If there is a Palestinian Arab who deserves to feel aggrieved, surely it is Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of his daughters and a niece were killed by a shell fired by the Israel Defense Forces during the fighting in Gaza in 2009. Yet Dr. Abuelaish has refused to resort to recrimination and struggles instead to make sense of these tragic deaths.
“If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” he told an Israeli medical colleague, “then I could accept it.”
Dr. Abuelaish speaks for himself in “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity” (Walker & Company: $24.00), a remarkable memoir by a remarkable man. He was born in 1955 in Gaza and witnessed the Six Day War at close quarters: “Israeli tanks rolled right onto our street,” he recalls. “It happened right in front of my eyes, and it looked like the end of the world to me.” And he grew up in hardship in the Jabalia refugee camp: “We were everything that the word refugee stands for: disenfranchised, dismissed, marginalized, and suffering.”
Still, as a gifted child whose promise was recognized early in life, Abuelaish found a way out of the suffering. He earned a medical degree in Cairo, a diploma in obstetrics and gynecology through a joint program of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health and the University of London, and a master’s degree in public health at Harvard. He completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the Soroka Medical Center and served as a senior researcher at the Sheba Medical Center, both in Israel. “All of my adult life I have had one leg in Palestine and the other in Israel,” he writes, “an unusual stance in this region.”
As a medical professional working in Israel, he writes, “I did my share of pushing the envelope for coexistence” by inviting his Israeli colleagues to tour the Jabalia refugee camp and to join his Palestinian friends for coffee and conversation. “Although I wore a name tag with a Palestinian surname and spoke Hebrew with an accent, no one seemed to object,” he writes. “Disease doesn’t recognize borders.” But peace-making on a personal level was one victim of the second intifada that began in 2000. “How can you help these Jewish women to have babies?” he was asked by his colleagues in Gaza. “They will grow up to be soldiers who bomb us and shoot us.”
Dr. Abuelaish describes a medical career that took him all over the world, from one “conflict zone” to another, and he shares the terrible loss that his family suffered when his wife died of leukemia. But nothing quite prepares us for the fateful day in December 2008 when Israel launched an attack on Hamas fighters in Gaza. “[A]ll hell broke loose in Gaza,” he recalls. “Israeli rockets, bombs, and shells came from every direction.” Tragically, a cease-fire seemed within reach in the early days of 2009 but not before a tank shell struck the apartment where Dr. Abuelaish and his family were sheltering.
“To this day I’m not absolutely certain about who was killed when,” he writes in a horrific account of that day. “There was a monstrous explosion that seemed to be all around us, and thundering, fulminating sound that penetrated my body as though it were coming from within me.” When the smoke cleared, three of his children and a niece were dead. “All I could think was: This is the end. This is the end.”
Dr. Abuelaish describes how his fellow Arabs cried out for revenge and reprisal. “What about the soldier who fired the deadly volleys from the tank? Didn’t I hate him?” But, like the lamed-vovnik that he truly is, Dr. Abuelaish rejected yet another round of bloodshed. “[T]hat’s how the system works here: we use hatred and blame to avoid the reality that eventually we need to come together.” In a real sense, then, “I Shall Not Hate” is Dr. Abuelaish’s earnest effort to repair not only the wounds that he and his family have suffered but the troubled world in which both Arabs and Israelis find themselves.
So Dr. Abuelaish offers a cry of conscience in “I Shall Note Hate”: “The catastrophe of the deaths of my daughters and niece has strengthened my thinking, deepened my belief about how to bridge the divide,” he writes. “I understand down to my bones that violence is futile. It is a waste of time, lives, and sources, and has been proven only to beget more violence.” But, at the same time, he insists that Israelis and their supporters must open their eyes to the suffering that is the breeding-ground of extremism. Among the many eye-opening moments in “I Shall Not Hate,” for example, is a glimpse of the “facts on the ground” in Gaza, something that is mostly absent from the sporadic news coverage.
“This is my Gaza: Israeli gunships on the horizon, helicopters overhead, the airless smugglers’ tunnels into Egypt, UN relief trucks on the roadways, smashed buildings, and corroding infrastructure,” writes Dr. Abuelaish. “There is never enough – not enough cooking oil, not enough fresh fruit or water. Never, ever enough.” He points out that “it is sometimes hard to know who is in charge, whom to hold responsible: Israel, the international community, Fatah, Hamas, the gangs, the religious fundamentalists.” As a result, he warns, “Gaza is a human time bomb in the process of imploding.”
Above all, Dr. Abuelaish pleads with the reader to consider how the plight of Gaza residents feeds into the “vicious cycle” of violence and counter-violence and prompts what he calls “parasuidical behavior” like rocket attacks and suicide bombings. “The acts of violence committed by the Palestinians are expressions of the frustration and rage of a people who feel impotent and hopeless,” he explains. “The occupation and oppression of the people in Gaza is like a cancer, a disease that needs to be treated.” And he concludes: “I am arguing that we need an immunization program, one that injects people with respect, dignity, and quality, one that inoculates them against hatred.”
To which his readers can only say: “Amen.”
Note to the Reader: Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, author of “I Shall Not Hate,” will appear in conversation with Washington Post journalist Laura Blumenfeld in the ALOUD at Central Library’s Interfaith Series at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.