HEALING HEART – The Story of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

*Originally featured in Good Weekend, 14 May 2011.

Two years ago, Izzeldin Abuelaish lost three beloved daughters in an Israeli tank attack, yet the famed Palestinian doctor refuses to let hate fill his soul. he explains why to David Leser.   

“My God, my God. They killed my daughters. Shlomi, I wanted to save them, but they are dead. They were hit in the head. They died on the spot. Allah, what have we done to them? Oh God.”

These were the words of Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, as he spoke to Israeli television journalist Shlomi Eldar from the ruins of his home in the Gaza Strip on January 16, 2009. More than words really, an animal cry from the depths of a father’s heart.

The war in Gaza, codenamed “Operation Cast Lead” had entered its twentieth day when Dr Abuelaish used what was left of his fading mobile phone battery to make his call.

No reporter, Israeli or otherwise, had been allowed into the heavily populated Palestinian territory since the beginning of the war, and, for many journalists, this refugee doctor’s eyewitness account had become crucial to their understanding of what was happening.

Dr Abuelaish was trusted and well respected, not just by members of the Israeli media, but by the country’s medical fraternity as well. He’d been the first Palestinian obstetrician and gynacologist to have been given a residency inside an Israeli hospital – at one time delivering more Jewish children than many Jewish doctors.

He’d helped scores of infertile Israeli couples realise the joys of childbirth. He’d travelled from Gaza to Israel most working days – passing through numerous Israeli checkpoints – to help save Jewish and non-Jewish lives. He’d hosted Israelis in his home, a generous shelter amidst the squalor of his teeming refugee city.

He’d proved himself repeatedly a man of peace, someone prepared to condemn his own side’s suicide bombings, in private as well as in a public letter to the Jerusalem Post newspaper. “Israelis are our friends,” he would often tell his daughters, “and we should love them as we love one another.”

And here he was now, wild with grief, dialing his friend, Shlomi Eldar, a reporter with Israel’s Channel Ten, as Eldar was going live to air on national television, about to begin an interview with the country’s Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livini.

When Eldar saw the first of Dr Abuelaish’s two calls flash on his screen he ignored it. On blind impulse he took the second. “I told the viewing audience that we had something very important coming in and pushed the telephone speaker button and held the mobile phone up so the viewer could see it,” Eldar would say later. “I think my director wondered what on earth I was doing taking a phone call in the middle of a live news broadcast.”

Shlomi Eldar and the rest of Israel were thunderstruck by what they heard. “I can’t tell you how extraordinary this was,” Eldar said. “It’s not something a news anchor ever does – to take a call in the middle of the show. I was all the time wondering if this was the wrong thing to do, at the same time as I was listening in abject horror to what he was saying. Then I heard my editor’s voice in my earpiece saying `Move the telephone closer to the microphone.’

“The conversation that followed was hearbreaking. He kept crying … His surviving children were screaming in the background (as) I asked Izzeldin where he lived. He was sobbing. `No one can get to us. Oh Shlomi, oh God, oh Allah, my daughters are dead.”

***

 

Izzeldin Abuelaish was born in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza in 1955, the oldest of six brothers and three sisters. He was twelve years old when he saw his first Israeli soldier.

In the space of six breathtaking days in 1967 the Israelis swept all before them as they captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai Desert and Gaza Strip from Egypt.

Israeli tanks rolled through Abuelaish’s street as they sought to secure the territory from Egyptian rule. There was chaos everywhere. Houses destroyed. Children separated from parents – his own parents screaming in horror – people digging holes in the ground to hide. His family fleeing to an orchard for three days to sleep on the ground and live off apricots and apples.

Three years later, at the age of nearly 15, Izzeldin Abuelaish experienced another side of the Israeli character when he went to work on a Jewish farm near Ashqelon. For three months he lodged with an Israeli family and, despite his loneliness, found the warmth and hospitality of his hosts life-changing.

“That summer left a powerful impression on me in many ways,” he said. “That an Israeli family would hire me, treat me fairly, and show so much kindness toward me was completely unexpected.”

