Palestinian doc sees Negev hospital as bridge to peace

When Izzeldin Abuelaish was growing up, his arthritis kept landing him in the hospital. As a 9-year-old, he would read his medical chart to see what treatment the doctors recommended.

From this experience, he decided he wanted to be a doctor. But for a Palestinian boy growing up in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, becoming a doctor was about as likely as being accepted to Harvard.

But a doctor he became. And not only that, he became the only Palestinian doctor from the Gaza Strip to work in an Israeli hospital; he is a full-time ob-gyn at the Soroka Medical Center in the Negev. And next fall, provided the money is raised, he will be the first Palestinian to get a master's of public health from Harvard.

"From Jabalya to Harvard," he said, still shaking his head as if he can't believe it himself.

Abuelaish was in San Francisco recently on behalf of American Friends of Soroka, to raise funds for his Harvard education.

In some ways, Abuelaish still lives the life of the other 100,000 inhabitants of Jabalya. His family came from the Arab village of Huj, inside Israel, and fled in 1948. He was born in 1955, the oldest boy of his five brothers and three sisters. He grew up sleeping alongside his brothers. Neither of his parents was educated; they had been fairly wealthy as farmers before 1948, but the war changed all that.

"Most Palestinians who lost everything, they want to invest everything in their children," he said. "Sons who are educated are worth more than farms and will support the family."

So Abuelaish worked very hard, selling sunflower seeds and such, while at the same time attending the United Nations school.

He was 12 when the Six-Day War happened, and he remembers it as "looking like the end of the world."

But soon after, Israelis started coming to Gaza as tourists. And Abuelaish, like the other young boys, would wash their cars or help them carry their things to the beach.

Abuelaish worked long hours in a factory while attending school and often fell asleep during class, but he always received encouragement from his teachers.

His family's home was two rooms with no plumbing or electricity. He used a kerosene lamp to do his homework, and if it rained, it would ruin the ink.

During this time, he was hired to work in Israel as a shepherd, and except for the tourists he had encountered in Gaza, he befriended Jews for the first time.

Abuelaish was offered a scholarship from Egypt to go to medical school at the University of Cairo, from which he graduated in 1983.

"You think you are now a doctor and everything will be open to you," he said. "But it was very difficult to find a job. I had no protectsia," he said, using the Hebrew word for "connections."

For nine months he was jobless, and his father, who had been in poor health, died. His family was depending on him for support. Then, he finally received a contract in Saudi Arabia and worked there for six years. He also went to London for a time.

But by that time his mother was ailing, and he returned to Gaza and went to work in a clinic.

Though Gaza is widely quoted as the most densely populated place on earth, there are also high rates of infertility there. Abuelaish saw many cases, and began to consult with Israeli doctors at Soroka. After he developed relationships with them, they invited him to come to Soroka. And for a long time, he just observed, as he had to gain the trust of his fellow doctors.

"Jabalya is the birthplace of the first intifada," said Abuelaish. "At first, I made people nervous. I knew it would be a challenge to prove I am equal."

But soon, he said, he had quite an effect on his colleagues. At the end of the first intifada, some Palestinian patients were being brought to Soroka. And one of his colleagues in particular was so sad about their situation and feeling the Palestinians' pain."

By 1997, on the condition that he learn Hebrew fluently, Abuelaish was offered a full-time job at Soroka. He has been there ever since, operating a free clinic in Gaza on the weekends.

But although Abuelaish is a well-known figure to the soldiers guarding the Erez checkpoint, sometimes the political situation does affect his job.

When Israel imposed a closure on the territories after the suicide bombing during Passover 2002, Abuelaish could not get to work for more than two months.

"It was a horrible time," he said. "But every day I got phone calls, from my colleagues, from the president of the university (Ben-Gurion, which is affiliated with Soroka). And many Knesset members, Yael Dayan and Yossi Sarid were fighting to get me special permission and after two months, I got a permit."

When he returned to work, his colleagues greeted him with flowers.

"The president of the university came and said, 'It's so good you are back.'"

When asked whether he is ever faced with patients who do not want to be treated by him, he immediately turned the question around. "Why don't you ask about the 99 percent of patients who are happy to be treated by me?"

Abuelaish said that he has delivered the babies of many settlers from the Gaza Strip, but in the hospital, he puts his feelings about politics aside.

In one instance, the woman came from Gush Katif. "For me, she is a woman in need of medical care, she is not a settler," he said. "All patients are treated equally here; in the borders of the hospital, everything else melts away."

The same can be said for Soroka's Palestinian patients. While the intifada and closures has severely curtailed the number of Palestinians who are treated there, Abuelaish believes that a Palestinian who is treated well at the hands of the Israelis will be the best ambassador for peace.

"I believe it is written that we are to live together," he said. "I want the Israelis to know more about the Palestinians and vice-versa. What I would like is for the Israeli father to want the same for a Palestinian child as he wants for his own child and vice versa. Personal relationships are the most important."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."