By Rachel Cooke, The Observer – 16 Jan 2011
Two years ago, Israeli shells fell on Dr Abuelaish’s family home in Gaza, killing three of his young daughters and their cousin. The horror was caught live on Israeli TV when the doctor phoned his broadcaster friend. Amazingly, the loss did not embitter Izzeldin Abuelaish. Instead he decided his girls’ deaths must not be in vain – and slowly he has turned his family tragedy into a force for peace.
On 12 December 2008, Izzeldin Abuelaish, a doctor from Gaza, took his six daughters and two sons on a day out. The family rose early, packed a picnic and, at 7am, climbed into his old Subaru and headed out. Gaza is not big – just 25 miles long, and nine miles across at its widest – but the situation being what it is, it can take time to move around and Abuelaish was determined that they make the most of the hours ahead. Twelve weeks earlier, Nadia, his wife of 21 years, had died suddenly of leukaemia and ever since, every day had dawned black. It was his intention, that sunny winter morning, to shine a little light on them, to give his brood some respite, however brief, from their grief.
Their first stop was a surprise. Unbeknown to his family, Abuelaish had recently bought a small olive grove, about an acre in size. Separated from the urban sprawl by a 10ft-high fence, it was “a utopia, a little piece of Shangri-La”. The smaller ones, delighted to discover this new place, ran among the olive, fig and apricot trees, before finally settling down to eat their falafel sandwiches beneath a bower of vines. As they did so, the family talked. Abuelaish had been offered a job in Toronto, Canada, and he wanted to know how the children, who had never known anywhere other than Gaza, would feel about this. (Good, as it turned out. “I want to fly, daddy,” said his daughter, Aya.) The family discussion over, they headed to the beach, where the children dashed over the dunes, chased the surf, and wrote their names in the sand. Abuelaish cherished their laughter, the way they mimicked and teased one another. For the first time in many days, his spirits lifted. “We are getting there,” he remembers thinking. “They will be okay. Together, we can do this.”
In Gaza, though, a man may take nothing for granted. On 27 December, Israel launched an air strike against the Gaza Strip, a response to the firing of Qassam rockets into Israeli border towns by Hamas. This was followed, on 3 January 2009, by a ground invasion. For the next three weeks, Gaza was a war zone. It was impossible even to leave the house. Was Abuelaish frightened for his family? Of course, he was. “But we were prepared. I filled two small suitcases with precious things: passports, certificates. I told each of the children what would happen in a case of emergency. Because the shelling was everywhere. No one was without risk.”
All the same, he refused to consider the possibility that anyone in his family would be hurt. Apart from anything else, they were not involved. No weapons in the Abuelaish basement, no Hamas militia on the roof. “Could we fight the most advanced military in the world? No. We had only our muscles, our blood.” He trusted in God and, though he does not spell it out, in a kind of magical thinking. Don’t think about it, and it will not happen.
He also made himself useful. For the duration of the war, the Israeli government allowed no journalists to enter Gaza; they could only gather on the border, and listen to the shelling. But Abuelaish knew plenty of Israelis – thanks to his work as an infertility specialist, he had worked in several Israeli hospitals – and among his many friends on the other side was Shlomi Eldar, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 10. Eldar began calling Abuelaish late every afternoon to ask what had happened during the course of the day. Live on air, his friend would then describe the scene – from the vantage point of his living room window, he could see entire neighbourhoods being obliterated – for the benefit of viewers of the evening news show. Abuelaish knew that his audience was not likely to be particularly sympathetic to his point of view. Most Israelis believed the Gazans had brought this crisis on themselves. He also knew that there was a chance that someone on his own side would take against his addressing Israel, and that this might involve reprisals against his family, but he kept taking the calls. “With my voice in their ears, the Israelis couldn’t entirely ignore the cost to the Palestinians of their military action.”
The next days were dreadful. On 13 January, the air was so full of debris and dust, it was hard to tell day from night. On 14 January, a tank rolled up outside their front door, and only after a hysterical phone call to Shlomi – who, horrified, called the Israeli defence force to ask if they knew that they were aiming their guns at the house of a doctor with no connections to Hamas – did it finally move on.
