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I Shall Not Hate
By Izzeldin Abuelaish
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, Feb 2011. I Hbk, 256pp, £16.99. http://www.bloomsbury.com/ Walker & Company, USA, Jan 2011. Hbk, 224pp, $24.00, http://www.walkerbooks.com/
Daughters for Life
The full human horror of the 23-day Israeli assault on
Gaza that began on 27 December 2008 was brought to world attention on 16
January when a distraught Palestinian doctor told an Israeli TV host live by
phone from Gaza that minutes earlier Israeli tank shells had killed three of
his daughters and a niece. He cried repeatedly: “They shelled my house. They
killed my daughters. What have we done?”
The doctor was gynaecologist and obstetrician Izzeldin Abuelaish. Throughout the Gaza war he had been phoning news reports in Hebrew to his friend Shlomo Eldar, a news anchor on Israel’s Channel 10. Israel had barred the foreign and local media from entering Gaza during the war and the reports of eyewitnesses such as Abuelaish were a crucial source of news.
The attack on the Abuelaish family apartment came despite the doctor’s long-standing efforts to build fruitful relationships with Israelis. He had regularly crossed the border from Gaza to work alongside Israeli specialists in his field, first at Soroka Medical Centre in Beersheba and later at Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv.
At one time he hosted monthly groups of Israeli visitors to Gaza to let them see the conditions Palestinians had to endure. And he had sent three of his daughters to the Creativity for Peace camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico, run by Israeli and Palestinian coordinators.
In his book I Shall Not Hate Abuelaish constructs a profoundly moving and thoughtful narrative around the attack that killed his daughters Bessan (21), Mayar (15), and Aya (13) and their cousin Noor (17). Another daughter, Shatha (16), was badly wounded and left blinded in one eye. At the time of the attack Abuelaish’s six daughters and two sons had been having to come to terms with the death of their mother Nadia from leukaemia just four months earlier.
Abuelaish puts his family tragedy in the context of his own history and that of the Palestinian people.
Abuelaish’s family originally came from the village of Houg in southern Palestine where his well-off grandfather was mukhtar. They left Houg – temporarily they assumed – in search of safety during the 1948 war, but were never allowed to return. Izzeldin was born in the Gaza refugee camp of Jabalia in 1955.
Abuelaish powerfully conveys the experience of growing up in poverty in a Gaza refugee camp. The 1967 Israeli invasion and occupation left particularly painful memories. Ariel Sharon, Israeli military commander of Gaza, bulldozed hundreds of houses, including that of the Abuelaish family, so as to make the camp’s roads wide enough for tanks. “The level of inhumanity was astonishing, and it has stayed with me to this day,” writes Abuelaish.
For Abuelaish’s generation of Palestinians “education was the only way out of the circumstances we were in”. An exceptionally bright student, he won a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo and obtained further medical qualifications at the Universities of London and Harvard.
Abuelaish describes the endless humiliations of Gazans under “the relentless absurdity of a system that does not allow humans to be human.” Crossing the Erez border between Gaza and Israel is “never routine, often erratic, frightening and exhausting.” Most of those crossing the border since the blockade was imposed in 2006 have been medical patients with special permission to enter Israel for hospital appointments. Yet, with no explanation given, they have to wait for hours at the checkpoint.
But while depicting the hopelessness and desperation felt by Palestinians in Gaza, Abuelaish stands adamantly against actions such as suicide bombings. He says: “To those who seek retaliation, I say, even if I took revenge on all the Israeli people, would it bring my daughters back? Hatred is an illness. It prevents reconciliation and peace.”
Looking to the future for Palestinians and Israelis he says the most important step now is not a grand new peace plan but “getting to know each other and establishing mutual respect. We share so many fundamental values: the way we socialize, the way we raise our children, the way we argue loudly and embrace ancient tradition and a sense of honour.”
After the years of growing disillusionment with the peace process since the Oslo Accords of 1993 Abuelaish’s belief that building human understanding at grassroots level will eventually lead to peace may seem overidealistic and utopian. But his book has an inspiring positivity and humanity about it. Through his descriptions of the personalities, achievements and dreams of his late daughters they become symbols of a young generation of Palestinians whose spirit and talents bode well for the future.
Izzeldin now lives with his five surviving children in Canada where he is an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He has become a significant voice on the world stage through his book, interviews and speaking engagements. In 2010 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
To honour the memory of his daughters he has set up the Daughters for Life Foundation (www.daughtersforlife.com). This charity gives financial aid to young women at high school and university in Palestine, Israel, and the four neighbouring Arab states. “When female values are better represented through leadership at all levels of society, overall values will change and life will improve in the Gaza Strip, in Palestine as a whole, in Israel, and throughout the Middle East,” says the Foundation’s website.