Despite my increasing passion for and interest in the Middle East, I’ve actually never taken a formal class on Middle Eastern politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Arab history. And so, I haven’t read through the standard reading lists for such courses of study, but have mainly been learning anecdotally and through time here and there in the region.
I was therefore very happy to pick up one of the more popular and essential reads in this sphere – I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey in the Road to Peace and Human Dignity by Izzeldin Abuelaish.
Abuelaish was born in a refugee camp in Gaza. Throughout his childhood, he had a tenacious desire for education that could propel him our of the misery and injustice of his circumstances.
“Everything is denied to us in Gaza. The response to each of our desires and needs is ‘No.’ No gas, no electricity, no exit visa. No to your children, no to your life.”
He saw education as his way out and was particularly inspired to become a doctor after receiving treatment at the Gaza City hospital as a teenager. This instilled in him the dream of becoming a doctor so that he could help people concretely and also improve his family’s situation. As he explains, “We don’t just study to improve ourselves; we study to raise the standard of living for our brothers and sisters.”
The family-orientedness is something Abuelaish notices that Jews and Arabs share: “It is quite astonishing to realize how similar our two peoples are, in the way that we raise our children, in the importance of family and extended family, and in the animated style with which we like to tell stories. We share the Semitic religions and languages. We have many more similarities than difference, and yet for sixty years, we haven’t been able to bridge the divide between us.”
Yet Abuelaish was continually trying and working to bridge this divide. While studying in London, he realized that many of the experts in his field who he was cited in his research were Israelis. And so he got in touch with the Israeli medical and academic community. He became the first Palestinian on staff at an Israeli hospital, learned Hebrew, and sent his children to summer camps in the U.S. focused on peace and coexistence so that his daughters could make friends with Israelis, realizing their humanity – and vice versa.
Dr. Abuelaish worked in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Europe. He received a degree from Harvard. Still, he continually returned to his family and community in Gaza despite the obnoxiously circuitous travel this demanded and the humiliating, degrading treatment he received at the border crossings.
Eventually he was offered a position at the University of Toronto. Given the escalation of violence and tension in the conflict, he and his family were preparing to make the move. However, on January 16, 2008, the IDF shelled his house and killed his three daughters and niece. The description of what he saw when he went into his daughters’ bedroom after the explosion was incredibly difficult to read – who can fathom the extent of this father’s grief at seeing that his daughters had been blown apart?
An Israeli friend of Dr. Abuelaish named Shlomi was a news broadcaster doing a live segment when he noticed Izzeldin was phoning him a second time. Shlomi decided to take the phone call on live TV, not knowing what to expect. Below is the record of that call during which Abuelaish exclaimed, “They shelled my house. They killed my daughters. What have we done?”
It really is one thing to have a cursory knowledge of Izzeldin’s story and another to have read the whole memoir which cultivates an attachment to and concern for each of his family members. It is in getting to know his daughters’ personalities, hopes, plans, dreams, and temperaments that the loss becomes more pronounced.
After this, many Palestinians called for Israeli blood to avenge the death of his daughters. But Dr. Abuelaish refused to seek retaliation or revenge, acknowledging that this is not the way forward and that it would never bring his daughters back.
To those who asked him, “Don’t you hate the Israelis?” Abuelaish would answer: “Which Israelis am I supposed to hate? The doctors and nurses I work with? The ones who are trying to save Ghaida’s life and Shatha’s eyesight? The babies I have delivered? Families like the Madmoonys who gave me work and shelter when I was a kid?”
This extraordinary response was made possible by his own strength of soul as well as by the contact he had had with Israelis. For this reason, his colleague who wrote the forward noted, “I never heard him condemn the injustices he suffered in general but only in specific, very focused ways.”
One of the most moving parts of the story is when he and his surviving children made it to Toronto in a chapter titled “Our New Home.” As a Canadian, I often forget the extent to which this country is a beacon of hope and a refuge to so many. It’s moving to be reminded of just how good we have it and that our country really is exceptional in profound yet rather modest ways.
For example, Dr. Abuelaish recounts how, as soon as he moved to Canada, his new neighbours who had children the same ages as his removed the fence dividing the yard so that the kids could run back and forth and play all together.
For Canadians, this is a small gesture easily done without much thought. But hearing how moving and welcoming it was to Abuelaish and his family, particularly given the life of divisions and barriers that they had fled, makes quite an impression.
I’m grateful for this book. It was heart-wrenching, riveting and, ultimately, uplifting. Here’s the foundation, called Daughters for Life, that Dr. Abuelaish established in his daughters memory in order to promote educational opportunities for women and girls from the Middle East.
Thanks Dr. Abuelaish! Hope to meet you and your daughters in Toronto sometime!