Authors: Izzeldin Abuelaish
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #History, #Middle East, #General
To the memory of my parents—my mother, Dalal, and
my father, Mohammed
To the memory of my wife, Nadia, my daughters
Bessan, Mayar and Aya, and my niece Noor
To children everywhere.
Their only weapons are love and hope …
Sand and Sky
Finding My Way
Hearts and Minds
ZZELDIN ABUELAISH IS A PALESTINIAN
doctor who was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp on the Gaza Strip. An obstetrician/gynecologist who specializes in infertility treatment, he lives in Gaza but has worked in Israel for much of his adult life. He is also a Harvard-trained public health expert whose opinions and research are sought throughout the world. He is presently an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
But it’s in the strip of land he calls home—a place others call the biggest concentration camp in the world, where 1.5 million Gazans are crammed into 360 square kilometres of land—where he has developed a reputation as the doctor with the prescription for the Middle East. He has been crossing the line in the sand between Israelis and Palestinians for most of his life: as a physician who treats patients on both sides of the boundary; as a humanitarian who sees the need for improved health and education for adolescent girls and women as the way forward for the troubled region; and most recently, as the father whose daughters were killed by Israeli shells during the Gaza incursion on January 16, 2009. His
response to this tragedy catapulted Izzeldin Abuelaish directly into the hearts and minds of people around the world, and especially in Israel. He didn’t seek revenge or resort to hatred. Instead he said, “Let my daughters be the last to die,” and called for the people in the region to start talking to each other and act.
The immediate aftermath of the tragedy was covered live on Israeli television; within twenty-four hours, millions of television and YouTube viewers and bloggers knew of “the Gaza doctor.” Abuelaish has received many humanitarian awards and is in the process of starting a foundation in honour of his daughters—a foundation, he says, that will “empower the women and girls of the Middle East through health and education.”
His life story, which he tells here for the first time, is the chronicle of the Middle East through the eyes of one man who has lived the triumphs and tragedies of one of the most confounding places on the planet.
N THE EARLY NINETIES, WHEN
I was chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, Israel, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish contacted me for consultation on patients he was treating in the Gaza Strip. From then on, he used to bring his patients to me after work—mostly infertile couples—and I provided the consulting, usually free of charge. In time, I came to know Izzeldin as a very dedicated physician and empathetic human being and was impressed by his genuine compassion for his patients. I also found the way he looked at life and the world at large to be quite remarkable. Making the trip from Gaza to the Soroka hospital isn’t easy. You never know whether the border will be closed and if you will be able to get back again. Given that he and his fellow Gazans experience these frustrations on a daily basis, I found it extraordinary that Izzeldin never generalized his complaints. I never heard him condemn the injustices he suffered in general but only in specific, very focused ways. This attitude is also reflected in his optimistic outlook on life: he seems devoid of any existential pessimism or hopelessness. He never dwells on “what could have been done in
the past,” but rather on what can be done in the future. He is forward-looking and full of hope, which isn’t easy in this world and is particularly hard in
Another of Izzeldin’s impressive character traits is his eagerness to improve his knowledge. He’s always pushed for more training, and is never tired of learning and developing his skills. When I met him, he’d done obstetrics and gynecology in Saudi Arabia but he was dreaming of a formal residency in Israel. I regarded it as a great challenge to make him the first Palestinian physician to complete one. Residency programs in Israel are very intense and of high quality. Considering all the difficulties he faced living in Gaza, the question was not whether he was qualified for such a position but whether he would ever be able to make it work, since he never knew whether he’d be able to cross the border to fulfill the duties that awaited him here.
In 1995, at about the time I moved on to a chairmanship at another hospital, Izzeldin was admitted to the residency program in obstetrics and gynecology at Soroka Medical Center. It was an individually designed residency, not aimed at board exams but at completion of the curriculum. He completed it against all odds—all the different departments and rotations, troublesome border crossings, language barriers and problems with schedules. For instance, if you don’t show up, someone else has to pitch in for you on short notice, and nobody likes to do that. Depending on what was happening at the border, there were times when Izzeldin, along with all Palestinians from Gaza, was not allowed to enter Israel. Sometimes after night shifts when the border was closed, he couldn’t get back home to his family in Gaza. But he never called it quits. He completed the six-year program, he acquired full command of the Hebrew language, and he became a skilled gynecologist and obstetrician.
Izzeldin has every reason to be frustrated, disappointed and
offended by the environment he lives in, but he is not. Despite everything he has seen and gone through, his belief in coexistence and in the peace process between Palestinians and Jews remains unshaken. He doesn’t view Israel as a monolithic entity where everyone is the same. He knows many Israelis; some have become friends. He knows many Israelis who don’t dismiss all Palestinians as terrorists, and he knows many Palestinians who likewise do not look at all Israelis as right-wing occupiers. He believes that we are two peoples who want to live in peace and are fed up with war and bloodshed. In earlier times, ordinary people on both sides were more militant and the governments were perhaps more inclined to search for a solution. He believes that the situation is the reverse today: from the grassroots up, Palestinians and Israelis want to live in peace, to lead decent lives, to have roofs over their heads and safety for their children. It’s largely the leaders in both camps who continue to fight the unfinished battles of yesterday.
