Saturday, 20 September 2014

I Shall Not Hate

In our fickle media age we've moved on from the Gaza conflict and are now obsessed with the atrocities in Iraq.  However, peace in Gaza is still fragile and temporary, and there is a long way to go before that situation could be considered truly resolved.  So I've been reading Izzeldin Abuelaish's 2010 memoir, I Shall Not Hate.

Abuelaish came to international attention during the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of Gaza when his house was bombed by Israeli tanks, killing three of his daughters and his niece and injuring a number of other family members.  This book tells that story, but puts it in its place in Abuelaish's life and work.  It's a moving, tragic and yet hopeful book.

The Abuelaish family originates from a village called Houg in southern Palestine.  They were wealthy farmers, his grandfather the village muktar.  However in 1948 during the first Israeli/Arab war, known to Palestinians as the Nakba or "Catastrophe", they fled their homes and walked the six miles to the designated safe haven in Gaza.

They always assumed that they would go back, that their refuge in the Jabalia refugee camp was a mere temporary safety measure, but temporary stretched on from weeks to months to years.  They were still there in 1955 when Izzeldin was born.  They were still there in 1973 when their farmland was taken over by Ariel Sharon and he renamed it Havat Shikmim or "Sycamore Ranch".  The Abulaish family were never paid for their land and Izzeldin still has the title deeds in his possession although he harbours no hope of ever being able to reclaim it.

He describes a childhood of grinding poverty, he and his parents and siblings crowded into a single room, his mother made harsh and bitter by the continual struggle for survival, the daily search for enough to eat.  As the oldest child, Izzeldin had to contribute to the family income from an early age, getting up at dawn to trade the family's surplus milk ration for extra cash, doing odd jobs and as he got older working in a variety of jobs before and after school and in the holidays.

His good fortune was that he was a gifted scholar, and despite the fact that he could have contributed more to the family's survival by leaving school as a teenager to work full time, his family supported him to persist and he eventually gained admission to Cairo University, where he studied to be a doctor.  This made it possible for him to lift himself and his siblings out of the direst poverty, building a large multi-storey apartment block in Jabalia in which each of his brothers has a floor.  His gifts also enabled him to become a trailblazer in many ways, becoming the first Palestinian physician to work in an Israeli hospital, pioneering approaches to women's health and public health in the Islamic context and gaining an international reputation for his public health work.

Yet despite his international reputation and his friendship with a number of prominent Israeli medical and public figures, he was not exempted from the daily grind of life as a Palestinian refugee in Gaza.  A huge part of this grind is the difficulty of travelling between Gaza and Israel, a daily or weekly necessity for Abuelaish and thousands of other Palestinians.  This is a journey of only a few kilometres but involves a complex checkpoint at which Palestinians are subjected to multiple document checks, security searches and questioning as to their reason for travel, and frequently turned back without any specified reason.  What should be a half hour or hour journey is transformed into hours of humiliation and frustration.

Health facilities in Gaza are rudimentary and medicine is often in short supply due to the blockade, so many Palestinians need to travel to Israel, especially Tel Aviv, for treatment.  Not only are sick people subjected to lengthy delays at the border, many are turned back when the border guards deem they can be treated in Palestine, despite the guards having no medical training and no access to medical advice.

With this poverty and harassment added to their original dispossession it is not surprising many Palestinians harbour deep hatred towards Israel.  Not so for Abuelaish.  He is saved from this hatred by his own values of peace and tolerance, and by the fact that he has personal experience of the friendship and kindness of many ordinary Israelis.  He first experienced this when he spent a summer in his teenage years working on an Israeli farm where the owners treated him just like the rest of their employees, despite his often embarrassing ignorance of their lifestyle - like his collecting the pile of discarded clothing to distribute to needy friends and family back home, only to have to return them when the family started wondering what had happened to their dirty laundry.

