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.