Their home was starting to feel crowded. Abuelaish’s second eldest daughter, Dalal, 19, was at her aunt’s house, but his other children – Bessan, 20, Shatha, 17, Mayar, 15, Aya, 14, Mohammed, 12, Raffah, nine and Abdallah, six – were all with Abuelaish. So, too, was his brother Shehab and his daughter, Noor. In the apartment below was another brother, Atta, and his family; in the apartment above, his brother Nasser’s family. Between the three apartments, there was much coming and going: there was comfort in crowding together. But supplies of food and water were running low. There was talk of a ceasefire, and Abuelaish tried to reassure his children that it must surely happen soon. Privately, though, he was worried. Rumours of a ceasefire often signal the last violent bombardment of a conflict. Could the worst be yet to come?
On 16 January, after a lunch of duck with rice – Shehab had taken the risk of heading out to the backyard to grab the birds – and a phone call to Dalal, whom everyone was missing, the family drifted out of the dining room. The girls, meanwhile – Shatha, Mayar, Aya and their cousin Noor – went into their bedroom to read and do their homework until it was time for the family again to huddle together on the dining room floor (no one slept in their own beds; they were considered too close to the buildings’ outer walls for safety). Nine-year-old Raffah was in the kitchen, with Bessan. Mohammed was in the hall. Abdallah, the baby of the family, was on his father’s shoulders. Abuelaish was trying to distract the boy; the situation – his family’s imprisonment in their own home – was incomprehensible to him.
Suddenly, there was a monstrous explosion: “a thundering, fulminating sound,” says Abuelaish, that penetrated his body, almost as if it were coming from within him. There was a blinding flash, and then it was pitch dark. Dust everywhere, the struggle to breathe, the sound of a child screaming: these are the things he remembers, and always will. In the next few moments, it dawned on him that a shell had hit his daughters’ bedroom. He ran towards it. “I saw everything,” he says. “My children in parts. A decapitated head. And Shatha in front of me, with her eye on her cheek.” The room was now a heaped mess of school books, dolls and body parts. Mayar, Aya, and his niece, Noor, were dead, their limbs strewn about the place as carelessly as their toys. Shatha was bleeding profusely from her hand, one finger hanging by a thread. Then came a second blast. This took Bessan. Ghaida, his brother Atta’s daughter, who had run up the stairs from their apartment towards the noise, lay on the floor, wounds all over her body. Abuelaish looked at all this, and inside him, something stirred. A desire to fight pushed his shock, which should have been so paralysing, out of the way with unexpected force. “I thought: what can I do? And I started moving, fast. I thought of Shatha. I didn’t want her to be blind, to lose her fingers. I didn’t want that. Then I looked at my son. He has lost his sisters. Now what is he going to do? How can I protect him? Is he going to be an extremist, to be crazy, to hate the world?” These thoughts, he insists, are not retrospective. Truly. His brain was working overtime. “I started to think. What can I do for those who are living?”
Abuelaish remembered that, though there might be soldiers outside his door, though it would undoubtedly take a long time for an ambulance to push its way through the dangerous, pot-holed streets, he still had a powerful connection to the outside world. He pulled out his phone, and called Shlomi Eldar.
Eldar was in a Channel 10 studio in Tel Aviv, sitting behind a desk with another news pundit. He saw Abuelaish’s name come up on the screen of his phone, but he didn’t answer the first call. The show was live, after all. Then, just as an interview with the foreign minister Tzipi Livni was about to begin, his phone flashed again. This time – to this day, he doesn’t know why – he answered. Livni could wait.
I have since watched what happened next on YouTube at least a dozen times, and all I can tell you is that it never grows any less powerful. Eldar holds his mobile up to the camera, so the audience at home can see it. He also puts it on speakerphone so that the voice on the other end is clearly audible. On the line, a man is weeping. “My God, my God,” he says, over and over. “What have we done? What have we done?” The expression on Eldar’s face is terrible. It is clear that he is struggling not to cry. “Tell me where you are,” he says. “They’ll send an ambulance to your house.” Abuelaish seems not to hear this. “I wanted to try to save them,” he says. “But they died, Shlomi.” This goes on for several minutes until, finally, Eldar, ashen, tight-lipped, excuses himself, pulls his microphone from his shirt, and exits the studio. “I can’t hang up this conversation,” he says.
