maps the landscape of this border region between Israel and Palestine and the people caught there — from the bystander who pulls children off the burning bus to the paramedic from the settlements who transports them between hospitals. It’s the story of a crash, but also of checkpoints, poorly maintained roads, and a segregated ID system that turns people into prisoners of circumstance and birth on both sides of the militarized border. It also means the difference between life and death; as Thrall writes, half an hour after the crash, “not a single firefighter, police officer, or soldier had come.” Instead, it’s the ordinary civilians, both Palestinian and Israeli, who intervene and are forever changed by the tragedy. The book, released in early October, feels prescient. But it has landed in a highly contested climate: In the wake of Hamas’s deadly attack on Israel and the country’s siege of Gaza, many of Thrall’s scheduled readings and events have been canceled or postponed, including in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Washington, D.C.
On the night before the accident, Milad Salama could hardly contain his excitement for the class trip. “Baba,” he said, tugging at the arm of his father, Abed, “I want to buy food for the picnic tomorrow.” They were at the apartment of Abed’s in-laws, who owned a small convenience store a few steps away. Abed took his 5-year-old son through one of the narrow alleys of Dahiyat a-Salaam, a neighborhood in Anata, where they lived.
On a street with no sidewalks, they inched their way between the parked cars and stalled traffic. A matrix of cables and wires and string lights hung overhead, dwarfed by the looming tower blocks that rose four, five, even six times higher than the separation barrier, the twenty-six-foot-tall concrete wall that encircled Anata. Abed remembered a time, not so long before, when Dahiyat a-Salaam was rural and bare, when it was still possible to spread out, not up.
Inside the store, Abed bought Milad a bottle of the Israeli orange drink Tapuzina, a tube of Pringles, and a chocolate Kinder Egg, his favorite treat. Early the next morning, Abed’s wife, Haifa, who was slim and fair like Milad, helped the boy into his uniform: a white-collared shirt; a gray sweater bearing the emblem of his private elementary school, Nour al-Houda; and the gray pants he had to keep pulling up to his small waist. Milad’s 9-year-old brother, Adam, had already left. A white school van honked lightly from the street. Milad hurried to finish his usual breakfast of olive oil, zaatar, and labneh, mopping them up with a piece of pita bread. Smiling broadly, he gathered his lunch and treats, then kissed his mother good-bye and scrambled out the door. Abed was still asleep.
When he got up, it was gray outside and raining heavily, with gusts so strong he could see people on the street struggling to walk straight. Haifa watched out the window, frowning. “The weather is not good.”
“Why are you worrying like this?” Abed said, touching her shoulder.
“I don’t know. Just a feeling.”
Abed had the day off from his job at the Israeli phone company, Bezeq. He and his cousin Hilmi drove together to buy meat from his friend Atef, who owned a butcher shop in Dahiyat a-Salaam. Atef wasn’t there, which was unusual. Abed asked one of the workers to check on him.
Atef lived in a different part of Jerusalem, Kufr Aqab, a dense urban neighborhood of tall, unregulated, and haphazardly built apartment towers that, like Dahiyat a-Salaam, was cut off from the rest of the city by a checkpoint and the wall. To avoid the daily traffic jams and the wait at the checkpoint that could last for hours, he took a circuitous route to work.
Atef reported that he was stuck in horrible traffic. There appeared to be a collision ahead of him, on the road between two checkpoints, one at the Qalandia refugee camp and the other at the village of Jaba. Moments later, Abed received a call from a nephew. “Did Milad go on the outing today? There was an accident with a school bus near Jaba.”
Abed’s stomach turned. He left the butcher shop with Hilmi and got into his cousin’s silver jeep. They drove down the hill through the morning traffic, past the teenage boys starting work in the auto-body shops with Hebrew signage for Jewish customers, past Milad’s school, and then alongside the wall. The road bent around the housing developments of the Neve Yaakov settlement and climbed the steep hill to Geva Binyamin, a Jewish settlement also known as Adam, the same name as Milad’s older brother.
At the Adam junction, soldiers were stopping cars from approaching the accident site, creating gridlock. Abed jumped out of the jeep. Hilmi, assuming the collision was minor, said good-bye and doubled back.
