If anyone in the Middle East has earned the right to hate, it is a Palestinian father, physician and, now, first-time author by the name of Izzeldin Abuelaish.
But here’s the paradox: Abuelaish refuses to hate.
Instead, he remains deeply committed to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and now he has written a vivid, haunting and all but heartbreaking account of that commitment, a position he refuses to abandon even in the face of Job-like provocation — the violent deaths of three daughters and a niece.
I Shall Not Hate is set for publication in Canada on May 1 and will soon after be available around the world, after being translated into Arabic, French, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and Turkish, among other languages.
Both for the tale it tells and for the manner of its telling, the book deserves a large and attentive audience.
“Whom to hate?” asks the 55-year-old gynecologist, who was born a Palestinian refugee and raised in poverty and distress, yet has long advocated Middle Eastern peace. “My Israeli friends? My Israeli colleagues? The Israeli babies I have delivered?”
These are fine questions, reflecting noble distinctions, but they are not the sort of questions everyone in Abuelaish’s circumstances would feel inclined to pose, not after suffering what this man has suffered.
In the late afternoon of Jan. 16, 2009, a pair of Israeli tank shells ripped through a bedroom in Abuelaish’s Gaza apartment, making his world is a different and diminished place.
Three of his daughters — Bessan, Mayar and Aya — died that day, along with a niece, Noor. Three more family members were severely wounded in the still unexplained attack, including Abuelaish’s brother Nasser, a fourth daughter, Shatha, and a second niece named Ghaida.
Whom to hate?
You might think the answer would be easy.
It was the Israelis, after all, who prosecuted the war that splintered Abuelaish’s family. It was the Israelis as well who decades ago displaced his relatives from their ancestral lands in the northern Negev and whose soldiers or officials have tormented him on countless occasions over the ensuing years, at military checkpoints and border crossings.
It is the Israelis who have clamped Abuelaish’s homeland under a harsh, punitive economic blockade and who very nearly prevented him from being at his wife’s bedside when she succumbed to leukemia just four months before their daughters died in a rage of Israeli artillery.
Whom to hate?
Why not all Israelis? Why not all Jews?
That’s the course many in Abuelaish’s place would have taken, the path of undifferentiated loathing.
But it is not the route he has chosen. In fact, he continues to march in precisely the opposite direction, a lonely soldier of peace in a region of warriors.
“I have the right to feel angry,” says Abuelaish. “But I ask, ‘Is this the right way?’ So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate.”
As he speaks, Abuelaish is installed in a fifth-floor office overlooking the urban clutter of Spadina Ave., with the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre commanding the southern horizon — proof, if proof were needed, that the good doctor is not in Gaza anymore.
He and his five remaining children live in Toronto now, where he is an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, a five-year appointment.
The family lighted upon these mainly tranquil shores nine months ago, on July 22, 2009, or just six months and one week after the deadly strike on their Gaza apartment.
Unprovoked and apparently deliberate, that attack occurred during the final days of last year’s Israeli invasion of Gaza, a brief and lopsided contest in which more than 1,300 Palestinians lost their lives. Thirteen Israelis also died.
Almost immediately after the two shells tore through his home, leaving blood, corpses and mayhem, a distraught Abuelaish got on his cellphone and made a frenzied call to Shlomi Eldar, a TV journalist in Tel Aviv who was anchoring the Channel 10 evening news at the time and who took the call while still on air.
For many who watched and heard that conversation — in Israel, the Palestinian territories and eventually around the world — the desperate intensity of the exchange quickly came to epitomize the horrors, ironies and mysterious intimacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No hospital in Gaza could have saved Shatha or Ghaida, but Eldar was able to arrange passage for the two injured girls to the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, where they were treated by some of Israel’s finest doctors in state-of-the-art facilities.
Izzeldin Abuelaish holds his son Abdallah in a car near their home in Jebaliya Jan. 21, 2009. He escaped Gaza with what remained of his family after Israeli tank shells ripped through his house and killed three of his daughters. He has written a book, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey (Random House).BEN CURTIS/AP FILE PHOTO
Whom to hate, indeed?
