“THIS is the end. This is the end.” That is all Izzeldin Abuelaish could think when an Israeli tank shell hit his home on the afternoon of January 16, 2009.
For weeks, the Palestinian doctor and his eight children had hunkered down in their home to wait out Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip as part of Operation Cast Lead. The conflict had entered its 20th day, and there was talk of a ceasefire. Abuelaish kept reassuring his children that the war would soon be over.
And then the blast. “There was a monstrous explosion that seemed to be all around us,” he later recounted. “I remember the sound. I remember the blinding flash.”
When the dust finally settled, Abuelaish would run upstairs to find his three daughters — Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 14, — along with his niece Noor, 17, dead. His other daughter, Shatha, 17, and niece, Ghaida, were gravely injured.
His cries were heard throughout Israel. Moments after the blast, he phoned his friend Shlomi Elder, a reporter with Israel’s Channel Ten, to let the world know what had happened. “My God, my God. They killed my daughters,” he screamed through the speaker phone during a live news broadcast.
Exactly four months earlier to the day, his wife, Nadia, the mother of their children, had died in an Israeli hospital of leukemia.
By all accounts, Abuelaish had every reason to feel hatred, or even the desire to seek revenge. But he refused. “If I got revenge on all the Israeli people, would it bring my daughters back?” he wrote later in his international bestseller, I Shall Not Hate. “Hatred is an illness. It prevents healing and peace.”
Since then, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and travelled the world spreading his message of peace, landing in Australia last week to appear at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Speaking to The AJN, Abuelaish explained how he refuses to hate those who took his daughters. And despite everything that has happened to him and his family, he remains committed to peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
“If I hated, I would never be here,” he said in his Arabic-inflected English. “I would be alone in the corner. I would be burned by the fire of hate, and my children and my people would suffer. I carry the pain; I carry the wound. All of that [is] an energiser [for me] to act more.”
On the day we meet, President Barack Obama had only hours earlier quoted Abuelaish in his major policy speech on the Middle East. Abuelaish’s phone is ringing off the hook with congratulations from friends and enquiries from the world media — all of which has humbled the doctor, who said he was astonished to learn that his message had reached as far as President Obama.
“It has strengthened my belief that there is hope and people have started to listen, and that is what is needed to open people’s hearts,” he said. “The tears were there. I wrote to my my children who are [alive]: ‘You’re sisters are living.’ Even it means more responsibility, then we will do more. We need that this message gets out.”
FOR as long as Abuelaish can remember, he has been straddling the line in the sand dividing Palestinians and Israelis. He was born in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza in 1955. According to him, he already had three strikes against him: he was poor, his family had been dispossessed and he was the son of the second wife. At 15, his lot only got harder when his family home was bulldozed to the ground by Israeli tanks to widen the streets in the occupied territory.
Around the same time, Abuelaish had the chance to see another side of the Israeli character when he lodged with an Israeli family while working on a Jewish farm near Ashqelon, an Israeli town just north of the border. He said the experience, and the warmth and hospitality of his Israeli hosts, had a profound effect on him.
“It [taught] me to not underestimate myself, to understand others, to work in a positive way. I also learned not to generalise and link religions or nationalities to the acts of individuals. Religions are free from the acts of many people. I learned to dig deeper and judge each individual as a human and according to their behaviour.”
With the money Abuelaish saved from working on the farm, he helped his family purchase a new home. The young man with dreams of becoming a doctor also realised his life’s mission: to become a “messenger of peace”. He wanted to bridge the divide between people through the practice of medicine and healing the sick.
After receiving a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Cairo, he obtained a diploma in obstetrics and gynecology from the Ministry of Health in Saudia Arabia, in conjunction with the University of London. He then went on to study foetal medicine and genetics in Milan and Brussels before undertaking a master’s in public health at Harvard.
In 1997, Abuelaish took up residency at Soroka hospital in the Israeli city of Beersheba — the first Palestinian doctor to be assume the position. Anxious for his patients to know that he could understand their symptoms, he began studying Hebrew with a rabbi. He also become friends with his Israeli colleagues, often inviting them over for dinner to show them what life was like in Gaza.
But it didn’t stop there. Keen for his children to meet Israelis and discover their mutual ties, he encouraged three of his daughters, including Bessan and Shatha, to attend a peace camp in New Mexico for Israelis and Palestinians.
Even after his ordeal, he said, his position has not changed. With his remaining five children, he has worked to move on with his life, setting up home in Toronto. Following the deaths of his daughters, he also founded Daughters for Life, an organisation dedicated to changing the status and role of women in the Middle East.
Despite everything, he said he still believe peace is possible.“Of course. Nothing is impossible. There is a way. We must have hope and not underestimate the size of our actions. Peace needs action. The only impossible thing in life is to return my daughters.”
This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News here.