It was raining when Abed stepped out of Hilmi’s SUV at the Adam junction. The closer he got to the site of the accident, the more anxious he became. His walk turned into a jog until he saw a green army jeep approaching. He hailed it, telling the soldiers, in Hebrew, that he thought his son was on the bus. He asked them for a lift. They refused. And now Abed started to run. He couldn’t see the bus at first, his view blocked by an 18-wheel semitrailer stopped across two of the road’s three lanes. Dozens of people were crowded together, including parents he recognized who had raced to the scene.
“Where is the bus?” Abed asked. “Where are the kids?” A moment later, he caught sight of it, flipped on its side, an empty, burned-out shell. Abed saw no children, no teachers, no ambulances. Within the crowd, he spotted a cousin he didn’t very much like, Ameen. Years earlier the two had been in a vicious fight that put Abed in the hospital. Ameen now worked for the Palestinian Preventive Security Organization, which acted as Israel’s enforcer in the urban centers of the West Bank. He was known to be one of the corrupt officers who shook people down.
“What happened?” Abed asked.
“Terrible accident,” Ameen replied. “They carried the burned bodies out of the bus and laid them on the ground.”
Abed ran from Ameen, his heart pounding. Who would tell a father something like that? This was the first Abed had heard of anyone dying. Now the dreadful image could not be erased. Abed went deeper into the crowd, Ameen’s words echoing in his mind.
Rumors swirled around him, passing from one bystander to another: The kindergartners had been taken to a clinic in a-Ram, two minutes up the road; they were at Rama, the Israeli military base at the entrance to a-Ram; they were at the medical center in Ramallah; they had been transferred from Ramallah to Hadassah Hospital at Mount Scopus. Abed had to decide where to go. With his green ID from the West Bank, he would not be allowed to enter Jerusalem and check at Hadassah. The rumor about a-Ram seemed unlikely, given that it had no hospital. The medical center in Ramallah seemed most plausible. He asked two strangers for a ride. They had just traveled two and a half hours from Jenin and were headed in the opposite direction. But they agreed without hesitation. It took a long time to inch their way out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic at the accident site. On the Jerusalem-Ramallah road they passed the play center where the class should have been by now, Kids Land. It had on its rooftop a giant SpongeBob, one of Milad’s favorite cartoon characters.
That same morning, Huda Dahbour left her Ramallah apartment and struggled through the wind and rain to meet her staff at Clock Tower Square. A 51-year-old endocrinologist and single mother, she managed a mobile health clinic run by UNRWA, the U.N. organization for Palestinian refugees. She had been at the job for 16 years, working at UNRWA’s Jerusalem headquarters until Israel made it impossible for her to enter the city. Now she treated patients in a mobile clinic in the West Bank. Today, the clinic was scheduled to make its regular visit to the the Bedouin encampment of Khan al-Ahmar.
Three members of her medical team joined her at Clock Tower Square. Getting into the minibus, they greeted their driver, Abu Faraj, a Bedouin man with white hair and a white mustache. In addition to driving, he served as a sort of cultural adviser, helping Huda and her team navigate local rivalries and tribal customs.
Leaving Clock Tower Square, Abu Faraj called the sheikh of Khan al-Ahmar to confirm that Huda and her team were on their way. The villagers had prepared a ceremonial welcome tent to greet them before the U.N. staff treated the women, children, and men. Heading south, the team sang along, as they always did, to Fairuz, Huda’s favorite singer. After they stopped to pick up the data entry clerk at the Qalandia refugee camp, the pharmacist, Nidaa, said she felt nauseated. Huda thought she looked pale. A young mother of two small children, Nidaa was several months pregnant with a third. Huda told Abu Faraj to pull over so they could get her some food. They turned off at a roundabout and entered a-Ram, an urban area surrounded on three sides by the separation wall. It was cold, wet, and dreary. They drank tea and ate ka’ek with zaatar and falafel. Now running late for Khan al-Ahmar, they exited a-Ram for the Jaba road and came face-to-face with a horrific sight: a school bus flipped on its side, its doors against the ground, its front engulfed in flames.