Outside the studio, on another line, Eldar rang the administrator of the Erez checkpoint. Open the border, he told him. Let the ambulances we’ve called through. The idea was that the Israeli ambulance teams would meet their Palestinian counterparts at the border, so that Shatha, Ghaida and his brother Nasser, who had also been injured, could be transferred to an Israeli hospital (Gazan hospitals are simply not well enough equipped for most emergency work). Meanwhile, someone else had the foresight to dispatch a camera team to the border, too – which is how, a little while later, television viewers in Israel came to see Abuelaish first kissing a heavily-bandaged Shatha, who is by now on a stretcher, and then directing the paramedics as they put her inside an ambulance. I’ve watched this several times, too. The first action is so tender, the second so determined. Though it seems not to make any sense at all, amid the chaos and the flash of camera lights, you already glimpse in Abuelaish the qualities on which, in the coming days, people were to remark admiringly, and with some amazement, again and again: his calmness, his stoicism and, above all, his dignity.
In Toronto, it is far too many degrees below freezing for anyone’s comfort and when I arrive at his suburban house, Abuelaish is, somewhat inexpertly, shovelling snow. “You don’t get this in Gaza,” he says, with a smile. The job done – well, sort of – we go inside. “Welcome,” he murmurs, extending an arm. “Welcome.” The house smells faintly of za’atar, the thyme and sumac mixture Palestinians claim as their national dish and, on a side-table, stands a model of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. But otherwise, this could be the house of just about any Canadian family: flat-screen television, computer, gleaming fitted kitchen. From upstairs comes the reassuring sound of children bickering. Everything is very normal, and very safe: about as far away from Gaza as it is possible to be.
Abuelaish is now a professor in global health at the University of Toronto. What does it feel like to be here? Another beaming smile. “It’s not such a change,” he says. “We just think: why can’t it be like this in Gaza? Why not? I hope that when we go back to Gaza, this is the feeling the children will take with them.” So they will return? “Of course, eventually.” Is the family homesick? “Yes. We are so far from our beloved ones, from the graves: my mother, my wife, my daughters. But we are also great! The children are great! Talk to them, you’ll see.” His daughter Raffah appears. She is very pretty. “I’m the second youngest,” she says. Her father gazes at her adoringly. “It’s true what people say,” he murmurs. And what do people say? “That time is a great healer. And faith helps. It’s a great asset; it’s a blessing from God, and it helps you.” Right from the start, he tells me, it was his children that reminded him of this. “When I called my friend [Shlomi Eldar] and I was screaming, my son Mohammed said to me: ‘Why are you crying? You must be happy.’ ‘Happy for what?’ I asked. ‘Because my sisters are with their mum,’ he told me. It came as a message: this 12-year-old boy telling me to move forward. I was saved, and now it was my job to save others. I could have been killed, too, so very easily, and then no one would have known our story.”
This is his mission: to tell his family’s story and, in doing so, prove to the world that not every Palestinian is motivated only by revenge – and he embarked on it right away, as soon as Shatha was out of surgery. The morning after he and Shatha arrived at the hospital, Zeev Rotstein, the director of the Sheba Medical Centre, a hospital where Abuelaish had once taught, organised a press conference, and asked him to speak. Abuelaish told the journalists that, inside the hospital, all were equal. Why, he asked, could this not also be the case outside? About halfway through, however, he was interrupted, in full view of the television cameras, by a screaming woman, her face contorted with rage: Levana Stern, an Israeli mother of three soldiers. She blamed the victim. “Who knows what you had in your house?” she shouted. “No one is saying anything about that.” Abuelaish, pale now, put his head in his hands. “They don’t want to know the truth,” he said. This is the only time most people have ever seen him look anything like close to defeated.
It must have been a horrifying moment. But, amazingly, it didn’t change anything. “Actually, it was good,” he says to me, now. “She was one Israeli, only one. Others started to open their eyes. Hundreds of people from all over the Holy Land, people I didn’t know, sent messages to me. They were awakened. And that’s when I understood: this tragedy will do some good.” Hours later, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, announced a unilateral ceasefire. “So, we saved lives. I told the children: your sisters’ blood wasn’t wasted. We sacrificed them for others. There was a reason.” Encouraged, he determined to keep going. During the two years since the shelling of his home, he has travelled the world, always giving, in essence, the same speech: I refuse to hate, he tells his distinguished audiences, and I do not believe in revenge; hatred is an illness, and the enemy of peace. His stance has won him humanitarian awards around the world, and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. But it has also, appallingly, led to claims that he is cashing in on his loss, a point of view to which I can only say: weren’t there people who said the same about Otto Frank?