These experiences increased in number and intensity as his medical career progressed and he developed close friendships with Israeli colleagues, persuading many of them to help with his projects to improve health services in Gaza.  This led him to conclude that the resolution of his people's suffering lay not in a military defeat of Israel but in compromise and peaceful co-existence.  He found that many Israelis felt the same, and they formed bonds across the borders to work towards this peace.

His refusal to hate was sorely tested in 2008 and 2009 by two personal tragedies.  The first was an ordinary one, and nothing to do with the Israelis - his wife Nadia died of an aggressive form of leukemia.  Indeed, Nadia was treated by Israeli doctors in the hospital where Izzeldin worked.  However after her initial treatment, when she appeared to be in remission, Izzeldin left the country to work on a UN health project.  On his way out of the country he was delayed at the checkpoint, with the guards telling him his name was on a security watch-list and he would not be allowed to leave.  Phone calls to various prominent Israeli friends eventually identified that his listing was a mistake and he was allowed to depart.

While he was away, Nadia's condition deteriorated rapidly and he attempted to rush home to be with her.  Palestinians are not allowed to use Israeli airports so he made his flight to neighbouring Jordan, from where he would travel across the West Bank and into Tel Aviv to join his wife in hospital.  What should have been a journey of an hour or two turned into a 36-hour nightmare as he was held up at checkpoint after checkpoint, each one finding his name on the same security watch-list and detaining him interminably as he struggled towards his destination.  He arrived, angry and sleep-deprived, just in time to be with Nadia in her last hours.

This may seem bad enough, but worse was to come.  In late December 2008 the Israeli army began shelling and bombing Gaza, and on 2 January 2009 they sent in their ground troops.  The Abuelaish family found themselves in war zone.  Terrified, with the power off and food supplies extremely limited, Izzeldin, his eight children and other family members huddled in their Jabalia home as the war raged around them, keeping out of the way of the Israeli military and praying for the war to finish quickly.  Because Izzeldin was well known in Israel and understood to be independent, journalists with no access to Gaza would contact him for information and he gave nightly interviews on Israeli television, describing the situation in Gaza as he saw it from his front door.

Then on January 16 an Israeli tank fired on his home twice, destroying his daughters' bedroom, killing three of his daughters and his niece and injuring various others including severe injuries to another of his daughters.  In his extreme distress, he phoned the TV newscaster for whom he had been reporting on conditions in Gaza.  His call was broadcast on air, as was the story of his subsequent running of the border gauntlet to get his critically injured daughter to the Tel Aviv hospital which represented her only hope of survival.  He became the face of the almost 300 Palestinian children killed in that conflict.

At this point he could have been forgiven for giving up his dream of peaceful resolution, especially as the Israeli army rubbed salt in the wounds by suggesting his home harboured combatants or that a sniper was firing from his roof.  He is still waiting for his apology.  Indeed, the atrocity has made huge changes in his life - soon afterwards he accepted a university position in Toronto, putting the safety of his remaining children ahead of his own desire to stay home.  However, he continues to cling to the belief that the conflict can be resolved, and to put his energy into building that peace.  In his book he expresses the hope that his children will be the last to die in this conflict.  Even when this year's repeat performance dashed that hope he continued to advocate for a peaceful solution.

During the most recent conflict, the public discussion, and much of the commentary from my friends and family, presented it as a "goodies and baddies" event, a zero sum game in which either Israel or Palestine would have to be crippled before the conflict ended.  Izzeldin Abuelaish gives the lie to this simplistic understanding.  He does not shy away from the injustices that continue to be perpetrated on Palestinians.  Yet he is also critical of Hamas and its exploitation of hatred and anger.  He is a faithful practicing Muslim who believes in peace, toleration and the empowerment of women.  He identifies people on both sides of the conflict who long for peace and who work hard for it.  He identifies processes for building friendships and collaboration across racial and religious divides.  He strives against the stereotyping of people of either race.  In his medical practice he treats Israelis and Palestinians exactly the same, and he points to his Israeli colleagues who do likewise.

It's easy for such voices to be drowned out, but we shouldn't let that happen.  Our world is desperately in need of peacemakers and bridge-builders and they need to be heard.

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