Sunday, 5 June 2011

A doctor’s quest to heal the world.

I defy anyone to read Dr Izzeldin Abulaish’s book and remain indifferent. It is an account that would leave even the most hard hearted reader shaken.

In December 2008, in response to the escalating number of Qassam rockets launched against Israel by Hamas, Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on Gaza, followed by ground operations. Two weeks later, on January 16th, an IDF tank shell ripped through the wall of Dr. Abulaish’s apartment and exploded in his daughters’ bedroom. Three of his daughters were killed instantly: Bisan, 22, Mayer, 15, and Aya, 14, as was his niece, Noor,14.

In the midst of this mayhem he called journalist and news anchorman Shlomi Eldar who was presenting the news on Channel 10 at the time. By an extraordinary turn of events, Eldar decided to take the call, live on air. What followed next is a heartbreaking lamentation of a man whose family had just been blown to smithereens. “Oh God, they killed my daughters, Shlomi. I wanted to save them but they are dead. Allah, what have we done to them? Oh God.” The entire nation became privy to his calamity as it unfolded live on television. A video clip of this gut wrenching exchange was posted on youtube, becoming instantly viral.

Six months after the tragedy, in June 2009, Abulaish decided to write his story. At the end of the year the book, I shall not Hate, was published. It is a searing account of a bereaved father trying to salvage some solace in the face of a terrible tragedy. Throughout the narrative, Abulaish unravels the reasons which led him to the conclusion which is the book’s title. “I need to move forward, into the light, motivated by the spirits of those I have lost,” he explains.

I shall not Hate has been on the best sellers list in many countries and has been translated into 15 languages, including Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish. By the time Abulaish arrives for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, he is already enjoying celebrity status. Securing an interview with him requires careful planning from his Australian publisher. One hour is granted.

As I arrive at the venue where the festival is held, under the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge, I notice a mangled wreck of a car on top of which sits a massive rock that looks as if it had pounded it. For some this may be art; for anyone who hails from the Middle East, it conjures up an entirely different association. It seems so symbolic of what has brought Abulaish to Sydney.

I am taken backstage through a warren of passages until I finally lose all sense of direction and am wondering if, next, I am going to be blindfolded. Finally we reach a dressing room, an unlikely place for an interview, where I am asked to wait. When Abulaish arrives, he is all smiles. The night before, US president, Barak Obama delivered his speech in which he framed U.S. policy in the Middle East. Abulaish’s phone is abuzz with congratulatory text messages. In his speech, Obama alludes to ‘the Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza’. “I have the right to feel angry," Obama quotes Abulaish, "so many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is: I shall not hate. Let us hope for tomorrow."

In conversation with Abulaish, I realise that he is not simply promoting a book. He is promoting a very simple - perhaps simplistic - concept: that coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is possible; that peace is achievable and revenge is pointless. And as one who carries such a terrible burden of grief, he is best placed to promote this idea from the Palestinian side.

As a Gazan, does he feel that his views are representative of the people of Gaza, I ask.

He corrects me. “I live in Gaza but I am a Palestinian. Do you consider yourself first and foremost a resident of Ra’anana or do you consider yourself Israeli?” he asks back. On numerous occasions he employs this tactic of replying with a question. It is such a Jewish trait, I think to myself, but this should come as no surprise to Abulaish who likes to highlight the commonality between Israelis and Palestinians. “We are so similar, so close, in language, in culture, in geography. We need to find a way to live together” he pleads.

In his book Abulaish’s traces his life story to the present, in Toronto, where he is doing teaching and research at the university. Hailing from a wealthy and well-to-do family in a village called Houg, near Sderot (now the site of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s farm), his parents were dispossessed of their worldly goods in the aftermath of 1948. Abulaish was born 56 years ago in the squalor of the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza strip, living in abject poverty. He saw school and studying as his only salvation; his only hope of ever improving his lot. He took on menial jobs to support his family, while continuing to go to school. From these beginning, he went on to study medicine in Cairo and, later, train as an obstetrician at Soroka hospital in Israel. He describes these changes of fortunes without animosity or vengeance but as a means of explaining where he, alongside many other Palestinians, has come from.

