The extraordinary story of a Palestinian doctor from Gaza and his search for meaning in life. For his is a life few of us would be able to bear
Aimee Ginsburg | 25 Feb, 2011
The extraordinary story of a Palestinian doctor from Gaza and his search for meaning in life. For his is a life few of us would be able to bear
In the three months since his wife Nadia died suddenly of leukaemia, Izzeldin Abuelaish had been thinking more than ever about the future of his family. “I love Gaza, it is my home and always will be,” he says, “But life there is more difficult than you can imagine, and I wanted to give my children some chance to live in a peaceful place, at least for a while, where they could heal from their beloved mother’s death.” So on the morning after the holiday of Hajj, in the fall of 2008, he took them all—his six girls, Bessan, 20, Dalal, 19, Shatha, 18, Mayar (‘moon glow’) 15, Aya (‘colourful’) 14, and Raffah, 10, and his two boys Muhammed, 13, and Abdullah, 6—from their house in Jabaliya city for a day out at the beach, to play in the waves, run around in the open air, and be kids. Abuelaish, a Harvard-trained gynaecologist and expert in public health, had some news he wanted to discuss with his kids: he had received an offer to teach at the University of Toronto. Besides all this, there was a surprise: a tiny but lovely orchard he had purchased near the ocean, with olive, fig and apricot trees, overgrown shrubs and grass, all in need of loving care. The children rejoiced at the thought of their very own bit of paradise. Although born and raised in the inhumanly crowded streets of Gaza, their farmer genes kicked in soon enough (their grandparents had owned farmland before they became refugees), and the children got to work at once. Later, in the shade of their secret garden, the children gave their father a firm thumbs up on the move. “I want to fly, daddy,” said Aya. Mayar had already stated in the past, “When I grow up and become a mother, I want my kids to live in a world where ‘rocket’ is just another word for space shuttle.” This move could give her that wish. Later, the children ran down to the shore, and spent the hour before sunset writing their names in the sand.
And so it was decided. ‘And while we were in Canada,’ Dr Abuelaish recalls thinking in his book I Shall Not Hate (soon to be released in India by Bloomsbury), ‘This place would be waiting for us. There is something eternal about olive, fig and apricot trees, a piece of land that’s near a beach, where the sky meets the sea and the sand… and the laughter of children soars on the wind.’
This would not be Abuelaish’s first journey out of the tiny stretch of land between Egypt and Israel, where the population density is the highest in the world. As the first Gazan doctor on the staff of several major Israeli hospitals, he knew the rigours of passing through the dreaded checkpoints, Israeli and Egyptian, better than most. “Through all the tension and humiliation, one needs to remain absolutely calm, or else you do not know what they will do to you, how they will decide to humiliate you… when, if ever, you will be allowed to leave or re-enter,” he says, “then, sometimes, I would come home to my wife and kids, and take out these held-back feelings on them. This is how it works.” His three eldest daughters had also been abroad—to participate in peace camps that bring Israeli/Jewish and Palestinian kids together so they can get familiar with and learn to trust each other. Bessan, who had attended these thrice, had decided to devote her life to peace activism. “I raised them for peace and taught them peace, because it is what I believe in,” says her father. Now it was time for the family to cross that check post together, and fly away.
“Not that leaving would be easy,” says Abuelaish, “I had so much work in Gaza, so many patients in Israel, and dear family and friends on both sides of the border.” He also had some friends in the Israeli media, and one of them was Shlomi Eldar, Gaza correspondent for Israeli TV’s Channel 10. Eldar has always been admired or derided in turn as one of the only Israeli journalists determined to get out the truth of ‘both sides’ of the conflict, not just the official Israeli line. Abuelaish had met him some years ago at the Israel/Gaza border crossing and had kept in touch, but could not guess what they would come to share.
Israel’s war on Gaza began on 27 December 2008, only days after the Abuelaish family’s enchanted day on the beach, and the media was banned from entering ‘the strip’. Eldar, looking for real rather than slanted information on the missile barrages that were causing an extremely heavy civilian death toll and ravaging the two cities and eight refugee camps that make up Gaza, started calling Abuelaish, stranded at home with his children, for mobile phone reports from the ground. (‘The militia are living among the civilians, and so we have no choice’ was the position of the Israeli army, which started this war on Gaza as a response to the sustained, many-month-long attack of Qassam rockets fired on Southern Israeli towns and cities by Hamas militia in Gaza.)