One week after his return to Gaza the streets of the territory were widened so that Israeli tanks could negotiate their way more easily. Hundreds of houses, including Abuelaish’s family home, were bulldozed to the ground.

It was this stunning divergence between the kindliness of his Jewish hosts and the conduct of Israeli soldiers that triggered something deep inside the Palestinian teeanger’s heart. He wanted to build a bridge of peace, not just between Palestinians and Israelis, but between the two divides of the Israeli character. And he wanted medicine to be his tool of trade, his instrument of change. Although not just medicine, obstetrics and gynecology. He was thrilled by the miracle of newborn life.

After graduating as a doctor from the University of Cairo in 1983, Abuelaish obtained a diploma in obstetrics and gynecology from the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with the University of London. He then studied fetal medicine and genetics in Milan and Brussels, before enrolling in a Masters program in Public Health at Harvard.

In the early 1990s he returned to Gaza to set up a private evening clinic for the poor, many of whom he treated for free. At the same time, he applied to become a volunteer at the Soroka hospital in the Israeli city of Beersheeba. He wanted to learn from Israeli doctors, as they soon decided they wanted to learn from him.

“Izzeldin was a special person, with a balanced point of view about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Dr Shlomo Usef, the director of Soroka hospital, observed. “He saw it as a conflict with two sides, and himself as the person to bridge the two.”

In 1997 Dr Abuelaish took up residency at the hospital, the first Palestinian doctor to be accorded this position. He began studying Hebrew under a leading rabbi. He was anxious for his patients to know he could understand their symptoms.

He became friends with his Israeli colleagues, hosting groups in his home once a month, taking the opportunity to show them the conditions in which his people lived.

“These get-togethers brought home to me how similar we are,” he said.

***

 

On the afternoon of January 16, 2009, Dr Abuelaish was at home with seven of his eight children, exactly four months to the day that his wife, Nadia, the mother of their children, had died in an Israeli hospital from leukemia.

Theirs had been an arranged marriage between two close families twenty-two years earlier – Nadia, a 24 year-old dental technician working in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abuelaish, a 32 year-old doctor on the rise. The two families rejoiced over their union and the husband found himself enchanted by his wife’s quiet intelligence and devotion.

In the months after her death, Bessan their eldest daughter and a student of business at the Islamic University in Gaza, assumed the running of the household, insisting that her father continue to work in Israel. Always the young adviser, she felt her father would cope better if he were busy.

By January 16 there was talk of a ceasefire. Dr Abuelaish kept re-assuring his children the war would soon be over, that they would all make a new life in Canada where he’d just been offered a prestigious position at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health.

The children were encouraged and excited. ‘I want to fly Daddy,” his second youngest daughter, Aya, said. She was hoping to be a journalist one day.

At 4.45pm two Israeli tank shells were fired into Dr Abuelaish’s home, both of them obliterating his daughter’s upstairs bedroom.

“We had left the girls’ room and were in the middle of the dining room when it happened,” Dr Abuelaish recounted later in his international best seller, I Shall Not Hate. “There was a monstrous explosion that seemed to be all around us. I remember the sound. I remember the blinding flash.

“Abdullah (the youngest child) was still on my shoulders, Raffah (the youngest daughter) came running, screaming from the kitchen, Mohammed (the elder son) stood frozen at the front door.

“As the dust began to settle, I realised the explosion had come from my daughter’s bedroom. I put Abdullah down and Bessan (the eldest daughter) ran ahead of me from the kitchen; we wound up at the bedroom door at the same time. The sight in front of me was something I hope no other person ever has to witness.

“Bedroom furniture, schoolbooks, dolls, running shoes, and pieces of wood were splintered in a heap, along with the body parts. Shatha (the third oldest daughter) was the only one standing. Her eye was on her cheek, her body covered in bloody puncture wounds, her finger hanging by a thread of skin.

