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.