One of the strength of his narrative is, indeed, its understated tone. He describes with calm, reason and composure the devastating result of the siege imposed on Gaza by Israel; the food shortages and the breakdown of essential services, notably medical services. When he enumerates the frustrations that are part of all Gazan’s daily misery, he doesn’t apportion collective blame. The soldiers at the checkpoints are not all nasty; some even seek his medical expertise and greet him. But what comes across clearly is the frustration and humiliation which he, with many other decent people from the Gaza strip, has had to endure on a daily basis all his life. Examples and anecdotes are laid bare for the reader to share and experience: The border crossings with their many haphazard, ad-hoc rules and regulations. The interminable delays at checkpoints, the inexplicable – and unpredictable – closure of the Erez crossing, the hostile gaze from young soldiers and the senseless run-around Gazans are forced to endure before they can cross to, or from, Israel. None is as poignant as the example he offers when his wife, Nadia, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Since there are no adequate medical facilities in Gaza, she was transferred to Sheba hospital in Israel. Abulaish was abroad when he heard the news and rushed to be by her bedside. His attempt to reach the hospital after landing in Amman is a catalogue of excruciating bureaucratic failures and callous indifference. At every checkpoint Abulaish declares that he is a physician working in Israel, explains the urgency of the situation, presents his permit, pleads and appeals to the soldiers to let him through but to no avail. At every turn he is brushed aside, told to come later or sent away. In one checkpoint he is mistakenly arrested when a soldier’s fails to read his permit correctly.

It took him over 30 hours to cover a journey that would ordinarily take less than an hour by car. By the time he got to the hospital, Nadia, his wife, was in a coma. Three days later she passed away.

But despite all this, there is no tone of animosity in his narration and no collective finger-pointing.

He managed to keep his anger in check also the day following his daughters’ death when this was, again, tested. As his 17-year-old daughter, Shadha, was undergoing emergency surgery in hospital (her eye was blown out of its socket during the blast), Abulaish gave an impromptu press conference at the hospital. He was suddenly shouted down by Levana Stern, who claimed her son was a paratrooper serving in Gaza. She screamed that if the army had shelled his apartment block then there must have been good reason for this, and who knows what he was hiding there at the time, a thinly veiled accusation which soon gave rise to numerous rumours that he had harboured militants in his home, none of which were true. Abulaish remembers the incident well.

“She did not want to listen. She just wanted to vent her anger. She was shouting louder to get herself heard. The following day, I was asked by a journalist to comment on her outburst. I said I wanted to meet her and listen to her, but I want her to listen to me too. We did meet and I told her how I felt and what I believed. I hope she will come round to seeing things like I do.”

Throughout the interview, what I find most arresting about Abuelaish is his determination to meet Israelis on an equal footing, or what he terms ‘at eye level’. He is neither aloof nor self-effacing. He is a gynaecologist who has trained in Israeli hospitals and has treated infertile Israeli couples and delivered their babies.

“Palestinians are not less intelligent than the Israelis” he says, “and we want peace, security and dignity just as much. Peace has to be just and good for both sides. It has to come by choice. Safety, security, dignity.”

In his quest to promote this vision of equality he sent his children to attend peace camps in the US for Israeli and Palestinian children so that they, too, can see each other as equals and not just view one another through the prism of the conflict.

Where does he draw his optimism from, I enquire. Does his faith ever fail him?

“Never!’ he responds without a second’s hesitation. “Sometimes I feel, well, discouraged or upset, but I wait for it to end, to disappear, and then I stand up again.”

He registers my surprise and continues “I am not exceptional. We are all the same. We all have a face, a mind, a heart. We all have the strength. In some it’s awake; in others it may be dormant. If I thought of hate and revenge, it will never help me or others. Hate is destructive to the hater, not the hated. It is a disease, a toxin.”

I note that he has still not answered my first question, so I repeat it. How representative is he of the Palestinians’ attitudes? He replies in Hebrew which initially surprises me; it is fluent with a distinct Arabic inflection. “I am a representative of myself and what I believe in. And I hope people will listen.”

Dr. Aublaish is a man who believes a lot of good comes from a little bit of good.

The book, while immensely readable, does not contain, or claim to be, a political treatise or a blueprint for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. It is not clear what kind of solution he envisages in practical terms. He avoids questions about Hamas, its charter, its intransigence and unwillingness to accept Israel’s existence. Will the Palestinian refugees be allowed to return? He clearly does not wish to be drawn into a discussion of this kind.

“We must all, each one of us, work to make it happen”, he says. “We must not get tangled in mutual accusations. Each individual, each community, each leader, each nation, must take responsibility. The road map is there. We just need the car to drive it and go.”

I attend his talk, given to a packed house, and look around as the audience sits, rapt. Here is a man whose life was turned upside down; the magnitude of his loss is unimaginable. And yet, his optimism is indefatigable; his faith unshaken. He has chosen to dedicate his life to promoting peace.

Noses are blowing into handkerchiefs and eyes are streaming, as he reads a poem in memory of his daughter, Bessan. Finally he tells the crowd: “There is a way forward, we can break the chain of violence and we can live in peace.” This is met by a thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

“I think he should be cloned many times over and sent to both Israel and Palestine”, remarks one lady to her friend on her way out.

Dr Abulaish has won hearts and minds here, but it was not a hard feat to accomplish. He is largely preaching to the converted. Changing minds and winning hearts back home, will be a different matter. And this is perhaps the nub of the tragedy: his book will be read by those who already share his vision. It is unlikely to be read by those who should be reading it, on either sides of the divide.

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