The Jaba road was originally built to take settlers to and from Jerusalem without having to enter Ramallah. It was one of many such bypass roads, designed to reduce commute times for the settlers, give them a sense of safety, and create the illusion of a continuous Jewish presence from the city to the settlements. After Israel built new bypass roads, this one came to be used mostly by Palestinians.
It had been carved through an escarpment, forming a deep chasm with tall rocky cliffs on both sides. The village of Jaba perched atop one cliff; a-Ram was on the other. The road had two lanes heading toward the Qalandia checkpoint and one going in the opposite direction, toward the Jaba checkpoint, and there was no center divider. The single eastern lane served as the main route around blocked-off Jerusalem for some 200,000 people, but the Jaba checkpoint was not permanently staffed. Soldiers were there to stop cars mostly during the morning and evening commutes to reduce the flow of Palestinian traffic onto a road shared with settlers. So at rush hour, the Jaba road was clogged with a long line of Palestinian buses, trucks, and cars. As drivers neared the bottleneck, only minutes after having escaped the maddening gridlock at Qalandia, some would overtake slow-moving vehicles by veering into a lane of opposing traffic. This had caused so many accidents that the artery came to be called “the death road.”
Huda asked Abu Faraj to pull over. People were exiting their cars and converging around the overturned school bus. Because the road was wet and oily, Abu Faraj stopped the van sideways to prevent oncoming cars from sliding into the gathering crowd. Huda and her team jumped out and rushed to the front of the bus. Behind it they could see an 18-wheel trailer truck that had come to a diagonal halt across two of the road’s three lanes.
Salem, one of the onlookers, lived just a few hundred feet away. He had kept his children home that morning because of the pelting rain and heavy fog. In all his 38 years, he had never seen rain like that. He was on his way to work when he saw the overturned bus, stopped his car in the middle of the road, and ran toward it.
Huda called to Salem and a few other men nearby to get the driver out. As they began to pull at him, he yelled to them to save the children and their teachers. Until that moment, Huda hadn’t realized there were children on the bus. Her colleagues would remember the children screaming, but Huda either erased the memory or blocked out the sound. Together with Salem, they yanked at the driver, whose body was stuck and his legs aflame. When they finally managed to free him, the rain doused the fire on his legs.
They laid him at the side of the road, the smoke still rising from his knees, and rushed back to the front of the bus to reach for a teacher, who had been sitting behind him. While they were grabbing her, she shouted that they should leave her and save the children. At this, Nidaa began to convulse and shriek. Huda hurried her back to the UNRWA van and told her not to get out.
Abu Faraj, in the meantime, was directing traffic, keeping a path clear for the eventual evacuation of the wounded. He now ran past the burning bus and splayed semitrailer to the Jaba checkpoint a few hundred feet down the road, thinking to beg the soldiers there to help with the rescue. The smoke was visible at the checkpoint, but the soldiers, who seemed frightened, shouted at him to stay back and not come any closer.
At this point, the fire was too fierce to continue pulling anyone out from the front of the bus. But it had not yet reached the back, where, as far as Huda could see, most of the children were crammed. Salem wanted to break the rear windows to get the children out. Huda wasn’t sure it was a good idea. No one had a better one, though, and there seemed to be no soldiers, police, fire trucks, or ambulances on the way, despite people in the crowd who kept frantically phoning the Israeli and Palestinian emergency services. One of Huda’s team even called a relative who worked in the Palestinian parliament.
Huda and the others close to the bus agreed that Salem should smash the rear windows using a small fire extinguisher, which one of the bystanders had brought from his car. The moment the back window shattered, Huda heard a whoosh of oxygen and saw the flames around the bus shoot up into the air. The fire now doubled in height, sending up thick, black plumes of smoke that rose above the cliff.
Huda watched in shock as Salem crawled into the burning bus. He could hear the kindergartners crying and screaming. Some of them tried to climb up on the overturned seats and jump to the windows above them. Two teachers managed to escape through the smashed windows and brought several of the children out with them.
