I first heard about Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish when everyone else did. As he was being interviewed live, in Hebrew, on Israeli television describing the conditions inside Gaza in the midst of the last war, the news came in that an Israeli tank shell had landed on his home and killed his three daughters. It happened at 3:05 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2009.
Within minutes the record of the doctor’s public shock and bottomless anguish appeared on Web sites and news feeds around the world. More than any other single image, Abuelaish was the face of the second Gaza War.
Last week I met Abuelaish for breakfast at a cafe in Culver City.
If his face is familiar to all, his message is perhaps the last one you’d expect from a man who has suffered as he has.
“Palestinians and Jews were created to live together,” he told me. “And no one can deny the other one’s rights.”
What? That’s right, the doctor is traveling the world spreading a message of reconciliation. He speaks to audiences in Arabic, in English and in Hebrew (see full story here). He recounts what happened that day, and he tells each audience, whether in Gaza or Granada Hills, what he hopes will come out of his tragedy.
“I hope it opened the eyes of the world,” he told me. “Where are we going? What are we doing? There must be a new era. A new opportunity to think of each other with respect, and not believe in just one side. The truth is not owned by just one side. Most of all I want both sides to respect each others’ story.”
For much of our time together, I asked the doctor to tell me his own personal story. I frankly didn’t understand how, in the midst of such pain, he could reach such conclusions. Where does a man like that come from?
He told me he was born in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. For generations his family farmed vast property around Kibbutz Dorot, not far from Sderot, the city whose constant shelling by Hamas helped provoke the Gaza War.
“My grandparents are buried right near Lilly Sharon’s grave,” he said, referring to Ariel Sharon’s late wife. “Ask the people in Kibbutz Dorot, they know us. Ask them about Abuelaish.”
During the 1948 War of Independence, his family left for Gaza.
“They left, they were deported,” he said, alert to the different Jewish and Arab narratives, not caring which one I chose to believe. “They thought it would be transient, a couple of days, or a couple of months.”
I asked him about his first encounter with an Israeli Jew.
“Until I was 14, I only saw soldiers and tourists in cars,” he said.
After the Six-Day War he remembers tanks surrounding his part of the camp, and soldiers telling all the residents to come out of their houses and gather in the square.
“It looked like the end of the world,” he said. “I thought they wanted to kill us all.”
The soldiers announced a curfew that severely limited his family’s income. Abuelaish dropped out of school and started selling ice cream and nuts.
In the summer of 1970, when he was 14, Abuelaish joined his uncle to work inside Israel. They did chores for a Yemenite family on Moshav Hodaya, near Ashkelon.
He saw the Jewish children enjoying their summer, running off to play or to the beach. He fed the geese.
“The family was nice to me, but I was the Palestinian boy who was working. I counted the days to return,” he said.
One night after he returned home, the Israelis told his family they had six hours to evacuate their home, which had to be demolished so tanks could more easily maneuver the street. By 8 a.m., his home was gone. Abuelaish, his eight brothers and sisters and their parents moved in to a single room in his uncle’s home. They stayed there six months.
“That was my first tragedy,” he told me. “I was forced to be homeless, so I don’t want to ever see anyone else homeless.”
Eventually, Abuelaish returned to school and excelled. He attended medical school at Cairo University, then Harvard Medical School. He became an obstetrician and gynecologist and works in Israeli hospitals with Arab and Jewish patients.
He saw that suffering and illness did not belong to any one religion, people or history. Sickness is sickness, and he believes he was brought into the world to heal.
“Each human life is invaluable,” he said. “It is so easy to destroy.”
Long before his daughters’ deaths, he had made the campaign for respect and equality between Israelis and Palestinians his life’s work.
He cultivated excellent relations with his Jewish colleagues. He became a familiar face to the Israeli media, who looked to him to describe what was happening inside Gaza. He even made a point to revisit the Yemenite family on whose moshav he worked as a boy.
“In 1994 I knocked on their door. The daughter who was born when I was there in 1970 answered. She thought it was some Palestinian businessman. She got her father. I said, ‘You don’t remember me. I am Izzeldin, the Palestinian boy who worked for you.’ We fell into each others’ arms like two brothers who met after a long time.”
Two of Abuelaish’s daughters were doing their homework when the Israeli tank shell hit their home in Jabaliya that afternoon. They were killed along with another daughter and a niece. Even given his background, I couldn’t fathom his lack of bitterness. Even empathy and reconciliation have their limits, I assume.
“My daughters who were lost, I can’t return them,” he said. “But think of the survivors. I believe God takes but gives you something else. Who gave me my daughters? God. It’s a trust. God asked for them back.”
“Don’t you want revenge?” I asked him. After all, here was a man from a part of the world that has been perfecting cycles of revenge for thousands of years.
“On who? Who killed my daughters?” he said—and waited for me to reply.
“Who are the Israelis?” he shot back. “Who?”
I got it: Would he kill the Israeli doctors and nurses he worked with? The Israeli babies he delivered? The moshavnik who embraced him?
“And even if I got revenge on all the Israelis,” he went on, “do you think my daughters are going to come back? Does it help them to commit more sins? I want people to learn not to treat a mistake with a mistake.”
Then he anticipated my next question.
“The Israeli soldier who shelled my house,” he said, “I understand. I understand the system that brought all of us together. I believe in his conscience he has already punished himself. He’s asking, ‘What have I done?’ And even if he doesn’t think that now, tomorrow he will be a father. He will suffer then.”
There are plenty of Israel-bashing Web sites out there dedicated to Palestinian suffering. They don’t write about Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, aside from the death of his daughters. The Web site electronicintifada.com, for instance, has only had one story on the doctor—written three years prior to his tragedy. His is not a voice of hate, or of victimhood. And his position is clear: listen to each other, respect each other, save each other.
“We don’t look for governments to solve this,” he said. “There is an Israeli people, and there is a Palestinian people; they will make the difference. The leaders change, governments change.”
Now the doctor, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, is raising funds to support career choices for women in the Arab world. (He spoke in LA through the auspices of Americans for Peace Now). His oldest daughter who was killed was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English from Islamic University of Gaza, the second wanted to be a physician, and the youngest a journalist. He told me he hasn’t picked a name for his foundation, but he is thinking about calling it the “Three Daughters Foundation.”
“For me, I have to think my strength is from God,” he said. His cheeks flushed a darker shade of red. He picked up a napkin and touched the corner of his eyes.
“Why was I selected, and my daughters? I fully believe God chose me for something good. The death of my daughters is for a purpose.”
To read more about Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, click here.