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Turning the other cheek in Gaza

When an Israeli rocket killed his children, this Palestinian doctor took a vow: not to hate


 

Izzeldin Abuelaish

Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor and infertility expert, lives in Toronto with his five children. He used to live in Gaza with his eight children, but on Jan. 16, 2009, the day he and his family decided to take up the offer of a medical professorship in Canada, an Israeli rocket struck his home, killing three of his daughters and a niece. The tragedy wasn’t uncommon in Gaza that January—approximately 1,300 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, died in the 23-day assault—but Abuelaish’s response was.

Within minutes he was on the phone to a close friend, Shlomi Eldar, an anchor for Israeli TV’s Channel 10. With the Israeli forces barring the media from Gaza, the Hebrew-speaking Abuelaish had become a key source for Israeli reporters; Abuelaish and Eldar spoke almost daily. Even in his shock and pain, Abuelaish knew that if his wounded relatives (another daughter, another niece, a brother) were to survive, he had to get them not to the nearby Palestinian hospital, which was overwhelmed by thousands of casualties, but to Israel. Eldar came through for him, taking Abuelaish’s call on his cellphone while live on air, which allowed the anguished exchange to be captured on video and later seen around the world on YouTube. In the middle of the call, Eldar tore off his mike and abandoned the set, walking to his office for a land line so he could harangue his government to send ambulances to the border crossing and permit Abuelaish’s family through.

Once his injured relatives were stabilized, though, Abuelaish did something truly extraordinary—or rather, failed to do something normative: react in the tit-for-tat manner so common as to be almost inevitable in the region. He refused to demand revenge. And he wrote the story of his life and loss, I Shall Not Hate, a book by turns heartbreaking and uplifting. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and that even my family’s loss serves a purpose. The deaths of my daughters opened the Israelis’ eyes to the suffering on the other side. I believe there is a better future for us because of what this tragedy has taught. The past is only there to learn from.”

That is exactly the way Abuelaish treats his past in his book, the same way he seems to have always dealt with his life as it unfolded. He was born in 1955 in a refugee camp in northern Gaza, not far from the farm, just across the Israeli border, from which his family fled seven years earlier during the war that followed the UN partition of Palestine. (The land is now part of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s ranch.) Abuelaish makes no bones about his grinding childhood poverty or the thousand constant humiliations of life under occupation, but neither does he stress them or demonize the whole of Israel. They are merely obstacles to overcome, no more the determining facts of his life than the decent treatment he received from an Israeli farm family for whom he worked as a 14-year-old, or the help given him by Israelis along his way to becoming a Palestinian doctor accredited at Israeli hospitals, a remarkable achievement that required facing down deep prejudice and mastering Hebrew.

It is the very calmness of his descriptions that makes them so compelling. In 2008, he was able to get his wife, mortally ill with leukemia, into an Israeli hospital, but their children were not permitted to leave Gaza to visit before her death. After his daughters died, false rumours spread that the shrapnel in the girls’ bodies came from a Palestinian rocket. Although Israel did eventually admit to firing the rocket, there has as yet been no apology nor any of the promised compensation. And Abuelaish is adamant about getting that blood money: with it he intends to establish a foundation in his daughters’ names to bring health and education programs to Arab women.

His faith—in God, in humanity, in goodness—is humbling to encounter, but even in Canada, far from the killing, where some synagogues have invited Abuelaish to speak, his message is not always welcome. When the National Post published an excerpt of I Shall Not Hate, responses on the paper’s website ranged from skeptical (noting he did not condemn his own side) to vicious: one, criticizing him for having too many children, sarcastically congratulated Abuelaish on having found a broodmare for a mate before adding, “It looks like the Israelis saved your daughters from a fate that your wife, alas, was doomed to.” The change in individual attitude Abuelaish so desperately wants to see on both sides of the Middle East’s bitter, bloody divide is as far away as ever.


 

Turning the other cheek in Gaza

  1. Great story of a great man. May the deaths of his daughters truly serve the purpose of opening up Israel's eyes and the world's eyes to the suffering of the Palestinians.

  2. That is extremely admirable. Most of us who uphold the principle that hatred is always wrong fail pretty miserably at living up to it, even over petty things. To see a man who succeeds even after a blow like this is very inspiring.

    The last bit about the vicious comment from someone on the NP forum could have been taken right off these Macleans boards. That attitude is not atypical in our society in which children are viewed as a burden rather than a blessing, and in which openness to children is viewed as an affront to feminism and progress. It is also very disgusting.

  3. That is extremely admirable. Most of us who uphold the principle that hatred is always wrong fail pretty miserably at living up to it, even over petty things. To see a man who succeeds even after a blow like this is very inspiring.

    The last bit about the vicious comment from someone on the NP forum could have been taken right off these Macleans boards. That attitude is not atypical in our society in which children are viewed as a burden rather than a blessing, and in which openness to children is viewed as an affront both to feminism and to "progress". It is also very disgusting.

  4. That is extremely admirable. Most of us who uphold the principle that hatred is always wrong generally fail pretty miserably at living up to it, even over petty things. To see a man succeed even after a blow like this is very inspiring.

    The last bit about the vicious comment from someone on the NP forum could have been taken right off these Macleans boards. That attitude is not unusual in our society in which children are viewed as a burden rather than a blessing, and in which openness to children is viewed as an affront both to feminism and to "progress". It is also very disgusting.

    • Where are children seen as a burden? Oh, how about pre-WWII North America, where it was pretty common to ship any extra kids you may have off to extended relatives to "help out around the house/farm" because you couldn't afford them. What feminism or progress would view children as an affront? The feminist movement – which cannot be neatly defined as any one ideology – fights hard for children's rights around the world. And progress can't be made without a new generation. I call shenanigans on your opinions, Gaunilon.

      • Feminism is about giving women the right to choose and does not see children as burden. As such, openness to children is not an affront to feminism: on the contrary, it very much is in line with it. I find unfortunate that misconceptions like these are very common. Some women don't want to have many children and raise feminism in their arguments ergo feminism sees children as burden. This sort of fallacy (misconception resulting from incorrect reasoning in argumentation) is unfortunately rather common.
        All I can say is seek the truth before proferating undermining statements, wether it's about neighbors, countries or ideologies. There would be less feuds in this world if everyone did so… So, why don't we start together? One step at a time…

  5. Izzeldin is the hope I thought didn't exist. Ironically, much of the venom that is fast becoming the beacon of the NP comes from descendants of those who faced as much before the holocaust.

  6. When this man’s story is retold I always pause at the part about the ‘decency’ of the ‘Israeli Farm Family’. I wouldn’t want my son to labour on a farm at 14. ‘They even gave him a gift when he left’. Big whoop. This narrative comes from a man who is programmed by his personal creed to speak only what is good about people. This can be maddening to those who want to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  7. I will add that I find his determination to defeat the language of hate a poignant struggle. Is he a tragic hero? His narrative isn’t neatly packaged. He’s living it. He’s spreading his word. Inbetween harvesting the ovaries of Toronto’s university students. I just want to point out that tragic heroes are few and far between until they’re everywhere.

    • If violence is the last refuge of incompetents, then clearly cynicism is the last refuge of the ethically compromised. Bravo to you.

  8. Avi, it's too bad your attitude falls so far short of that of Izzeldin Abuelaish as portrayed in this article.

  9. I could have done without your political input. Try your hate somewhere else.

  10. There are dozens of equivalent stories from the Israeli side, such as the mother who donated the useful remains of her child killed by a suicide bomber to be transplanted into an Arab.
    To be honest such an attitude is a rarity from the Palestinian side.

    There are countless Israel peace activist groups. One glance at google and you can find them.
    I am intimately familiar with the conflict, but am always puzzled by the thought – where is the Palestinian peace movement? Where is the Arab peace movement? Where is the Muslim peace movement?

    • So why the hell can't you say the same thing to the palestinians?! If they all truly wanted peace, they would have left LONG AGO!!!

    • By your logic, we Canadians should all pack up and leave Canada. Belonged to the natives first, didn't it?

      Think about what you're saying before you say it. Israel is HOME to millions of Jews of all ethnicities, Arab included. The sins of the father should not be paid out by his children.

    • The Arabs and Muslims and Christians in Gaza and the West Bank are under attack from the Zionists daily. You really expect them to start peace movements when even peaceful demonstrations end up with Palestinians being killed?

      Think before you speak, you look like a fool

    • Please spare us your hasbara. It is easy to form a peace movement in a country that is the recognized aggressor. Palestinians are under occupation. They have a right to feel aggrieved and a right to resistance. Not every Palestinian can afford to be as magnanimous as Mr. Abuelaish, considering his exceptional relationship with Israel due to his career.

      Here is a quote from Gandhi, the patron saint of peace movements, that directly relates to the plight of the Palestinians and the justness of resistance:
      "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence … I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour."

  11. Resisting and fighting occupation does not require hatred of an entire ethnic group. To suggest otherwise is to side with inhumanity and monstrosity and requires forever revoking human conscience. I accept, tolerate, love and respect Jews but condone, protest and decry Israel's deplorable treatment of Palestinians. Furthermore, I adopt this standpoint without any contradiction whatsoever. You should try it sometime.

  12. Isreal was formed legally. it was then attcked several times by its "peaceful" neighbors, and only took over the West Bank during a time of war. they tried to give the West bank to any Arab country willing to take it. None were. Since they couldn't leave an unpoliced area full of suicide bombers in waiting on their border they did what they had to do. they have been trying to get the so called Palestininas to accept their own state and live in peace for years, but alas, the "Palestinians" are not interested in doing that, as they have turned down offer after offer that would have created a state for them. So they suffer from their own choosing.

    • David you do not know much about the history of the middle east and Israel and Palestine .Check on how this country came into being . Please read your history and do not look and sound like a total ignoramus .

  13. GREED??? Now that's a new one!!!

  14. I still remember when his story broke during the Gaza war. It was heartbreaking to hear him on the phone, weeping for his daughters. When he tried to give a press conference later at the hospital, an angry Israeli mother broke in and accused him of being a Hamas supporter and having hidden fighters in his apartment. It was an ugly moment, showing just how deeply the two sides have come to distrust one another after decades of violence while political leaders continue to fail them.

    Now that Netanyahu and Hamas are in control, peace looks ever more distant.

  15. While it can be called commendably what this guy is doing.
    Why must the story finish with some finial attacks of those that find this difficult to fathom.
    Maybe a few comments from the Muslims that disagree with this man may have been better.

    This no longer becomes reporting but supporting only one side.

  16. I admire you Dr. Abuelaish. I wish there were many more of you in this world.

  17. A man who preaches for peace should be well-respected. He lived a life of humility, hardwork, and grief.

    There will never be a "right side" in the Palestine-Israel conflict. There will never be a "victory", the best there can be is a mutual agreement amongst the two peoples, unification, and peace.

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