His heart still heavy, Palestinian doctor keeps hope for peace alive

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian ob-gyn from the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, immigrated with his five children to Canada in 2009 to start a new life. However, he could not leave his traumatic past behind. Nor did he want to.

“The wound is open and I live with it every day,” the doctor said by phone from his office at the University of Toronto, where he teaches at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

That unhealable wound is the killing of his three daughters, Bissan, Mayar and Aya, and a niece by an Israeli army shell that hit his family’s home in the final days of Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. The tragedy took place as Abuelaish, a fluent Hebrew speaker who worked in Israeli hospitals, was on the phone with an Israeli TV program giving an eyewitness account of the war.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish will speak at the Osher Marin JCC.

Adding to his pain, the doctor’s wife had died of cancer just a month earlier, in December 2008.

“If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss,” Abuelaish, a man of deep Islamic faith, has written.

Despite his knowing that his daughters were not — and will not be — the last sacrifice, he has been able to forge ahead better than most. He keeps his daughters’ memories alive by traveling the world to encourage people to build bridges based on commonalities and a mutual interest in a better future.

In a busy season that will take him to North America, Pakistan, Cyprus, Jordan and Hong Kong, Abuelaish will make a stop at the Osher Marin JCC on Wednesday, March 6, to take part in the center’s “Salaam, Shalom: Speaking of Peace” series.

The three-part series kicked off this week with a documentary about Jewish, Christian and Muslim coffee farmers in Uganda, and will conclude April 10 with a discussion with Lisa Gossels, director of a film about Palestinian and Israeli teen girls participating in a leadership program.

“[The series] will engage members of different faith communities in Marin County to enter into a serious, ongoing dialogue that will lead to increased understanding,” said Joanne Greene, director of the JCC’s Taube Koret Center for Jewish Peoplehood.

The series is supported by Tricia and Richard Gibbs and is co-sponsored by the Marin Interfaith Council, three Islamic organizations, four Christian churches and four Jewish organizations (the Marin JCC, Congregation Kol Shofar, Congregation Rodef Sholom and the Jewish Community Relations Council).

“If only the Jewish community is at the table, the results of our efforts will be limited,” Greene said. “It is our belief that dialogue leads to understanding, which then leads to action.”

Abuelaish is of the same mind. “It’s time for action, not just talk. Talk is not enough,” he said.

The doctor, 58, said he spends a third of his time speaking about his life and his 2011 book (“I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Dignity”) — spreading messages of hope and people’s responsibility to maximize the good in the world.

He has also taken action by setting up the Daughters For Life Foundation, a Toronto-based charity that provides scholarships for women from Middle Eastern countries, including Israel and the Palestinian territories, to pursue university studies, either in their home countries or in the West. The women chosen demonstrate financial hardship and are studying medicine, law, journalism or business — fields in which Abuelaish’s daughters and niece had indicated interest.

Abuelaish and his remaining children have settled well in Toronto, but he misses home, which he refers to interchangeably as Palestine and Gaza. “I feel it, I live it, it’s in my genes. It’s in my spirit, my language, my food,” he said. “Gaza is where the graves of my loved ones are.”

Yet, he does not dwell on place. “It’s who you are, not where you are” that counts, he asserted. “We need to expand the borders in our minds and become connected, not isolated.”

Believing that a positive impact can be made from anywhere and for anywhere, the doctor said it is time to go outside the box. “The world is not just Palestine and Israel,” he said.

However, with the conflict never far from his mind, he was quick to argue that a long-term solution will never be made though military means. “The occupier and the occupied are both under fear, but the stronger one — the current Israeli government — has the means to give everyone their full rights and create two independent, free states. There needs to be mutual respect, not necessarily love between the two peoples.”

To punctuate his point, Abuelaish added, in Hebrew, “Im tirtzu, ein zo agada” — the famous quote by Theodor Herzl about a Jewish homeland. It means “If you will it, it is not a dream.”

“Agents of Change: Dialoguing Across Differences”
with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 6 at Osher Marin JCC, 200 North San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Free. Part of the “Salaam, Shalom: Speaking of Peace” series. www.marinjcc.org.

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.