How can we associate mysticism with the tragedy and violence in the Middle East that we see on our screens and read and hear about every day? I make this connection because the actions of the Gazan doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish illustrate his capacity to live free of stereotypes, to refuse to let indignity and hardship, including the Israeli army's destruction of his neighbourhood when he was 15, persuade him to make wholesale judgments about groups of people. He is able to see people on "the other side" as human beings to respect and work with and with whom to build a better future.
"Arguing over who did what and who suffered more is not getting us anywhere. We have to move on; we have to build trust and mutual respect between the peoples. You can't respect someone you don't know. So let's get to know one another by listening and opening our eyes to the other side. We need to encourage kavod (respect) and shivyon (equality)."
Izzeldin, born in 1955, grew up in poverty in the Jubalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. His first experience of seeing "the other side" as people like himself came when he worked as a teenager one summer on a farm of Sephardic Jews in Israel. That family's warmth towards one another and towards him proved to him that Palestinians and Jews could behave as one family. Many years later, as a successful doctor, he revisited the farm, reconnected with the family and told them how much that summer had meant to him.
After graduating from university in Cairo and working in hospitals in Gaza and Saudi Arabia, he specialized in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of London. There he read about the important research on infertility being carried out by Israeli doctors, so he decided to contact them. He made connections with infertility experts at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, and gradually began to consult with them about his patients in his Gaza clinic. He entered the residency programme at the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba in 1997, and was the first Palestinian doctor to receive a staff position at an Israeli hospital. He worked at both Soroka and the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, treating Israeli, Palestinian and Bedouin couples.
In late 2008, tensions escalated in the Gaza Strip, with rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel, and Israel carrying out an intense shelling of Gaza. On January 16, Izzeldin's house was hit, and three of his daughters and a niece were killed and another daughter and niece badly injured. Through the efforts of his Israeli friends and colleagues, the situation was broadcast live on Israeli TV (see YouTube videos). They helped him get the wounded out of Gaza where medical supplies were insufficient, and into the hospital in Tel Aviv, and stood by him and his family in the midst of tragedy. Though he called upon the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) to explain its actions, he refused to respond to calls to hate by asking: "Which Israelis am I supposed to hate?" Obviously not his Israeli colleagues, the doctors and nurses who were tending his wounded daughter and niece at that moment, or the babies he had delivered over many years. He says, "Hatred is an illness. It prevents healing and peace."
Subsequently, Dr. Abuelaish moved with his family to Toronto to take up a position at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in the University of Toronto. Through many public appearances and interviews (search on YouTube), he transmits his message of the necessity of building connections of understanding and respect, as he has done throughout his life. He hopes to further this process by empowering girls and young women through education to become agents of change throughout the Middle East, and for this purpose he has established a foundation, Daughters for Life, in memory of his own daughters.
*Cafh books in printed form are available from Amazon.com.