'Gaza Doctor' Builds New Life in Toronto

After Losing Daughters, Izzeldin Abuelaish Works for Peace

Starting Over: ‘Gaza Doctor’ Izzeldin Abuelaish lost three daughters to Israeli shelling. Now he is building a new life in Toronto, where he teaches public health.
nick kozak
Starting Over: ‘Gaza Doctor’ Izzeldin Abuelaish lost three daughters to Israeli shelling. Now he is building a new life in Toronto, where he teaches public health.

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 17, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The photo leaning on Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s office window almost blocks the view of the Toronto skyline. It shows his three daughters, Mayar, Aya and Bessan Abuelaish, sitting on the beach in Gaza, writing their names in the sand.

Closer to his desk, pinned to the wall, is the recent fourth-grade math test of Abuelaish’s youngest son, Abdullah, taken at his school in Toronto. The grade: A+.

Between the memories of the three daughters he lost to an Israeli shelling of his home in Gaza during the 2008-2009 conflict and his commitment to the family’s five remaining children, Abuelaish is trying to rebuild his life far away from Gaza.

He says he seeks to make sense of the tragedy by devoting his life to promoting peace and nonviolence. Guiding the way is a quote by Mahatma Gandhi hanging on the wall in his small office at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. The quote reads, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

“I owe it to my daughters,” Abuelaish said in an interview with the Forward. “I believe that one day I will meet them and they’ll ask: ‘What did you do for us? Did you forget us, or did you continue giving hope, sending a humanitarian message?’”

His eyes tearing up, Abuelaish continued: “I want to tell them: ‘Rest in peace. I will do everything I can for your souls. I’ll try harder than before.’”

When Abuelaish vows to “try harder,” he means using his remarkable personal tragedy to advocate for a peaceful relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. His book, “I Shall Not Hate: A Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity,” was published last year. Abuelaish is now active in raising funds for Daughters for Life, the foundation that he set up to help girls and women in the Middle East.

Abuelaish’s story came to symbolize the tragic reality of Palestinians and Israelis locked in a decades-long bloody conflict. On January 16, 2008, in the last days of the monthlong conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, an Israeli shell hit the Abuelaish home. Bessan Abuelaish, 20, and her teenage sisters, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13, were all killed on the spot.

The Israeli public learned of the horror in real time, as Abuelaish described the attack to an Israeli reporter on live TV.

As the reporter, Shlomi Eldar, held up his cell phone to the microphone, the crying voice of Abuelaish standing by the rubble of his Gaza home came in clear: “My daughters, oh my God, my daughters.”

The reporter in the studio tried to plead on air with the Israeli Defense Forces to allow ambulances to reach the house, but Abuelaish cried: “I want to save them, but they are dead. They are dead.”

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister at the time, later said that he came to tears when he saw the broadcast.

In May 2009, Abuelaish moved to Canada. He had been invited for a medical residency at the University of Toronto before the war, and decided to move as planned with his remaining five children. Bustling multicultural Toronto offers a stark contrast to Gaza, where life is marked by hardship and violence, and opportunities are scarce.

“People can learn from the Canadians. Take an example of how all the fear and stereotypes disappear,” Abuelaish said. He then reached for a piece of paper and wrote the word “justice.” “This is how it is here,” he said. “There is a law, and no one is above the law.”


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!
  • "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.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • 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.