Salem, hunched in the bus, had managed to open some of the side windows. He and one of the teachers, Ula, lifted the children up and through the back of the bus as Huda and the others formed a line, handing the kindergartners down one by one. High above the road, at the top of the cliffs, dozens of villagers had gathered from Jaba and a-Ram. Some of the Jaba Bedouin brought large tanks of water that they poured onto the flames and through the open bus windows, helping to keep Salem and Ula from burning. At the side of the bus, the crowd tried to hose them down using small fire extinguishers.
Ula and Salem managed to rescue dozens of the children. As they progressed toward the front of the bus, where the flames were strongest, the children they reached were in worse and worse shape.
Nader Morrar was the first paramedic on the scene. He’d received a call from dispatch at 8:54 a.m. reporting that a bus had rolled over on the Jaba road. The caller did not say whether the bus was empty or not. Nader knew the accident site — he had heard people call it “the death road.” He assumed Israeli ambulances would get there first, since the road was in Area C, the more than half of the West Bank that remained under total Israeli control, governed by its army, patrolled by its police, and within the jurisdiction of its emergency services.
To get to the site from where he was stationed at the Palestine Red Crescent headquarters, Nader would have to drive through the walled-off neighborhood of Kufr Aqab, which in heavy rain could flood so badly that cars would be underwater. Then on to the Qalandia checkpoint and the pileup on the single lane leading to the accident, about four and a half miles all told. In this weather, the journey would usually take around a half hour.
To his surprise, he made it in ten minutes. More surprising was that there were no Israeli emergency services, no army, no police. Nader could see people up on the cliffs overlooking the road, waving their arms and shouting. To his left was the overturned school bus, still burning. Several bodies lay on the ground. “Mass casualty incident,” Nader radioed to headquarters, calling for backup.
Nader moved with some discomfort. He had been a student at Birzeit University during the Second Intifada, when Israel had shut the main road to the school. At a protest calling for Israel to reopen Birzeit, a soldier shot Nader in the leg, fracturing his femur. It took two surgeries and a year of rehabilitation for him to recover, and he had dropped out of school. Inspired by the medical team, he enrolled to become a paramedic. A decade later, working for the Red Crescent, he was again shot in the leg by Israeli forces.
Now he had barely stepped out of the ambulance before people rushed at him to take the dead. The fire was so intense there was no way to approach the bus. Two adults were lying on the asphalt, each with what looked like third-degree burns and both struggling to breathe. One was a teacher; the other was Radwan, the bus driver, who had multiple fractures and was severely burned. Nader and his driver loaded them onto the ambulance for immediate evacuation. The only option was to take them to Ramallah — if they attempted to go to Jerusalem, they could waste valuable time or even lose a patient while waiting at the checkpoints for permission to carry the victim on a stretcher to an Israeli ambulance on the other side.
Eldad Benshtein had woken up early at his home in Tekoa, a settlement in the dry yellow hills southeast of Bethlehem. He had to be in Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood at 7 a.m. to start his shift at Mada, Israel’s national emergency medical service. Nestled at the foot of Herodion, the mountain where King Herod the Great built a palace fortress in his name, Tekoa offered spectacular 360-degree views of the West Bank. To Palestinians, the flat-topped peak was known as Jabal Fureidis, Little Paradise Mountain.
Eldad hadn’t been born in Tekoa, not even in Israel — he had moved at age 11 from Moscow with his parents, both doctors. In Russia they had worked on ambulance crews. Eldad thought it was more exciting to be a paramedic than a doctor, and at 16 he began volunteering at Mada, years before he joined the staff. He was now 33 and had the look of a biker, with an earring, a shaved head, and a goatee.
His ambulance was on the way to a call in Pisgat Ze’ev, the settlement next to Anata, when the dispatcher radioed that they should change course and head to an accident on the Jaba road. Eldad knew only that the crash involved a truck. There was no mention of children or a school bus. The rain was coming down hard. With sirens on, the ambulance sped to the Jaba checkpoint, where soldiers waved them through. They first came to the giant semitrailer splayed across the road and saw fire and smoke rising behind it. As the driver squeezed around the side of the semi- trailer, crowds of Palestinians up on both ridges overlooking the road shouted and gestured at them to advance. There was the bus in flames, flipped over, and there were several dead children laid out on the ground. Jumping from the vehicle, Eldad yelled in Hebrew, “Is there anyone on the bus? Anyone on the bus?” Half the people didn’t seem to understand and the rest were too distressed to notice him.