“I found Mayar’s body on the ground. (Mayar was the fourth oldest daughter and had wanted to be a doctor like her father.) She’d been decapitated. There was brain matter on the ceiling, girls’ hands and feet on the floor. Blood spattered the entire room, and arms in familiar sweaters and legs in pants that belonged to these beloved children leaned at crazed angles where they had blown off the torsos.

“I ran to the front door for help but realised I couldn’t go outside because there were soldiers on the street. A second rocket smashed into the room while I was at the door. To this day I’m not absolutely certain about who was killed when. My brother Nasser had raced down the stairs after the shell hit, and he got to the door at the same time as my brother Atta and his daughter Ghaida. They were caught by the second explosion.

“I couldn’t find Bessan, and kept calling her name: `Bessan, Bessan, where are you? Tell me where you are so I can help you.’ But she was now dead, along with Mayar. So was Aya and so was Noor (my niece.)

***

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish is sitting in a white hotel bathrobe talking to me via Skype from the city of Spokane in Washington State. (Spokane is a one-time trading post for native Americans, known as the birthplace of Father’s Day.)

There are tears rolling down his cheeks and for a few seconds he has to walk away from the computer screen to collect himself.

Our online meeting is less than ideal, hardly the forum to explore the fraught and tender subjects of love, loss and forgiveness. But this is our only way to secure a last-minute interview, given the gruelling nature of Dr Abuelaish’s work schedule and his imminent arrival in Australia.

Based now in Toronto with his five remaining children, Dr Abuelaish is often a keynote speaker at peace conferences, and is in Spokane to talk to the “Second International Conference on Hate Studies,” a multi-disciplinary forum seeking to combat extremism in all its guises – racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism …

“I think the world is drowning in hate,” he says, “and hate is destructive. It is a toxin that affects all aspect of life. It doesn’t just affect the individual who carries it, it affects the community. If I hate, who is going to suffer? Myself. My children. My relatives. My community. I will be disconnected from the world.”

How is it, though, that he does not hate those who took his three daughters from him? “Are we going to hate everyone who did something wrong to us?” he replies, his Arabic-inflected English filling the air. “As a Palestinian you have read my story. If I wanted to hate everyone, the list is endless.”

But what of the Israeli soldier who fired those tank shells? “I don’t think any bad thing about him because I don’t blame the soldier. I don’t want to blame … but if we want to blame, blame the system and start to correct the system.

“I am sure (the soldier) knows what he did. He knew the impact of the two shells. He knows that there are innocent girls, wonderful girls, three daughters, one niece, and others who were killed and severely wounded. And one day this solder will marry and have children … and when he realises the consequences of what he did … God bless him.

“I feel deeply for how he lives … and if he came to me and said `Izzeldin I apologise for what I did … believe me how generous I would be. (I would) hug him and show him that I am ready to help him. But the system, till now, did not take any steps to help the soldier, or to help themselves.”

“No one (from the political or military establishment) has met with me, or asked me what happened. No one. No one. And no one came to ask me `how is your daughter (Shatha who lost her eye) or niece or brother,’ and to say `Izzeldin, we apologise.’ No one said that.”

And although at the time there was a public outpouring of horror and sympathy within Israel for him and his family, there were also Israelis, like Levana Stern, a mother of three soldiers, who screamed at Dr Abuelaish during a press conference, accusing him of harbouring militants and hiding weapons in his home.

Dr Abuelaish was doubly mortified. “All that was ever fired out of our house,” he responded later “was love, hugs and acts of peace.”

Indeed, three of his daughters – Bessan, the eldest, who died when the second rocket exploded in her bedroom, and Dalal (the second eldest) and Shatha (the third eldest)  -had, at their father’s urging, attended a peace camp in New Mexico for Israelis and Palestinians a few years earlier.

Throughout their young lives they had heard their father talking of peace and co-existence; they had imbibed his stubborn refusal to stereotype Jews in general and Israelis in particular. Four years before her death, Bessan, the eldest, had signed up for a road trip across America with a small group of Palestinian and Israeli women. Their trip resulted in a documentary aimed at promoting dialogue between enemies.

