Izzeldin Abuelaish lost his wife and three of his daughters in Gaza, but he hasn't lost hope
Walking through the debris of their home, the doctor from Gaza described their deaths live on air and in tears
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s past is wracked with tragedy. The Palestinian-Canadian doctor grew up in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. He lost his wife to leukaemia 12 years ago. Four months later, during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2009, three of his daughters were killed after an Israeli tank fired on their home, striking the bedroom in which they were reading and doing homework.
Abuelaish was at home at the time, along with his five other children and his brother’s family. He was about to appear on a regularly scheduled report on Israel’s Channel 10 station, where he would routinely speak about the effects of the war.
He phoned the station minutes after his daughters were killed. Walking through the debris of their home, Abuelaish described their deaths live on air and in tears.
“My God, my God, can’t anyone help us please? I want to save them, to save them, but they are dead,” he is heard saying on the live broadcast, which was later posted on YouTube and widely circulated in Israel and around the world.
But the trauma of his past has far from withered Abuelaish’s spirit.
A five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, The Gaza Doctor (as he is often referred to in the media) has devoted his life to medicine and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. His belief is that hate is not the right response to war.
“You can’t fight disease with disease or death with death,” he tells The National.
Abuelaish recalls the day he lost his daughters, Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13, with a sense of stoicism. He had escaped with minor injuries, but his other children and many members of his brother’s family were also hurt, some of them severely.
But he is resolute that he needed to dial into that call with the TV station in the immediate aftermath, despite not having yet been reached by emergency services. As in most similar strikes, the Israeli military would cordon off the area and Palestinian ambulances would struggle to arrive at the scene in a timely manner, if they did at all. And so, Abuelaish spoke instead to a reporter. He says it was a desperate plea for help and a call to end the shelling.
“I wanted to do something for the living. I didn’t want my children to grow up in hate, to succumb to extremism.” Abuelaish is coming to Hay Festival Abu Dhabi on Friday to talk about his experiences.
His parents were forced out of their Gaza home by Israeli settlers when Abuelaish was young, leaving them no other choice but to take up residence in Jabalia Refugee Camp.
After enduring the wretched conditions of the camp, Abuelaish received a scholarship to study medicine at Cairo University and spent much of the next two decades furthering his studies around the world, before eventually attaining his master’s degree in public health from Harvard University.
But he did not consider his role in Israel or Palestine as finished. He returned to work as a doctor in Gaza, and later became the first Palestinian physician to be appointed at an Israeli hospital. He was one of the few Gazans with a permit to work in Israel, and he used it to travel back and forth to Sheba Medical Centre in Tel HaShomer, near Tel Aviv. He treated Arab and Jewish patients and conducted research on fertility.
“I wanted the Israelis to see what a Palestinian could achieve if given the opportunity. That’s why I chose to work in an Israeli hospital,” he says.
In 2011, he released his book I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity, which details his journey to becoming one of the most outspoken educators on peace and development in the Middle East. The bestselling memoir has been translated into 23 languages and has even been adapted for the stage in Germany, France and Austria.
“I started writing the book before the tragedy,” he says. “But I didn’t start seriously working on it until after my daughters were killed. They say there’s a time for everything. After the tragedy, I moved to Toronto with my family and began seriously working on the book. The time to write the book came after I experienced the unbearable.”
I want my story to stir people from their passive role as observers. Hatred and war cannot be the purpose of our existence. We can all do something to help ease the world’s suffering, whether great or small.
Abuelaish is now an associate professor of Global Health at the University of Toronto. He teaches postgraduate students and carries out research on public health. In the evenings, he dedicates his time to his five remaining children, whom he calls “my life, my everything”.
Abuelaish has also set up a foundation in memory of his daughters. The Daughters For Life Foundation “provides scholarships and awards for aspiring young women to enable them to pursue studies that would otherwise be inaccessible to them”, Abuelaish says. “The foundation supports young women of any Middle Eastern nationality, regardless of their religious affiliation, ethnicity or background.”
The serenity of his existence in Canada may be a far cry from the life Abuelaish led in Gaza. But he says he will never forget Palestine or the tragic events that unfolded there.
“I want my story to stir people from their passive role as observers. Hatred and war cannot be the purpose of our existence. We can all do something to help ease the world’s suffering, whether great or small. We are living in an age where there are more than 65 million refugees. We shouldn’t see them as mere numbers. The effects of war and displacement don’t take place in a vacuum but are passed on from generation to generation.”
Izzeldin Abuelaish will speak at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi this Friday, at 4pm, on the Etihad Garden Stage
Updated: February 24, 2020 07:12 PM