So far, the Israeli government has neither compensated Abuelaish, nor apologised to him. “Actually, for me, it’s not a question of compensation,” he says. “But an apology? Yes. That would be good. The truth is the shortest way in life. It’s not shameful to apologise. If I did something wrong to you, and I said sorry, I would be highly valued by you, and in the eyes of others. I wish they would have the moral courage.”
He has been told that there exists a statute of limitations on the issue of compensation and apology of two years. Two years! “There is no statute of limitation for our loved ones. It’s insane. For me, it’s now. It’s now, and it will always be now. It will never leave me, so long as I am breathing.” He sees his daughters in waking dreams: they move, they smile. They live with him still, spiritually. “Believe me, even as I speak to you, I see them.” Though he makes no sound, he has begun to weep: huge tears, that he makes no effort to wipe away.
The pity of it is, he could not even bury his daughters. The Qur’an says that the dead must be buried quickly, and getting a permit to travel back into Gaza from Israel, where he was still watching over Shatha, Ghaida and his brother, would have taken too long. Nor were Bessan, Mayar and Aya permitted to be buried beside their mother; the family was told by Israeli soldiers that, at the present time, no one was allowed into the Jabalia camp cemetery. Did the doctors save Shatha’s eye? “Yes, but not its sight.” And her hand? “She is able to use it, but with some difficulty.” Where is she now? He smiles. “She’s upstairs, studying,” he says. “I wanted her to talk to you, but she apologises: she did not know you were coming, and so she is not ready to show herself.” A pause. He is grinning, now. “She is a very good student, believe me. Just a few weeks after the attack, you know, she got 95% in her final high-school grades. Now she’s studying computer engineering at the University of Toronto. She’s amazing.”
This is true. But my hunch is that she is also a chip off the old block. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s childhood was, as he puts it in his new book, spent “in the shadow of a promise”. We’ll go back soon, said his parents. Maybe in two weeks, maybe a little longer. The Abuelaish family is from Houg, a village near Sderot, the Israeli border town now so mercilessly plagued by Qassam rockets. The family was a large and prominent one, and Abuelaish’s grandfather, Moustafa, was the village head. In 1948, however, when the State of Israel was created, Moustafa decided that it would be wise for the family to leave; he had heard rumours of attacks on Arabs elsewhere and, though he didn’t know if these stories were true, he decided to run. Gaza, a designated safe area, was not far from Houg, so that was where they went. Today, the Abuelaish family farm is owned by Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli general and prime minister, who now lies in a coma in an Israeli hospital.
At the Jabalia refugee camp, where Abuelaish was born in 1955, life was hard. Until he was 10, the family, which eventually numbered 11, lived in a single room only 10ft square. Water was delivered by the United Nations; the children were usually barefoot, flea-bitten and hungry. When Abuelaish was five, one of his newborn siblings – there always seemed to be a newborn – was killed in a terrible accident. His brother Nasser had been messing around and, trying to escape his mother’s slap, had accidentally jumped into the dish bucket which doubled as a cradle at night, crushing his tiny sister. The child was buried the next day, and no one ever mentioned it again.
As the eldest son, Abuelaish was expected to contribute to the family’s meagre finances as soon as he was capable, and by the time he was 12, he had no choice but to combine school with part-time work. He sold milk rations to other desperate families, and he loaded fertiliser on to farm trucks, rising at four o’clock every morning to start. Life was a grind, punctuated by more misery: in 1967, came the six-day war, after which Israel assumed full control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; when Abuelaish was 15, his family home was unaccountably bulldozed under orders from Ariel Sharon. There were, he writes, two ways young men could respond to all this. Some became political. Abuelaish’s brother, Noor, joined Fatah, Palestine’s biggest political party, and went on to do a stint inside an Israeli prison (after his release, he went to Lebanon; the family has not heard from him since 1983). Others invested everything they had in education. This was what Abuelaish chose. He worked, and worked, and he was rewarded: a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo; a postgraduate qualification in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of London; and a masters degree in public health at Harvard.
