Toronto — 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.”