Over the years, we’ve kept in touch. I see him at conferences, and of course we also have discussions about the conflict in the Middle East and about the chances for reconciliation. Both of us are optimists at heart. Neither of us believes that the ideological obstacles that prevent us from finding common ground for a decent future are insurmountable. When our leaders discuss peace now, they speak mainly about the future geographical borders between Israel and the emerging Palestinian state. The conflict has become a quarrel about real estate. And this can, must and will be resolved one day.
Of course, this is an oversimplification. There is no denying that many fanatics on both sides keep doing everything they can to advance their respective extremist visions. But they are the minority. Our true tragedy is that almost everybody knows what the outcome will be, yet too few are willing to admit it and act
accordingly: two states living side by side, Jerusalem with a special status, a symbolic return of a few thousand refugees and compensation for the ones who don’t go back. The tragedy is the relentless march of follies in the opposite direction from this outcome, and all the Jewish and Arab casualties on that path.
When people ask if my optimism results from idealism or realism, I have to say it’s a mix of the two. You have to be realistic even if you’re an idealist. And you have to be idealistic in order to cope with the reality here. If you judged our lives only by what happened yesterday or today, you’d never be able to lift your head and look to the future. If, on the other hand, you only look ahead, you’ll stumble and walk in circles.
Izzeldin is realistic. He knows it’s no rose garden we live in. But he strongly believes that medicine can bridge the divide between our peoples. Medicine and science know no boundaries or frontiers, nor should they. When I do research on a specific topic, I read publications and refer to data produced everywhere in the world—Japan, Syria, France, the United States. All that matters is the quality of the report, not where the authors come from. At international congresses we meet colleagues from all over the world, sometimes from countries that have no diplomatic relations with us or with each other. When I speak at scientific meetings, Arabs don’t walk out the way they sometimes do at the United Nations. If I talk about medicine and science with a colleague whose country has no diplomatic relationship with Israel, we talk as professionals—although we may easily slip onto the personal level over coffee afterwards. Accepting differing points of view is possible if you know each other.
Izzeldin visited our home a few weeks before the Israeli Defense Forces began the bombardment of Gaza, and later we talked on the phone as the shells were falling. I asked him how he was handling his life under this bombing, living under constant
curfew with his children at home. He said, “Like everyone else, we are all sleeping in the same room. We put some children against one wall and some against another wall so if we’re hit we won’t all be wiped out.” On January 16, 2009, three of his girls were on the wrong wall. After this tragedy, who would have blamed him if he had been taken over by revenge and contempt?
A small group of influential Israelis asked for a formal investigation into the attack on Izzeldin’s house, and the ministry of defence responded by stalling and evasion. Currently an increasing number of Israeli voices, including parliament members, are making the same demand on an even larger scale, but there is still no formal and independent Israeli investigation going on. What the Israeli authorities have come out with so far isn’t sufficient. If a formal investigation comes to the conclusion that a huge mistake has been made, as it seems it has, the army should admit it in a straightforward and candid way—and apologize and take responsibility.
All of Izzeldin’s remarkable energy could have been turned into hate, but he didn’t take that path. Typically, he directed his energy toward a better place, which he summarized in a simple yet remarkable sentence:
“If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I could accept it.”
Izzeldin struggles for what he deeply believes in. He is dedicated to improving the environment he lives in by his own means, which is medicine. Albert Schweitzer, for example, may not have been the most acclaimed physician of his time, but through medicine he alerted the world to the suffering of Africans. He forced people to look at the African continent from a different angle and to understand what suffering is and what privileged people should do for the underprivileged. I strongly believe Schweitzer’s major contribution to medicine was not so much by helping thousands
of Africans as by awakening us to fellow human beings who were less privileged. Florence Nightingale is another example. She devoted her life to nursing and to improving medical care for the poor, and she demonstrated what the humanitarian role of medicine is. She showed that caring comes before curing.
I believe that Izzeldin has shown so much passion and compassion and dedication to bettering the human condition that this alone already makes him an extraordinary physician. But he transcends medicine. For Izzeldin, medicine is the tool to help people better understand the problems of one another, to better communicate, to help us live together. The many women he has treated or delivered at Soroka, his many Israeli colleagues with whom he has shared stressful situations in a busy clinical set-up, who have pitched in for him and for whom he has covered on other occasions, his superiors and peers—all have encountered in Izzeldin a Palestinian doctor from the Jabalia refugee camp who treats his patients with professionalism and compassion, who is an equal among equals, and who has become a friend. The Palestinian patients who come to Soroka have encountered Israeli doctors and nurses who treat them with compassion, according to their medical condition and not their origin. This is how medicine bridges the divide between people.