It was 9:09 a.m., 24 minutes after the bus had crashed. Eldad was the first Israeli on the scene. Just as he got there, an army ambulance drove in from the opposite direction, coming from the Rama military base less than a mile up the road. But there were still no fire trucks in sight. Eldad went back to his vehicle to call in a mass casualty event but couldn’t tell if the transmission had gone through. He tried his cell phone — no signal — then urged the army doctor to call Mada through his IDF communications system. The fire in the bus was raging and there was no way to enter it. Eldad began talking to the army doctor about triage, though with every passing moment he was more certain that any passengers left on the bus would be dead by the time the firefighters arrived.
Several minutes later, he saw Palestinian fire trucks coming from the direction of the Rama base and then he heard sirens. When more Mada ambulances pulled up — now 34 minutes after the crash — he asked if anyone had got his radio messages. They had, which meant additional ambulances were en route. One of the Mada drivers, an old, experienced hand, said they should position the ambulances in a single file, facing Adam, to leave room for other emergency vehicles and be ready to speed to Jerusalem as soon as they had the injured on board.
Eldad stood in the rain, watching with dread as the Palestinian firefighters extinguished the inferno. The whole thing took no more than 15 minutes, though it felt much longer. When the last of the flames were doused, the firefighters climbed into the skeleton of the bus. The call rang out: no bodies. Eldad began to breathe again.
After Salem had carried the last child off the bus, he felt faint and nearly passed out. He didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he didn’t feel as if he could move his body. The arrival of the Palestinian firefighters seemed to revive him, and Salem began to yell. “You’re an hour late!” he screamed. “You killed them! You killed our children!” He said it over and over, to every paramedic, firefighter, and police officer, whether Palestinian or Israeli.
Salem was taken to an Israeli ambulance to receive first aid and was given a shot to calm him. At first, he didn’t realize where he was. As soon as he did, he ran off. Then he refused to sit in a Palestinian ambulance. “You killed these children!” he wailed again. To everyone and no one, he continued shouting that the Palestinian and Israeli rescue workers were child killers.
Israeli soldiers were at the site by this point, and one of them approached Salem. In a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic he demanded that Salem explain his accusation. The Palestinians at least had the excuse of heavy traffic from Ramallah, Salem said. And they weren’t allowed to have police or fire trucks in the towns close to where the accident happened — they weren’t even allowed to be on the Jaba road without Israeli permission. But still they’d arrived first. The Israelis had no excuse.
All Salem’s customers at his tire-repair shop were Israelis. He’d been inside their settlements for his work and he knew they had ambulances and fire trucks. There was a fire truck and ambulance in Tel Zion — the big ultra-Orthodox settlement above Jaba. The fire station at the Pisgat Ze’ev settlement was two miles’ distance as the crow flies. He’d seen ambulances parked in Adam, less than a mile away — so close you could see the entrance from the burning bus. The Jaba checkpoint was even closer, just down the road, near enough to smell the smoke. There was a water tank there, and the soldiers surely had fire extinguishers. How come the Jaba Bedouin managed to haul their water tanks to the cliff, but not a single Israeli soldier showed up? What about Rama, the military base? Where were the soldiers and medics and jeeps and water tanks and fire extinguishers? If it had been two Palestinian children throwing stones on the road, the army would have been there in no time. When Jews are in danger, Israel sends helicopters. But a burning bus full of Palestinian children, and they show up only after every kid has been taken away? Salem concluded: “You wanted them to die!”
The moment Eldad Benshtein realized he wasn’t needed, he got away from the site as fast as he could. He stopped the ambulance near Adam to smoke a cigarette and calm himself before heading back to Jerusalem. The scene he’d left — the burning smell, the charred bodies, the wailing crowd, the bones of the bus — had taken him back to his first days as a volunteer, during the 1990s, and the string of suicide bus bombings, which he had privately named the time of the flying buses.
