A doctor without borders

Having worked in an Israeli hospital and lived in Gaza, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish has been a close witness to both sides of the conflict.

Izzeldin Abuelaish 521(MCT) (photo credit: MCT)
Izzeldin Abuelaish 521(MCT)
(photo credit: MCT)
For many years, gynecologist Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, 56, was largely known as “the doctor from Gaza,” an allusion to his unique status as the only medical doctor from Gaza to practice in an Israeli hospital.
“Within the borders of a hospital everyone is equal. There is no Jew, Palestinian, Left or Right,” he says. “There are just human beings.”
And this has been the life work of this doctor without borders: to bring down the barrier of enmity between Israelis and Palestinians. At every turn and in every forum, he has advocated coexistence between the two communities. Abuelaish trained in Israeli hospitals, treated infertile Israeli couples and delivered their babies.
Fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew and boasting a sprawling network of both Palestinian and Israeli friends, he embodied this vision.
The doctor from Gaza remained resolute in his vision of coexistence, even in the midst of Operation Lead Cast, launched in response to the escalating number of Kassam rockets fired into Israel by Hamas, which turned Gaza into a war zone. It was only a matter of time, he told his eight children, until a cease-fire would stop the mayhem. He had already decided to accept a job offer in Canada, and when he discussed it with his family, his daughter Aya was delighted. “I want to fly, daddy,” she said.
Nowadays, Abuelaish has become better known, perhaps defined, by the tragedy that visited him on January 16, 2009, at 4:45 p.m. It is a tragedy etched into the local collective memory, largely because it was delivered live, directly into Israeli living rooms and then posted on YouTube.
News anchorman Shlomi Eldar was presenting the news on Channel 10 at the time. During the program, his mobile phone started vibrating, and he saw Abuelaish’s name flashing on the phone’s screen. Abuelaish was his contact in Gaza, giving interviews and updates on the situation on the ground. Sensing news in the making, Eldar decided to take the call onair.
What followed was the heart-wrenching wailing of a grief-stricken father.
“My God, my God, they killed my daughters, Shlomi,” Abuelaish screamed.
“I wanted to save them, but they are dead. They were hit in the head. Allah, what have we done to them? Oh God.” The wailing continued as Eldar left the studio, explaining that he could not hang up.
Seconds before, an IDF tank shell had ripped through the wall of Abuelaish’s apartment and exploded in his daughters’ bedroom, where they were reading and doing homework.
“The sight I saw, I hope no other person ever has to witness,” he would later write.
Three of his daughters were dead – Bisan, 22, Mayer, 15, and Aya, 14 – as was his niece, Noor, 14. Their bodies were dismembered.
Five months later, in June 2009, Abuelaish decided to write his story. The result is I Shall Not Hate, a searing account of a bereaved father trying to salvage some solace in the face of a terrible tragedy. It is a beautiful, touching, hopeful tribute to the three daughters he will not see again and the legacy they leave behind. The book has already been translated into 15 languages, notably Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish.
Throughout the narrative, Abuelaish explains the motivation and circumstances that have led him to the conclusion summed up in the book’s title.
“I still believe in peace,” he reaffirms.
“Everything is still possible. The only thing which is impossible is to have my daughters back, but I need to move forward, into the light, motivated by the spirits of those I have lost.”
ABUELAISH’S STORY made headlines in Australia long before he landed in Sydney, and by the time he arrived for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, he enjoyed celebrity status.
Securing an interview with him required careful planning by his Australian publisher. I was granted a slot between an on-stage interview and a book-signing session.
On introduction, Abuelaish offers a firm handshake. It has been a long night, he tells me. He is still suffering the effects of jet lag and was up all night listening to US President Barack Obama’s speech framing US policy in the Middle East. This morning, Abuelaish’s phone is abuzz with congratulatory text messages: In his speech, Obama alluded to “the Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza.”
“I have the right to feel angry,” Obama quoted from the book, “so many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is: I shall not hate. Let us hope for tomorrow.”
Does Abuelaish sometimes lose his optimism? “Never!” he replies without hesitation. “Sometimes I feel, well, discouraged or upset, but I wait for the wave to subside and then I stand up again.”
He registers my surprise: “If I gave in to hate and revenge, it will never help me or others. Hate is destructive to the hater, not the hated,” he says, wagging his finger. “Hate is blindness; it is a disease, a toxin.”
He also refused to hate the day after his daughters’ deaths. While in Sheba Medical Center, where his 17- year-old daughter, Shadha, was undergoing emergency surgery (her eye was blown out of its socket during the blast), he gave an impromptu press conference. His words were angrily drowned by Levana Stern, whose son, she said, was a paratrooper serving in Gaza.
“Who knows what you had in the house?” she screamed at Abuelaish, an insinuation that gave rise to rumors that he had harbored guerrillas in his home, none of which was true.
He nods his head at the mention of this incident. He remembers it well.
“The only thing we harbored in our home was love and hope. But she did not want to listen. She just wanted to vent her anger. She was shouting louder to get herself heard. The following day, I was asked to comment on her outburst. I said I wanted to meet her and listen to her, but I want her to listen to me, too. We met and I told her how I felt and what I believed. I hope she will come round to seeing things like I do.”
