August Issue 2014
Interview: Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish
“When I spoke to Izzeldin Abuelaish this week, I couldn’t help reflecting that life continues to test him in the most Job-like ways,” wrote Gerald Caplan of The Globe and Mail, speaking to the Palestinian doctor a few days after the Israeli onslaught on Gaza began.
Born in the Jabalia refugee camp, the birthplace of the the first intifada, Dr Abuelaish went on to study medicine in Cairo and did a Masters from Harvard University. He was the first full-time staff member and researcher at an Israeli hospital, commuting daily from Gaza to Tel Aviv to treat both Israeli and Arab patients. That is until 2009, when a devastating tragedy hit home.
The doctor lost three of his young daughters — Bessan, Aya, Miyar — and his niece, Noor, in an Israeli attack during the three-week war on Gaza. His tragedy came to the world’s attention in a very public manner, with a phone call he made for help to an Israeli friend and political commentator, Shlomi Eldar, during a live talk show. Eldar stopped the show mid-way and put Abuelaish’s call on speakerphone for all of Israel, and the world, to hear.
Children are, once again, bearing the brunt of senseless violence in Israel’s third full-scale attack on Gaza in six years. One of the most widely-circulated images, of a grieving father at the funeral of his son — one of four children, aged nine to twelve — killed in an airstrike as they played football on the beach, brought Abuelaish’s ordeal to mind, once again.
Newsline speaks to the doctor, who is now settled in Toronto, Canada with his other children.
The events in Gaza must bring back painful memories for you?
The wound is immense, but it becomes more severe as salt is added to it. Of course, nothing has changed. And no one is asking, ‘Why?’
There was a war in 2009, then in 2012 and now again in 2014. How can the Palestinians, under occupation and enclosure, tolerate so much? If there is any change, it is only for the worse. There is more suffering, more killing, more bloodshed and more hatred.
What is the situation like?
The Gaza Strip is painted with blood. The smell of the blood is mixed with the smell of gun-powder. There is no electricity or water.
We want an end to the siege.
Do you see yourself in those parents who are losing their children?
I see myself in every parent — whether Palestinian or not. I see my daughters in every child. And I feel anger when I see their suffering. My daughter said to me the other day, ‘Why am I alive when other children are dying? My sisters were killed in the same way.’ We need to listen to our children and give them the right to a future.
I don’t feel disconnected from the people. I feel the pain of the mothers and fathers, and the pain of anyone who lost a beloved one or saw them killed right before their eyes — divided, decapitated, disfigured, maimed.
I feel it. I experienced it. I was burnt with this fire.
There are global protests, yet there is silence from the world leaders — save a handful. Do Palestinians feel abandoned by the world?
I am sad to see this silence from the world leaders, as they watch images of children from Gaza — horrific, terrifying images. Perhaps, they are on their summer holidays and too busy enjoying themselves, while the Palestinians are swimming in their blood and anger. Where are the leaders — the advocates of human rights?
The people care, it is the politicians who are paralysed. History will judge them. It is time for the public to take the lead and say, ‘enough is enough.’ The Palestinian people are disappointed and frustrated. But they have faith; they want their freedom.
When we label it a genocide, we have ‘experts’ debating semantics on TV. Journalists are taken away if they are deemed ‘too critical’ of Israeli policies. It seems that the universal rights Israelis and people in the West are entitled to, do not extend to the Palestinians.
We must remember that it is the Palestinians who are occupied. It is the Palestinians who are oppressed. It is the Palestinians who are weak. And it is the Israelis who are the occupiers and the oppressors. There is suffering on their side too, but it is not equal nor similar. When they speak about self-defence, against whom do they mean? Against the occupied? There is a double standard, and it is dangerous as it creates more animosity and hatred. Justice has one colour, and it must be implemented with one standard of judgement.
In the last few days, we have witnessed close to 700 people killed, 4300 civilians wounded, 3000 houses damaged and 4500 airstrikes by the Israelis. Once a ceasefire is announced, you will see the exact scale of the damage of this man-made madness and suffering.
The issue of Palestine is one of occupation, but for many, it becomes an issue of one religion against another. What do you feel is missing in the debate?
The politicians use religion, but religion should never be used or misused for political interest.
Everything is politicised and depends on military and financial power. There is no human power. The conflict and violence in Palestine is like a disease that crosses barriers. I want the world to understand that lack of stability in the Middle East impacts everyone, just as peace in the region would also be enjoyed by the world. The other point I want to make is that peace can never be sustained with the use of force. Perhaps in the short-term, but never in the long-run.
What is the solution?
There is the road-map and international resolutions that need to be implemented: the Palestinian state side-by-side with the Israeli, with East Jerusalem as the capital. The international community needs to pressurise Israel to implement these.
Your book is titled I Shall Not Hate. Do you hold the same principle?
I will never give up or forget my daughters. The anger and outrage I feel energises me to do more. If I could say that my daughters were the last sacrifice to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept it. But what we are seeing is more bloodshed and suffering. So I can’t accept it, and this requires for me to do more. I cannot rest or forget.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s August 2014 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.