Right from the beginning, he was determined never to generalise when it came to Israel. It was easy to despise an individual: a particularly difficult soldier at the border; the Jewish mother who accused him – a highly qualified Arab doctor – of trying to murder her baby. Ditto the policies that made life in Gaza so difficult. But it was not acceptable, he felt and still feels, to allow these feelings to transmute into hatred for an entire people. Besides, he had so many Israeli friends.
As a teenager, he had worked on an Israeli moshav, where he was never treated with anything other than kindness by its owners. As a doctor, he had been employed by several Israeli hospitals, helping Israeli women with fertility problems. At the time of the shelling of his home in 2008, he was working full-time at the Gertner Institute, a renowned centre for the study of health policy and epidemiology in Tel Hashomer, near Ramat Gan. During the long – they sometimes felt endless! – journeys between Gaza and Israel, he learned, not hatred, but a patience and a humility that have seen him through a great deal. Impossible to get ideas above your station when you spend as much time as any taxi driver, farmer or waiter standing at the border checkpoints. On one occasion, Abuelaish arrived at the Israeli hospital where he was working, only to find that he had left his briefcase behind accidentally at the crossing. By the time he had driven the 27 miles back, it had been blown up by the soldiers. It took him two months to replace the documents – those all important travel permits – that had been destroyed.
Tell him that you wish more people were able to be so clear-sighted, though, and he will only admonish you. “I am not exceptional,” he says. “You think the same, don’t you?” But it’s easy for me, I say; I don’t live in Gaza or, for that matter, in Sderot. “Well, in the case of the Palestinians, we need to make them ready to listen. You didn’t do this interview out in the street in the cold, or in the middle of the night. You came with your tape recorder, and you were prepared, and you listened. It’s the same with Gaza. People are hungry, and sick. If we made sure they were not hungry, or sick, they would be in a position to listen. Who can help them? The Israeli side. Their sickness, their hunger, affects the Israelis. Return my life to me, and I will show you how much I appreciate that life.”
Nevertheless, I am in awe of his extraordinary optimism. Even from the safety of my sofa at home in London, I can’t feel optimistic about the situation in Israel/Palestine. “But that’s not true,” he says. “Why did you come to see me? Because you feel optimistic about this interview. And that’s great! This small spark of hope… maybe we can turn it into a big fire.”
There is talk of another war in the region right now; the borders are more tense than they have been for many months. Does this worry him? “I think that nothing is impossible. But I also think there are alternatives. If this situation was a patient of mine, I would not necessarily be suggesting surgery.” His main anxiety, he says, is the refusal of the Israeli government to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. “It’s such a small thing: just to freeze it for a few months. The world is begging them! But if we can’t even make this happen…”
What does peace look like? “I can say only that there will never be peace when it works only for one side, and that maybe peace cannot be imposed but must come by choice. It looks to me as though Palestinians and Israelis are sailing in the same boat, and what’s dangerous for one is dangerous for the other. They are like conjoined twins! We need a two-state solution which gives security and dignity to both.”
Meanwhile, in Canada, his work goes on. Abuelaish has established a charitable foundation, Daughters for Life, which he hopes will support the education of girls. “Because I am determined that my daughters’ names will not only be written on their gravestones, but on the doors of institutions, and other good places.” The week after we meet will be the second anniversary of their deaths. For the first anniversary, he returned to his house in Gaza, now finally rebuilt. He needed to be there. But this year, he will stay at home in Canada. “We will sit together as a family, and we will talk about them, and pray for them, and look at photographs. Those precious, lovely souls. They were combatants for humanity, and for peace, and their loss was unjust. But we will remember them with holy deeds and noble words, and we will keep their memory alive until we see them again. As long as I am living, they will speak to me, and to others.” For a moment, he closes his eyes. “For as long as I am breathing, they are breathing with me.” The silence that follows is broken only by the sound of Raffah. The cartoon she is watching has made her laugh, and like wildfire, it spreads: first to me, and then to her father. This is the saddest story I have ever had to write, but it is not only that. It is also a story of hope and, as Izzeldin Abuelaish has already told me more than once, we are none of us anything without that.