Eldad returned to Mada headquarters and was directed to transfer one of the children from Hadassah’s Mount Scopus complex to its campus in Ein Kerem. The emergency room looked like a war zone. Families blocked the hallways, holding injured children who had been brought by car and were waiting to be seen. He had been sent to pick up Tala Bahri, a girl from Shuafat Camp. He couldn’t have known, but she was considered one of the most beautiful girls in the school, with large amber eyes, long curly hair, and an irresistible smile. Now she was unrecognizable — severely burned, unconscious, anesthetized, and intubated for mechanical lung ventilation.
On the way to Ein Kerem, Eldad heard on the radio that Mada ambulances were heading to Qalandia to receive patients for transfer from Palestinian ambulances, which were not allowed past the checkpoint. Most of them were injured children coming from the hospital in Ramallah because they needed better care in Jerusalem. It was only then that Eldad began to grasp the scale of the tragedy. He brought Tala to the shock trauma unit and left the ER, stepping into a small garden on Hadassah’s grounds. There he stood alone and wept, for Tala, for the dead children, for the suicide bombings all those years ago.
As Eldad returned to the ambulance, a TV news crew approached him for an interview. His wife was at home in Tekoa watching the news and saw her husband, who seemed confused, struggling to find words. She had never seen him look so lost.
When Abed reached the hospital in Ramallah, he forced his way through a bedlam of shouting parents, children on stretchers, doctors, nurses, police, photographers, and Palestinian officials. He gave Milad’s name at the reception desk and was told there was no information on his son. Abed began searching in the hospital rooms, where he saw many of Milad’s classmates and their families. He was pleased for the parents who had found their children, although they barely noticed him amid the commotion. He asked everyone whether they had seen Milad. No one had.
Abed returned to the reception desk, saying that he had checked in every room and his son was nowhere to be found. “Your child was on the second bus,” someone called over the din. “That one wasn’t in the accident. It went to a-Ram.” This was the first Abed had heard of a second bus. He called his friend Ziad Barq, 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 was on the second bus. He’s fine.” Scarcely able to trust this miraculous news, Abed left the hospital lobby to stand for a moment in the rain outside.
Soon, a parent told him that Milad had actually been transferred from Ramallah to Hadassah in Jerusalem. With his green ID, Abed couldn’t go there himself, so he called a cousin in Dahiyat a-Salaam who had a blue ID, which allowed him to enter Jerusalem. About an hour later, the cousin reported back: A few of the injured children had been admitted, but not Milad. Then Abed got word that the second school bus was on its way back to Anata. He phoned one of his brothers, asking him to go meet it. Several minutes passed and his brother returned the call: “Milad is not here.” The families were buzzing with news and rumors, which were passed on to Abed throughout the day: Milad is at the military base outside a-Ram; he’s in a hospital in Israel; the army’s letting Nour al-Houda parents with green IDs into Jerusalem. Abed felt as if he were being dunked in barrels of water: first boiling, then freezing. Hot, cold, hot, cold, hot again, cold again. He stayed in Ramallah, by the ER, refusing to answer the reporters who kept pestering him. His younger brother Bashir, who was a video editor at Al Jazeera, came to wait with him together with a nephew. All the while, his phone did not stop ringing, many of the calls from journalists and radio stations. Abed wouldn’t speak to them — he was too anxious. He gave the phone to Bashir, telling him he would talk only to Haifa.
But when Haifa called, she had no news, either. She was waiting at home with Adam and his four sisters, where people were dropping in — teachers, classmates, other parents — and contradicting each other. Someone claimed she had seen Milad get on the second bus. Someone else said he’d been on the first one. Another maintained that he hadn’t even gone on the trip.
Adam’s class had been dismissed at morning recess. He was thrilled until he saw the teachers crying and heard from a friend that Milad’s bus had been in an accident. He got a ride home with Haifa’s brother-in-law, who drove the boys to and from school each day. Entering the house, Adam realized that he had forgotten his lunch that morning and then saw it sitting on his bed. He ate his ka’ek with falafel, lay down, and fell asleep for the rest of day, as if his brain wanted to protect him from the worry. When he woke up, hours later, he found his four sisters crying, clutching Milad’s clothes and breathing in his scent.
Excerpted from A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, by Nathan Thrall. (Metropolitan Books; October 3, 2023).