'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.
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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.
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His older daughters are now in college, and the younger ones go to local schools. Moving back to Gaza does not seem to be in the cards anytime soon, especially since his wife had died shortly before the Gaza conflict. The children, he explains, have settled into their new home.

Still, Abuelaish insists he has not forgotten his homeland. “I’m a Palestinian and will continue to be Palestinian,” he declared.

The troubling news from the region always makes its way to the Abuelaish home quickly. The latest flare-up, which started in early March with an Israeli-targeted killing of an Islamic jihad operative and was answered by a barrage of rockets toward towns in southern Israel, brought back frightening memories. Abuelaish’s daughter phoned her cousins in Gaza, only to hear that the Israeli shells hit the building next door. Abuelaish once again reached for his pen and paper, sketching a map of the street to demonstrate how close the shells came to his family’s home.

“How long will this go on?” he asked. “Instead of having courage to carry out targeted killings, you should have the courage to do good, to reach out.”

The “Gaza Doctor,” as he is known around the world, does not put the blame solely on those ordering the rocket strikes or assassinations. Abuelaish believes that it is the people of the two nations that are responsible for making a better future, not the leaders of Hamas in Gaza, Fatah in the West Bank or Likud in Israel.

“Leadership is not the problem,” he said. “We created this leadership; we should take responsibility.”

And so, although Abuelaish’s office is adorned with pictures of him posing with world leaders, his work is directed at the grassroots. He marvels at letters and emails received from Israelis, Palestinians and others who either have read the book or heard his lectures.

One of them is from a young Israeli woman who wanted to contact him earlier, but was serving in the Israeli army and was not free to express her views. Now she embraces Abuelaish’s mission. “When you see someone like that, you see we can make a difference,” he said. “Every change begins with one person.”

Abuelaish believes that the lesson of the Arab Spring, the string of democratic-driven uprisings in Arab countries, is not to underestimate the power of the people. Even though authoritarian regimes held all the levers of power, they were unable to hold back a tide of change. “All the weapons didn’t help, because people had no fear,” he said.

In his new homeland, Abuelaish juggles his academic work with peace activism. He teaches courses such as “Health as an Engine for the Journey to Peace” and a class on women’s health in areas of conflict, and in between he travels the world to preach co-existence and peace. His phone rings, and on the line is a friend from Morocco. Abuelaish’s book is being published in Arabic, and he is planning a speaking tour in Arab countries, exposing a new audience to his ideas.

Optimism is Abuelaish’s driving power. A son of Palestinian refugees, he worked his way up to become a nationally recognized expert on women’s reproductive health. Abuelaish firmly believes in the power of an individual to make change. He draws another set of dots on the paper, this time to explain that nothing can be predicted in life and that no conflict can be sustained forever.

Encounters with Israeli authorities can frustrate even a person as optimistic as Abuelaish. Since the killing of his daughters, he has been seeking an apology from the Israeli military. He approached the Ministry of Defense directly and through Israeli members of the Knesset, and eventually, weeks before the statute of limitations kicked in, he filed a lawsuit seeking recognition of guilt and compensation, to be paid to the fund he established.

Legal proceedings turned out to be an even greater source of anguish. An Israeli court ruled that in order for it to hear the case, Abuelaish would be required to deposit a bond of 20,000 shekels for each daughter he lost. He is now appealing this ruling. A lawyer for the Defense Ministry asked the courts to reject Abuelaish’s lawsuit, saying that the killing of his three daughters was part of military activity in the context of war and should be seen as collateral damage.

“How can you talk about people as collateral damage?” Abuelaish asked. “It’s a shame.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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