After decades of hardship in war-torn Gaza, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish experienced the most terrible horror – the violent death of three of his daughters following an Israeli strike on his house. Determined to use this tragedy as a force for good, the author of the best-selling book “I shall not hate” is coming to South Africa to talk peace, understanding and connection. By MANDY DE WAAL.
In January 2009 unspeakable horror unfolds in the life of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, the first Palestinian doctor to receive a staff position in an Israel hospital. A medical doctor used to the loss, suffering and extreme hardship of life in Gaza, Abuelaish was raised in a Palestinian refugee camp, much like the other 1.4 million refugees who have lived in these camps for decades.
Born seven years after that cleaving event known as “the catastrophe” (al-Nakba) in 1948 when Israel became a state and Palestine was divided, Abuelaish went from being part of a relatively privileged family to being marginalised, destitute and struggling to adapt to life in a Gaza refugee camp.
At one time Abuelaish and his birth family owned large tracts of land, but in the refugee camp this family of 11 had a home which was one room that was little more than three metres by three metres in size. There were no ablution facilities, never mind electricity or water. Like most families living in Gaza, Abuelaish’s birth family suffered profound losses. Their home was decimated by tanks and his brother disappeared after being imprisoned by Israelis.
Abuelaish says that during this time it was important to him to try his best to retain a positive and balanced perspective about his family’s experiences and the Israeli people. He says he knows that Israelis were not representative of that which fuelled one of the world’s most bitter and enduring conflicts.
Despite the poverty and the violence he experienced during his youth, Abuelaish made something remarkable of his life. He won a scholarship for study which saw him enter the medical programme at the University of Cairo. He then specialised in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia (in collaboration with the University of London). A residency in obstetrics at Israel’s Saroka Hospital followed, together with further specialisations at Harvard University and study periods at hospitals in Italy and Belgium.
It was the time he spent at Israel’s Saroka Hospital, where he was the first Palestinian medical staffer, that Abuelaish experienced an extreme cognitive dissonance that would later inform his view of the world. The medical staff at the hospital were authentically warm, compassionate human beings. Far removed from the belligerent and cruel Israeli soldiers that would so often make his life a hell on his way back home from Saroka Hospital to Gaza.
One incident in particular stands out in these journeys, and that is the time when his wife was dying of Leukaemia and Abuelaish was desperate to get back to her before she passed on. The actions of the Israeli soldiers would ensure he was delayed and never got to his wife in time.
However this would not even begin to prepare him for the nightmare that lay ahead. As the year closed for 2008 and a new year heralded 2009, Israel would launch air attacks and then stage a ground invasion into Gaza. Before the ceasefire a tank would fire shells into Abuelaish’s home wreaking the most terrible tragedy. Running into his daughter’s room after the strike Abuelaish would be faced with the spectre of his children’s brains, hands and feet splattered and scattered across the room.
In the weeks following the invasion and before this terror unfolded, Abuelaish had been making himself useful by reporting on the invasion by calling in to Israel’s Channel 10 to speak to journalist Shlomi Eldar. After the shelling he would phone again, but this time the emotionally destroyed doctor would relay the news that three of his eight children, all of them his daughters, were dead.
“I saw everything,” Abuelaish would later tell Guardian. “My children in parts. A decapitated head. And Shatha in front of me, with her eye on her cheek. I thought: what can I do? And I started moving, fast. I thought of Shatha. I didn’t want her to be blind, to lose her fingers. I didn’t want that. Then I looked at my son. He has lost his sisters. Now what is he going to do? How can I protect him? Is he going to be an extremist, to be crazy, to hate the world? I started to think. What can I do for those who are living?”
What happens next is recorded on YouTube and is chilling viewing. Abuelaish phones journalist Eldar who takes the call live on air and is visibly moved as he hears, and lets everyone watching the broadcast, hear the Gaza doctor cry: “My God, my God, my God, my God…” Eldar asks for Abuelaish’s location so that he can try to send ambulances, to which Abuelaish replies: “I wanted to try to save them, but they died, Shlomi.”
Watch: Gaza doctor’s tragedy caught on Israeli TV:
In the years that followed that day, Abuelaish moved to Toronto but not before penning a remarkable book which is his message to the world. Entitled “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity” Abuelaish now dedicates his life to spreading the message that peace is possible and that doctors in particular can become emissaries of peace because of the profession’s dedication to curing and caring.
“I believe that medicine is human, and that it has one culture and once face, and that is to care, to help, and to heal the world,” says Abuelaish speaking to Daily Maverick from Toronto, ahead of a visit to South Africa. “Humans can be the most vicious and violent beings in the universe, but to be a human being should be to give peace and life to other human beings.”
Watch: Izzeldin Abuelaish Two Years After Israeli Attack:
When Abuelaish talks about peace, he goes to great pains to explain that by peace he doesn’t mean political reconciliation, but the individual right to health, safety and security. “To be peaceful is to be healthy, happy and to enjoy love and life freely. Peace is freedom but peace can only happen where there is justice. This is not the peace of countries. You can find countries that are not at war, but where the people are not living in peace. I talk here about an individual and not a political peace. It is a human peace.”
Remarkably, Abuelaish says that his own life experience has energised him to never accept that peace is impossible. “It has made me determined to devote my life to the human cause. It is not the Palestinian or the Israeli, it is the sum of much more than that. This is our world, our joint world and about what kind of joint future we want. It is not my world. It is not your world. It is our world.”
Abuelaish explains that the only way he is able to survive the pain and tragedy of his daughters’ violent deaths is to work for a higher cause. “I could only continue with my life if it was for good. That is why this pain and this tragedy right from the onset had to be used for good.”
The real enemy, according to the Gaza doctor is not race or language, but ignorance. “All our diseases which are our enemies are ignorance, arrogance, and greed. We don’t know each other anymore. It is important to invest our time to know each other. Once you know… and it is not just to know someone’s name of face. It is to see their heart, to feel connected, passion, respect. That is the knowledge. That is what we want by knowing, to feel connected and to respect each other. To understand each other.”
Abuelaish moved to Canada shortly after the death of his daughters, and there he has created a living memorial to honour them in the form of Daughters for Life which supports education for girls. “Because I am determined that my daughters’ names will not only be written on their gravestones, but on the doors of institutions, and other good places,” he tells Guardian.
Watch Izzeldin Abuelaish speak on Peace in the Face of Tragedy:
At a time when racial acrimony, greed, poverty and a belligerent overlord of money-hungry elites frame much of what life is all about in South Africa, Abuelaish is being brought here by the University of the Free State to tell us all that nothing is impossible.
“There is hope in this world. For every bad thing we face in life there is something good, and we need to maximise the good. My message to people is that they must not underestimate themselves. They should and must live inspired lives and do something because changing the world is a matter of action. It is about taking responsibility and encouraging others to do the same. Don’t blame others, what use is that? Before blaming others take responsibility, communicate and start making changes yourself, and others will follow.”
In a country that desperately needs leadership and direction, Abuelaish’s missive of action, compassion and peace over hate is a message for our time. DM
For more information on Dr Abuelaish’s visit, please contact Prof. Jaqueline du Toit at DuToitJS@ufs.ac.za or Prof. André Keet on 051 401 9808.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas