Before becoming a professor at the University of Toronto, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was a medical doctor in the Gaza Strip and Israel, and held the distinction of being the first Palestinian staff member in an Israeli hospital. For years he was an advocate for peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians, using the medical profession to help bring the two peoples together.
In 2008/2009, Israel declared war against the Hamas led government in Gaza. On one fateful morning, Abuelaish lost three of his daughters and a niece when an Israeli tank shell hit his family home. This tragedy laid the foundation for his best selling book “I Shall not Hate” and his non-profit organization “Daughters for Life”.
“Daughters for Life”
“As you see it from the name of my organization, my daughters are the inspiration for it” he says in referring to his foundation. “It is in the memory of my daughters who were killed in 2009 and for education of all girls and women”. For Abuelaish, this “keeps the memory of my daughters alive through good deeds”.
The cause has been well received, a fact Abuelaish proudly admits. “The message resonates and people are receptive to it. Last week when I was in Hong Kong, we raised about $400k from 150 people”. Recently, the New College in Saratosa, Florida, pledged 10 scholarships for women that would cover all tuition and boarding expenses.
Abuelaish’s struggle to provide equal education for women, as well as his passion for peace, seems focused primarily on his homeland. He affirms however that his life is not dedicated only to the people of Gaza, but to the struggles of oppressed people across the world. “Tell me one corner of the world that is devoid of these social destructive diseases that we see in Palestine?”
An Apology for His Loss
While educating woman is a lifelong goal for Abuelaish, he is equally committed to receiving an official apology from the Israeli government for his daughters’s wrongful death. Initially, the government responded by claiming that Hamas militants had fired a rocket from the surrounding areas which hit his building. Abuelaish asserts, however, that not one, but two rockets were fired at his residence by the Israeli military.
“I used every possible way through peaceful means, with all kinds of people, with ministers and the media to get an apology” he says in exasperation. “At last I received an email from my lawyer that the Israeli military had declared my family as collateral damage and that they don’t apologize for that”.
Ever since his legal battle with the Israeli government began, Abuelaish has encountered one obstacle after another. First, he was told he would have to deposit a bond of 20,000 Israeli Shekels to the court for each one of his daughters. “We are living in a world where you have to pay to convict the perpetrator”, he despairingly proclaims. Theh, the case was transferred from Jerusalem to a court in the city of Ber Sheva where the judge was unwilling to accept any matters related to Operation Cast Lead, the name given to the 2008/2009 assault against Gaza.
None of these impediments deterred Abuelaish from his goal of making the Israeli establishment admit wrongdoing in his daughters’ deaths. In a somber but assertive tone, he says his battle will continue even after he himself has died ,“I told my son Muhammad, who is 16 years old, to study international law. If I didn’t get it (apology) in my life, you continue to work for it and one day they will apologize, inshallah (God willing)”.
Campaigner for Peace; the Israeli Palestinian conflict
On matters related to Palestinian statehood, Abuelaish is defiant and remains hopeful for a peaceful conclusion to the conflict, which has ravaged the region for over 60 years.
Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the green light for another illegal building project in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, irking the international community and promising to doom any future negotiations.
Like many of his fellow compatriots, Abuelaish is a harsh critic of Israeli policy. Calling Netanyahu “self destructive”, he strongly argues that the prime minister is not alone in creating a nearly irreversible situation that makes the two state solution impossible. “It is just not the role of Netanyahu”, he says, “but of the Israeli government, the Americans and the international community”.
As to whether he believes Obama can resolve this issue, “If there is a will, there is a way to take the risk, and to sacrifice and be ready to take action because what is the value of discovering a treatment when a patient is dead”.
“I want to ask President Obama, to speak to his daughters and look into the eyes of his daughters and to see my girls. He read my book, he quoted it and spoke about it”.
Abuelaish believes that Obama should remind himself of his own struggles in life, growing up in a racially divided country. “He is a person who came from discrimination and suffering and he knows the meaning of being discriminated”.
While his criticism of the Israeli government was harsh, Abuelaish also had stern words for the leaders and the political parties representing the Palestinian people today.
Ever since Hamas took control of Gaza, the secular Fatah party has locked horns with the Islamist movement, leading to bloodshed, political upheaval, and a divided Palestinian polity. While efforts are being made on both sides to reach a sustainable reconciliation, tensions on major issues remain.
“I’m very sad about how long it has taken, to keep the Palestinian cause stranded for so long because of this divide”, he says. One step he suggests would be to include Hamas in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
“I hope that Hamas can join the PLO because our unity is a strength and our separation is a weakness and we should not be divided”. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and his party have consistently tried to discourage Hamas’s bid to join the PLO.
Recently, the PLO accused Hamas of an increasing “Talibanization” and “Muslim Brotherhoodization”. Hamas harshly denied the charge.
As negotiations continue for Hamas to be inducted in the PLO, it is becoming increasingly clear that the outcome of these discussions will have major implications for the future of the Palestinian cause.
“They should be united, know what they want, speak with one voice, think of their people, and what they can do for our people”. These requirements according to Abuelaish are a priority for the success of any future Palestinian leadership and are key to any solution to the decades old quagmire of the Palestinian people.