“I wanted my daughters to meet Israeli girls and to spend time with them in a neutral setting in order to discover the ties that may bind and heal our mutual wounds,” Dr Abuelaish would write later of these endeavours.

At the mention now of Bessan and her two dead sisters, Mayar and Aya, Dr Abuelaish begins to weep openly. “Once you mention them I see them,” he says, his voice washed through with anguish. “I see them eye to eye now, talking to me. I say to them `you are living with me. I will never forget you. Your blood and your souls are not wasted … and I am not going to relax till I meet you one day … and to tell you your souls made a difference in others’ lives.

“Each girl in this world is a special girl. Girls are the life and the love … and I miss them. I miss every beautiful thing from them. Their smiles. Bessan’s advice. Their talks. Their hugs. Mayar’s wisdom. Believe me everyone misses them. It is a loss for everyone. They were girls who I am sure had the potential to make a difference in this world.”

***

Izzeldin Abuelaish grew up with one foot inside his own people’s camp, and another inside the enemy camp of the Israelis. It was never an easy thing to arrive at this profoundly decent position.

His family’s land – located in what is today the northern Negev Desert of Israel – was lost during the 1948 war. (The land is today owned by the now comatose former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and his family.)

Most of Abuelaish’s early life was spent in a refugee camp, first under Egyptian rule, then under Israeli rule. Until recently, he was to only know occupation, and everything that came with it: lack of fresh food and water, unchecked sewerage, over-crowding, sanctions and blockades, the enduring frustration and indignity of security checkpoints. And all of this before the loss of his wife and daughters.

Despite these trials, Dr Abuelaish has clung to the belief that things can only improve. As a small boy he treated his school books as treasured possessions, sensing that a good education would lead him to a better life. As an adult he kept his mind tuned to the task of healing – healing the sick and trying to heal the conflict between two people locked in their eternal struggle.

In the semi fog of our cyber meeting this much seems clear. Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish is a man hopelessly devoted to peace. You can almost smell it from across the oceans – the warmth of his crumpled face, the tone and resonance of his unshakeable convictions.

He feels the pain of the Palestinians, the pain of the Jews, his own unfathomable pain, but remains determined to look for the best in people.

“Thank God I am not a victim anymore,” he says. “I am moving everywhere because I feel the obligation to send my daughters, on a daily basis, gifts that I am doing good things, to make a difference in other people’s lives .. to tell people hate is not right … to tell them that weapons are useless … that weapons are the weakest and we must change the system.”

The best medicine for treating hate, he inists, is success. His five remaining children are living testament to this. “What they suffered in one year, no one can tolerate. At the start of the school year they lost their mother and four months later they lost three lovely, beloved sisters and one niece.

“They went back to school (in Toronto) and they succeeded as if nothing had happened to them. My daughter, Shatha, who was severley wounded – she lost the sight in one eye, she has four malformed fingers, and she was in her high school and I didn’t expect much from her.

“But she came to Canada and they announced the result (in her school) and she succeeded. She succeeded with 96 per cent and now she is studying computer engineering at the University of Toronto.

“That’s what I mean when I say the antidote of hate and revenge is success, to move forward, to not collapse, to not be destroyed, but to stand steadfast.”

Dr Abuelaish’s argument is an unconquerable one, as old as the Christian scriptures, as old as the Jewish Talmud from which he now loosely quotes: “I look at a human being and if you kill one you kill the world, and if you save one you save the world.

“No one is born violent. The violence is environmental. The violence is the symptom of a disease. Change the environment and there will never be violence. No one is born to hate.”

Might peace be possible then, I ask him finally, between his people and the Israelis? “It is important to keep our hope,” he answers softly. “I don’t believe in any impossible thing in life. The only impossible thing is to return my daughters back.”

 

Postscript: Dr Izzeldin is the author of I Shall Not Hate (Bloomsbury), a nominee for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of Daughters For Life, an organisation dedicated to changing the status and role of women in the Middle East.

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