Neither aloof nor self-effacing, Abuelaish is a proud Palestinian who is determined to meet Israelis on an equal footing, or as he says, “at eye level.”
“Palestinians are not less intelligent than the Israelis,” he says, “and we want peace, security and dignity just as much. Israelis cannot be secure as long as the Palestinians are not. Peace has to be just and good for both sides.
Both sides need freedom, security, dignity.”
In his attempt to promote this vision of equality, he sent his children to attend peace camps in the US for Israeli and Palestinian children so that they, too, could meet as equals and not view one another through the prism of the conflict.
I Shall Not Hate charts Abuelaish’s life story from the squalor of the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, where he was born, to Toronto, Canada, where he now lives.
His parents hailed from a well-to-do family in a village called Houg, now the site of former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s farm. In the aftermath of 1948, they fled their home and found themselves refugees in the Gaza Strip.
At 15, he saw his home being demolished to widen the street for Israeli tanks to move through. It was a childhood of hard knocks and grinding poverty.
School was his only salvation. Abuelaish saw in education his only hope of improving his lot. He took on menial jobs to support his family while continuing to go to school. From these humble beginnings, he went on to study medicine in Cairo and, later, train as an obstetrician at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba. He relates these changes of fortune without animosity or vengeance, but as a means of explaining where he and many other Palestinians have come from. One of the strengths of his narrative is, indeed, its composed, understated tone.
He describes the devastating results of the blockade imposed on Gaza in simple prose, without slipping into hyperbole and superlatives; he enumerates the breakdown of essential services, especially medical services, matter-of-factly. When he recounts the frustrations that are part of a Gazan’s daily misery, he doesn’t apportion collective blame or lapse into generalities. The soldiers at the checkpoints are not all nasty; some even seek his medical expertise and greet him.
But what comes across clearly is the frustration and humiliation that he, along with many other decent people from the Gaza Strip, has had to endure on a daily basis all his life. Examples and anecdotes are laid bare for the reader to share and experience: the border crossings with their many haphazard, ad-hoc rules and regulations; the interminable delays at checkpoints; the unpredictable closure of the Erez crossing; the hostile gaze from young soldiers; and the runaround Gazans are forced to endure before they can cross to, or from, Israel.
NONE IS as poignant as his account of when his wife, Nadia, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Since there are no adequate medical facilities in Gaza, she was transferred to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. Abuelaish was abroad when he heard the news and rushed to be by her bedside. His attempt to reach the hospital after landing in Amman is a catalog of excruciating bureaucratic failures and callous indifference. At every checkpoint, he told the guard that he was a physician working in Israel, explained the urgency of the situation, presented his identification documents, pleaded and appealed to be allowed through – but all to no avail. At every turn he was brushed aside, told to come later or sent away. At one checkpoint he was wrongfully arrested when a soldier failed to read his permit correctly.
It took him over 30 hours to cover a journey that would ordinarily take less than an hour by car. By the time he got to the hospital, his wife was in a coma.
Three days later, she died.
And yet he is not consumed with hate or driven by anger; he remains steadfast in his belief that peace is attainable.
How representative is he of Palestinian attitudes? He reflects before responding. “I am a representative of myself and what I believe in. And I hope people will listen to my message.”
Does he fear for his life? “No, never, under any circumstances. I am a religious man and I believe in my way; this is my life and this is my voice.”
Throughout the book, this idea comes across forcefully: the conviction that everything has a purpose, that from bad can come good, that human nature is good in essence and good will prevail.
Immensely readable, this book is not a political treatise or a blueprint for a resolution of this conflict. That is not its aim. But in conversation with Abuelaish, it is not clear what kind of resolution he envisages. He avoids questions about Hamas, its charter, its intransigence and unwillingness to accept Israel’s existence.
Will the Palestinian refugees be allowed to return? He clearly does not wish to be drawn into a discussion of this kind.
“I feel we should avoid formal declarations for now,” he tells me. “Each individual, each community, each leader, each nation, must take responsibility. The road map is there. We just need the car to drive it and go.”
The book ends with Abuelaish’s relocation to Canada, where he takes up a teaching and research post at the University of Toronto. Is he happy in his new home? “Very happy!” he exclaims, beaming. “Canada has worked out to be everything I’d hoped for.”
He expounds on the achievements of his five children at school and at university, bursting with a father’s pride. “But home is still Gaza,” he qualifies. “It is where my heart is, where my wife and daughters remain. My soul is there.”
His talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival is given to a packed house, and the audience sits rapt. Here is a man whose life was turned upside down by tragedy; the magnitude of his loss is unfathomable. And yet this humanist remains true to his vision. His optimism is indefatigable; his faith unshaken.
Noses are blowing into handkerchiefs and eyes are streaming as he reads a poem in memory of his daughter Bisan. Finally he tells the audience: “There is a way forward, we can break the chain of violence and we can live in peace.” This is met by a thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
“I think he should be cloned many times over and sent to both Israel and Palestine,” remarks one lady to her friend on her way out.