Gaza Doctor’s Story: A Painful Legacy Of Occupation

Editor's Notebook

By Jane Eisner

Published December 29, 2010, issue of January 07, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The public pain suffered by Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gaza doctor who lost three of his daughters and a niece when their house was bombed by the Israel Defense Forces in the closing days of Operation Cast Lead two years ago, is by now well known, his horrifying cries — broadcast live on Israeli television — symbolizing the worst human outcome of that complicated military campaign.

But I want to share with you another terrifying moment in Abuelaish’s story.

It was several months earlier, September 2008. Abuelaish’s wife, Nadia, was diagnosed with acute leukemia while he was on a business trip in Europe. Given his deep connections with Israeli medicine — Abuelaish was the first Palestinian doctor to complete a residency program in an Israeli hospital — he was able to get her transferred to Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, where he had been on staff, for what he knew was treatment far superior to anything she would receive in Gaza.

But her situation suddenly deteriorated, and he had to get to the hospital, fast. Had he been anything but a Palestinian, he could have boarded a flight in Brussels and been in Tel Aviv in just a few hours.

Instead, he had to fly from Brussels to Munich to Istanbul to Amman, then grab a taxi to the Allenby Bridge and wait five-and-a-half hours for the crossing into Israel to open. The first in line when the security booth finally opened, Abuelaish was inexplicably held at the border for ten-and-a-half hours, by guards impervious to his pleas to see his gravely ill wife and the entreaties of Israeli friends who vouched for him.

Once past that gauntlet, Abuelaish was detained again at a checkpoint by another guard who, as he wrote, “behaved as though I were a suicide bomber trying to sneak into the city.” He was then ordered to go to Jericho, 30 miles away, and then to Bethlehem, where he was thrown into a cramped, locked cubicle, until, just as inexplicably, another guard curtly gave him a permit to leave, 18 hours after he first arrived at the Allenby crossing, days after he had left for home.

By the time Abuelaish finally arrived at the hospital, Nadia was unconscious. She died several days later.

It is difficult, but possible, to attribute the deaths of the Abuelaish daughters to the unpredictable catastrophes that occur in wartime. The Gaza campaign, launched just two years ago, was a particularly daunting exercise, as the IDF tried to root out an enemy known for using civilians as shields in crowded, hostile territory. Innocents are bound to die in such circumstances. That’s why war must only be employed as a very last resort.

But it is Abuelaish’s painful telling of his life under continued occupation as recounted in his compact memoir, “I Shall Not Hate,” coming out shortly after the new year, that is ultimately even more damning and essential for us to comprehend. The people of Gaza, whether ruled by Egypt, Israel or now Hamas, have been prisoners for decades, subject to restrictions on education, employment, commerce, travel and virtually every aspect of daily life.

Actually, the Abuelaish family was originally from the village of Huog, in southern Israel near Sderot; they left for Gaza amidst the turbulence of 1948. (Ironically, though they still retain the ownership papers to the farm in Huog, it is now known as Sharon Farm, home to former prime minister Ariel Sharon.)

Dirt-poor refugees, forced to share a common public toilet, to scrounge for food and clothing, to witness their tiny home bulldozed by Israeli tanks to make way for a road-widening project, the Abuelaishes nonetheless raised Izzeldin, their oldest, to strive and succeed. And he did, with a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo, and then completing further studies in England, Belgium, Italy and even Harvard.

Along the way, he was befriended by Israelis — by a farming family, the Madmoonys, for whom he worked as a teenager; by the physicians and medical staff who assisted in his training; by the patients he treated. This is what gives his story such credibility. His experiences are broad and varied enough to drive away the impulse to stereotype and categorize. On that fateful day when his three daughters and niece were killed, it was Israeli doctors who struggled to save the eyesight of another injured daughter and the life of another niece. As he wrote:

“I tried to respond to the chorus of people calling for Israeli blood to atone for the deaths of my girls. One said, ‘Don’t you hate the Israelis?’ Which Israelis am I supposed to hate? I replied. 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?”

But precisely because Abuelaish has this sort of deeply nuanced approach to the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, precisely because he yearns to point out the good in those who are supposed to be his enemy, we cannot ignore or deny his damning portrayal of life under occupation. It’s not enough to blame the current situation in Gaza on Hamas — Israel still controls border crossings, the import and export of food and goods, and the movement of people.

Israel still makes decisions that cause a hard-working, peace-loving, grief-stricken physician to be treated like a common criminal at a border crossing. This is the legacy of occupation. It’s our legacy, too.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.