The Abuelaish family, including their uncles and cousins, stayed together in their large five-storey house, crowding together in the dining room in the centre of the house, away from the dangerous outer walls, their food and water supplies running out, their power cut, the sky so full of exploded earth and cement that day and night had become one. Throughout this time, Eldar (and others) called the doctor, who reported in perfect Hebrew what he saw from his window. One day, a tank took position in front of the house. Abuelaish, terrified, called Eldar, who (together with star journalist Gabi Gazit) called their contacts in the army and broadcast it all live. Within 15 minutes, the tank retreated. “Although the whole situation was very hard for us, I was so proud of our family, of the wonderful children,” recalls Abuelaish, “they were all taking care of each other, helping each other to get through it.”
On 16 January 2009, several days before a ceasefire was finally declared, the family did what it rarely did—ate a real meal (of rice and rabbit, fetched bravely from the pen outside by Izzeldin’s brother; nobody sane was venturing out of home, but the food in the powerless fridge had rotted and the pantry had nothing left). After lunch, they did another rare thing—instead of staying together in the dining room, they dispersed, only for a while, into separate rooms. “I go back in my mind,” says Abuelaish, recounting the horror headed his way, “I gather us up again, into our crowded dining room in the centre of the house, with our mattresses lined up together.” Suddenly, a blast tore through the older girls’ room, and he and Bessan ran there, followed by his brother and niece Noor. Several moments later, there was another blast. ‘I’m still not sure who was killed when… bedroom furniture, schoolbooks, dolls, running shoes, and pieces of wood were splintered in a heap, along with body parts,’ writes Izzeldin Abuelaish in I Shall Not Hate, ‘I found Mayar’s body on the ground, she had been decapitated. There was brain matter on the ceiling, a girl’s hands and feet on the floor as if dropped there by someone who had left in a hurry.’
Mayar, Aya, the eldest Bessan and their cousin Noor were dead. Shatha was severely wounded, with an eyeball hanging out on her cheek, as were Izzeldin’s brother and another niece, Ghaida, who was barely alive. “Why are you crying, daddy?” Muhammed asked when he saw what had happened, “Don’t be sad, mother missed them, and now they are happy with her.” This was the innocence of his heart speaking, says his father, and in that moment he decided that the dead were dead, but he had to ensure the living remained alive.
He struggled to think.
Shlomi Eldar, at that moment, was on a Friday afternoon news/talk show, live on air, all set to begin a phone interview with Israel’s minister of foreign affairs. When Abuelaish’s number came up on his cell phone, he cut the call. But when the phone rang again, some inexplicable instinct had him take the call, asking his viewers and the minister on the other line to wait.
“Ya Allah, ya Rabba!” he heard the doctor cry, “What have we done, Shlomi, what have we done?”
Eldar, fighting a losing battle for composure, put the call on ‘speaker’ mode, and Israelis at large heard the cries which many feel brought about the ceasefire several days later.
“What can we do to save them?” pleaded Eldar, “Tell me what we can do?”
“I wanted to save them, Shlomi,” their dad sobbed, “But they are dead, Ya Allah, what have we done?”
After a long while, Eldar had a message for his audience: he could and would not cut this call. And with that, he took off his earpiece and left the studio.
Off camera, Eldar used his contacts to arrange a hassle-free passage of the Abuelaish wounded into Israel for medical help. Later that night, dozens of Israelis came to the hospital to meet him and show their support.
“I pray my children will be the last price of war,” said Abuelaish to the many news cameras trained on him, “that they will be satisfied with this, and they will stop… they will stop…”
In his first interview on the matter since the tragedy, Shlomi Eldar told me that two years later, people still approach him frequently to ask about the family’s welfare, and to tell him how moved they were. “Strangely,” he says, “everyone I meet saw those moments live, as if we have 100 per cent rating for our show—which we don’t.” He says many people had the tragedy and reality of Gazan suffering brought home to them for the very first time by that broadcast, and that even the then Prime Minister Olmert told the media he had watched and cried, like everyone else (there were those, Eldar adds, who continue to try and slander the doctor as if he had been hiding militants and weapons in his house, an accusation even the Israeli army has denied).
Recently, Abuelaish filed a suit in an Israeli court against the Israeli Government. “They forced me,” he says, “I tried every peaceful way (with the help of many influential Israelis) to get them to issue an apology and a voluntary compensation for their mistake, but now the statute of limitations was running out. Believe me, I don’t care as much about the compensation as I care about the official apology.” The Israeli government has conceded it fired the shells, but shrugged the bombs off by describing the event as ‘an operation of war’. “Many here firmly support his court case,” says Eldar, “But there are others who say things like ‘After everything we did for him? We felt sorry for him and helped him in the hospital and now he goes and sues us?’”