The contradictory truth is that some Israelis kill Palestinians, but other Israelis save Palestinian lives — a conundrum that lends yet another level of complexity to the moral labyrinth known as the Middle East. It is a labyrinth that Abuelaish, for one, has long been willing to explore, equipped with that rarest of Middle Eastern faculties, an open mind.
Almost alone among Israeli or Palestinian doctors, Abuelaish has long practised medicine on both sides of the border between Gaza and Israel, a frontier few Palestinians are permitted to cross at all and only at the price of much harassment and more humiliation.
For decades, Abuelaish has been willing to pay that price without becoming bitter.
“The message I am spreading now — it’s not new,” he says. “It’s my life.”
So it is.
In 1999, for example, a decade before his daughters and niece were killed, People magazine published a long and extensively illustrated article about this curious Palestinian doctor who refuses to hate. Similar stories have appeared in other publications, long predating the two tank shells that crashed through his apartment in January 2009.
Even before Israel’s invasion of Gaza last year, the man’s story would have been worthy of a book — a tale of triumph over adversity, of hope over hate.
Born into a family of Palestinian refugees who were forced to abandon their ancestral lands following the establishment of Israel, Abuelaish was raised in strapped and squalid circumstances in Gaza, among the poorest and most densely populated territories on earth.
As all the world knows, that setting has turned many young Palestinian men to arms, bombs, rockets and martyrdom, but Abuelaish somehow managed to lever the same conditions into a collection of impressive medical degrees, a career of international distinction and a deeply rooted commitment to peace.
“I am proud of what I have achieved,” he says. “Don’t give up. With hard work and good will, you can succeed.”
On almost any other lips, the same words might easily sound naïve — the pious bromides that so often accompany someone else’s good fortune — but Abuelaish has forged his beliefs in what must rank among the toughest neighbourhoods on Earth. He has raised himself up through grit, not luck, and he has surely earned the right to be heard and respected.
Written with the aid of Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong, Abuelaish’s book is fast-paced, skilfully organized and highly evocative. He paints a lively portrait of Gaza, a luckless corner of the globe that manages to be a vibrant and bustling place, for all its poverty and privation.
For all his almost superhuman forbearance, Abuelaish manages to avoid coming across as a patsy. He does not hate, but he does lay blame. At times, the pages of his book seem to curl at the edges, so intensely does the doctor rail against the suffering inflicted upon his people by long decades of Israeli occupation and now by Israel’s blockade of the territory, a tactic that punishes all of Gaza’s 1.5 million people for the acts of a small number of militants.
These days, of course, Abuelaish and his immediate family find themselves far removed from the incarcerating walls, the smugglers’ tunnels and the bomb craters of Gaza. The new arrangements seem to suit everyone just fine, at least for now.
“They are happy here,” Abuelaish says of his five remaining children, three girls and two boys. “They are fully engaged.”
Shatha, who was badly injured in the Gaza attack, has yet to recover fully. Now 18, she has lost almost all sight in one of her eyes and no longer has motor control over two fingers. But she is enrolled in computer engineering at the University of Toronto and “is doing very well,” he says. “She is an example.”
All five have become passionate Canadians, in spirit if not yet in fact. Watching the Vancouver Olympic Games on TV, Abuelaish notes, all of his children rooted eagerly for the Canadian competitors at every opportunity.
In addition to serving as a father to his children and to shouldering his teaching duties at the U of T, Abuelaish maintains a hectic travel schedule, journeying across Canada and beyond to deliver his message of peace to any group that will listen, as many seem eager to do.
Among other distinctions, he has been nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, as ever, Abuelaish flatly rejects the cycle of retaliatory violence that has long dominated the Middle Eastern conflict, producing little but suffering for either side.
“Can we learn?” he wonders, gazing out over the commercial jumble of downtown Toronto, a mainly peaceful corner in a rancorous world. “Can we correct this crazy way?”
Just now, the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians seem characteristically grim, but Abuelaish insists on optimism all the same.
“Let us hope for tomorrow,” he says. “Losing hope means you are dead. Hope is life.”