After losing three daughters to Israeli shelling, a Palestinian doctor works to bring understanding to Jewish groups.
Through a father's pain, hope for peace
WASHINGTON // Someone other than Izzeldin Abuelaish might have seen less cause, less hope, for peace - certainly not more - after what happened on the afternoon of Jan 16. That is the day three of the Palestinian physician's daughters and a niece were killed at his home by Israeli shelling during Israel's three-week incursion into the Gaza Strip. Dr Abuelaish had spent much of his life trying to tear down walls and ease the suffering of others through his medical work and his advocacy of reconciliation and peace - efforts that this month earned him a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Suddenly, he was faced with unspeakable suffering of his own.
"Why?" he could be heard asking in the waiting room of an Israeli hospital where another daughter and niece were treated after the attack. Only later would he be able to emerge with an answer: through his story, the world - and, equally importantly, the Israeli people - might come to know the desperate situation in Gaza. "Maybe someone doesn't want the voice of wisdom to be loud, but I think he made a big, big mistake," Dr Abuelaish said this week in Washington during a discussion organised by Americans for Peace Now. "The voice of wisdom came out stronger and louder, and it will continue to be louder and stronger."
Dr Abuelaish hardly comes over as political, and he is not prone to sweeping policy pronouncements. He employs no tactic more elaborate than forging human connections. He was once referred to by an Israeli medical colleague as a "magical, secret bridge" between Palestinians and Israelis. Now, he is on a three-week tour of the United States, visiting Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, California and New York, doing what he long has: working to break down the barriers that might open the way to peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.
His audiences, by design, are largely Jewish. His visit here and to the west coast is being co-sponsored by Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist group based in Washington that advocates a two-state solution. Last night, he was scheduled to speak at a temple near Los Angeles, in Hebrew, in which he is fluent; this weekend, he will address a Torah study group and another synagogue outside San Francisco.
"I want them to wake up and think of both sides," Dr Abuelaish said, without hostility, in a brief interview before the discussion on Tuesday. "This is the right and the healthy way if we want to achieve a long-lasting respect and equality for both people and both sides. We want to live equally and respectfully. "It's time." Dr Abuelaish talked about life in Gaza and his own tragedy - the deaths of Bisan, 20, Mayar, 15 and Aya, 12, and a niece, Nur - from which he is determined to make something good. He called the Israeli defence forces' acknowledgement that shells from its tanks were responsible a "brave step". He spoke of his deep faith in God, and how he must have been chosen to expose the situation in Gaza, which he said had been going largely unnoticed.
"This secret must be disclosed, and who is going to disclose this secret?" he said. "Izzeldin was tested by God and his daughters and his niece to disclose this secret and show the size of the tragedy we are facing. You need someone to carry that responsibility." One participant in the audience, perhaps questioning his own resolve, wanted to know still more about Dr Abuelaish, whether there was something aside from his faith that sustained him. And the doctor said there was: he relies on his mind. "Thank God that I have my mind."
Dr Abuelaish, who has often provided commentary to the Israeli media, was the first Palestinian doctor to practise formally at Israel's Soroka Medical Center. He has served in other Israeli hospitals - he has a permit to travel across the border from Gaza but still must co-ordinate arrangements ahead of time - and in the field in his native Gaza, where the health care situation has been dire. He has been called a "medical ambassador", securing care for Gazans in Israel and, as a fertility expert, helping Jewish women conceive.
At the same hospital near Tel Aviv where his daughter was treated for severe eye and hand injuries, he is conducting research into how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has affected children both in Gaza and the Israeli border town of Sderot. He uses his medical work as a kind of metaphor for peace. As an obstetrician, he has helped bring life into the world. He has delivered Muslim babies, Jewish babies and Christian ones.
"No difference," he said. "Nothing is more important than saving lives," he said, "and within the borders of the hospital, all are equal. "I never look backward or to the past. That way, I can say I am not a victim. I learned to welcome things I cannot change. "Everything is possible, except for one thing: to return life to my daughters. I have the future. I can do good things for their memory. Darkness never drives out darkness."