I first met Izzeldin Abuelaish at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month. Like many in attendance, I had heard of this extraordinary man, his unfathomable loss and his spiritual courage, and had seen the famous YouTube clip of Abuelaish’s phone call to Eldar. As I joined the crowd for his talk, I felt torn: would I be, should I be, listening to him and judging the remarks of the crowd as an Israeli? And if so, would it be as the Israeli peace activist I once was, who had left Israel 15 years ago, exhausted and discouraged beyond hope by Israeli policies in the occupied territories? Or would I be listening as the Israeli I seemed to be now, who after years in exile has grown wary of the usual anti-Israel sentiments of many I’ve come across, who usually have little knowledge of the layers and nuances of this conflict and seeming double standards in judging conflicts in their own countries? As the talk started, I braced myself for feelings of confusion, but soon, like everyone else in the room, I was too humbled to feel anything but awe. “Politics is not the real question when speaking of war or peace,” said Abuelaish on stage, warm and intense, “Peace is not the absence of war. It is, first of all, an inner state of health and serenity, of trust. In my life, I have met more good people than bad, many people to love, no one to hate.” He said that despite years of humiliation as a refugee, he has also known frequent generosity, kindness and camaraderie among fellow doctors, employers and patients in Israel. “This I know,” he said, “that revenge and counter revenge are suicidal, that mutual respect, equality and co-existence are the only reasonable way forward, and I firmly believe that the vast majority of the people who live in this region agree with me.”
After his talk, I went to him to thank him, make contact, and ask for an interview. When I introduced myself as the India correspondent for Yedioth Achronoth (Israel’s largest daily), his face broke out into a huge smile and he answered in Hebrew: “Shalom! I am so happy to meet you; I miss you all so much!”
Despite the message he had delivered, I was taken aback. How can that be? I asked. “We’re one family, don’t you know? We’re allies, partners. We need each other to heal our common sickness. Don’t you know how many dear friends I’ve left behind?” Despite the crowd of journalists vying (quite aggressively) for his attention, Abuelaish, who had come to India from Canada for a mere 48 hours to deliver his message of forgiveness and hope (“I have kids waiting at home,” he explained), told them all serenely, “Yes, of course I will talk to you all, but you have to understand, talking directly to the Israeli public—that is my holiest work of all.”
“The first thing we have to do,” he said to me during a subsequent Goa-Toronto Skype conversation, when I asked him what practical steps each of us could take to end the conflict , “is change the language we use. We have to stop speaking the language of separation, ‘us and them’, and speak only in the words of unity. Our disease, our fighting, our future, our children—our peace.”
The Abuelaish family now lives in Toronto. Their father reports that Dalal, Shatha, Raffah, Muhammed and Abdullah are doing as well as can be expected: the older ones are at university, where they top their class, the younger ones are in grade school, where the other children show them tender loving kindness. While they do miss their home in Gaza, especially the graves of their mother and sisters, they have settled in. “I want to be where I can be most effective,” says Abuelaish, who travels frequently for his talks on peace and has also started an NGO called Daughters of Life, which helps girls in the Middle East, Israel included, gain an education to become professionals in humanitarian fields. In 2010, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“I am a man of deep faith,” he says to me in Jaipur, having just spent two hours searching for him desperately, after a misunderstanding about time and place. While I ran here and there, I felt an overwhelming sense of panic and grief, as if finding him was my only chance of holding onto some hope for our beloved and tragically torn family—we Israelis and Palestinians who have hurt and been hurt by each other so terribly.
When I find him, he smiles calmly, and beckons me to sit by his side. He tells me that Bessan, Mayar, Aya and Noor are with him at all times, and that he promises them daily that he will not stop his work until there is peace. “I believe with all of my heart that God does things only for the good, never for the bad, and even if we can’t understand it, we have to accept it,” he says. I ask him if he has managed to find ‘the good’ in what happened to his family.
“Well,” he answers, big round tears starting to trickle from his eyes onto his jacket lapel as they do often while he talks, undisturbed, unmentioned, unbrushed- aside, “I think about it a lot. When I lost my daughters, I started to think how and why this had to happen. I don’t have an answer yet, but I have come to realise why their mother had to die when she did. I am strong, but their mother would never have been able to bear seeing her darling daughters killed.”