The Gaza doctor who says ‘I shall not hate’
In 2009 Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish witnessed the horrific deaths of three of his daughters and his niece when a tank shell exploded in his home in Gaza.
Moments later he gave a live interview to an Israeli TV news channel. The presenter held his mobile phone to the microphone so that viewers could hear the distraught medic crying and asking why this had happened.
It shocked the world, not least because Dr Abuelaish, an infertility specialist, was a Palestinian who worked across the border in Israel, and who treated patients on both sides of the conflict. His personal tragedy highlighted the appalling human cost of war.
Since then he has turned his grief into a force for good, writing and speaking about how the only resolution to conflict was not hate, but forgiveness and reconciliation.
As part of a trip to the UK organised by Yachad, a British Jewish organisation that campaigns for a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he visited the University of Sussex.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Saul Becker, who presented Dr Abuelaish, said: “He has succeeded despite all odds through a great determination of spirit, a strong faith, and a stalwart belief in hope and family. He is a passionate and eloquent proponent of peace between Palestinians and Israelis and has dedicated his life to using health as a vehicle for peace.”
To a packed lecture theatre Dr Abuelaish, whose memoir I Shall Not Hate is his response to the loss of his daughters, described hatred as “a chronic or acute destructive disease” that was contagious.
“Fear, incitement, hatred and violence are interconnected,” he said. “We need to cut this vicious cycle and stop the people who are spreading this incitement.”
For Dr Abuelaish, the conflict has been a lifelong experience. He was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, but decided early on that he wanted to become a doctor.
“I dreamt as a child that I wanted to get rid of the misery of life,” he remembered. “The only way to get rid of it is education.”
He won a scholarship to the University of Cairo, obtained a diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology with the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia in collaboration with the University of London; and completed a residency at Saroka Hospital in Israel.
He undertook further studies in Milan, Italy and at Erasme Hospital in Brussels, and went on to earn his Master’s degree in Public Health at Harvard University.
As the first doctor from Gaza to receive a staff position at an Israeli hospital, he said he was welcomed by colleagues and patients alike.
“If you go to any hospital, what do you want? You want a good doctor who is going to help you. You don’t ask about his colour, name ethnicity or religion. I wanted them to see the human face of the Palestinian.
“They called me the smiling doctor. They wanted to see me. I delivered many thousands of babies there – Jews, Christians, Muslims …”
He is now an associate Professor of Global Health at the University of Toronto, and spoke about the role academic institutions can play in resolving conflict.
“We need our education to have a huge social impact. I fully believe we have a moral and ethical role as academics in promoting humanity and justice, and to expose what is happening in this world.”
In memory of his daughters - Bessan, then aged 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13 - and his niece Noor, 17, Dr Abeulaish set up Daughters for Life Foundation, a charity that supports young women of Middle East nationalities, regardless of religious affiliation, to have access to higher education.
Awards are offered to students in Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, as well as scholarships at the graduate and undergraduate level to study in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
“I fully believe this would be a better world with women’s education,” he said. “We need to give women the right opportunities, to have the active role they deserve, to make a change in this world.
“For me, my daughters are not killed. They are living. They live with me. I see them, I talk to them. They are only apart from me. I believe I will meet them. But I want to meet them with a big gift. A message to them. I didn’t give up. My promise to my god and my daughters is I will never give up.”
After the talk on 21 March, Professor Becker said: “We welcome a diversity of voices on campus, addressing some of the most complex and challenging issues facing communities across the globe. Dr Abuelaish’s inspirational message is a reminder to all of us of the importance of forgiveness, understanding and tolerance.”