In January 2009, then-53-year-old Palestinian infertility specialist and peace activist Izzeldin Abuelaish was employed at an Israeli hospital. He took pride in building the personal basis for trust and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. As he told the New York Times in 2009, “I wanted every Palestinian treated in [our hospital] to go back and say how well the Israelis treated them.”
But on January 16, the day after Martin Luther King’s birthday, and 22 days into the 2008 – 2009 Israel-Gaza war that killed 13 Israelis and 1400 Palestinians (during which time newly-elected US president Barack Obama was almost whisper-silent on Palestinian deaths), Israeli tanks twice shelled the house of Abuelaish. After having recently lost his wife to leukemia, in one moment he lost his niece and three of his daughters.
“Who is going to be killed [among] my children?” says Abuelaish via Skype from his office in Toronto, reflecting on his terror throughout the war that any of his children might die. “And then on that day … seconds after I left my daughters’ room, the awful tragedy happened. These were beautiful girls,” he says. “They became [body] parts, drowning in their blood.”
Explaining his immediate thoughts after the explosion, he says he asked himself, “Where is Bisan, my beloved, eldest daughter who took the responsibility of her mother when she passed away? She was only 20. She was my companion, my friend, my manager, my advisor, my teacher. She was supposed to get her BA a few months later. Where is Mayar, who was number one in Palestine in math, who planned to be a medical doctor, to follow my path? She was decapitated. Where is Aya, who planned to be a journalist and the voice of the voiceless, who was 14? Where is Nur, my niece, who came for her fate? She was 17 and planned to be a teacher. … Their pain is running in my ears. I [couldn’t] identify them. Their bodies were shot out everywhere. The human body, which is the most holy thing God created … shattered. Why [was I] saved? If I had stayed a few seconds I would be gone with them.”
As political analyst Noam Chomsky recently noted, while westerners routinely voice outrage about the “savagery” of ISIL (another name for ISIS) for beheading its victims, they’re usually silent about the state beheading by western ally Saudi Arabia, and countless western beheadings-and-dismemberments-by-bomb. Because the cemetery where his wife is interred was under Israeli occupation, Abuelaish couldn’t bury his daughters next to her.
Abuelaish explains how his family numbers among the hellish statistics of modern war: 80 percent of casualties are civilian women and children. He insists repeatedly that militaries cannot create peace, which depends on justice. And justice is his major concern, especially as created by the advancement of women and girls.
While he stayed in hospital with his surviving daughters, he reflected that after God, it’s his daughters to whom he’s accountable. “I will never give up,” he says. “I will never rest. I will never relax until I meet [Bisan, Mayar, Aya, and Nur] one day, with a big gift: justice and freedom for others.” He notes that his mother was his most important teacher: “The mother and the women in this world are the hero. … They make the change, and I believe in them.”
Abuelaish isn’t simply a speaker of easy platitudes. As the author of the acclaimed memoir I Shall Not Hate, and as a teacher at the University of Toronto and a campaigner for peace, he established the NGO Daughters for Life to provide scholarships for Middle Eastern girls and women, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Such refusal to bend to hate or revenge, coupled with tireless work for the betterment of humanity, has earned Abuelaish numerous awards, including the Stavros Niarchos Prize for Survivorship, the Uncommon Courage Award, and the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award of Canada. The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre named him among the world’s 500 most influential Muslims for 2009 and 2010. “Our enemies in this world are ignorance, arrogance, greed and fear,” he says. “We need the light.”
Abuelaish grew up without much of the light he now seeks. Born in Jabbalia Camp in Gaza in 1955, 12 years before the occupation of Gaza, he did not witness the expulsion of around 800 000 Palestinians from historical Palestine seven years earlier. “My life in the camp was a war,” he says. “And no one on earth was tested in his or her life as Palestinian people and refugees. I was fighting on a daily basis just to survive. I never tasted my childhood.”
His family home was a corrugated metal shack without electricity, running water or a bathroom. “I remember after 1970, when our house was demolished by [Israeli general at the time] Ariel Sharon,” he says. “We were 11 people living in one room. I was sleeping under their feet, and studying there on the ground.”
During winters, rain water often leaked through the roof, destroying the homework he painstakingly completed and forcing him to start all over. Hunger was the norm: “I remember if we had one banana, it could be divided among three or four.” Abuelaish currently helps his nieces and nephews just as he used to support his younger siblings.
“You don’t leave Palestine. … My country lives inside me. It moves with me everywhere I go,” he adds. “I say to people, ‘[They] can oppress, can occupy, can imprison, can torture, can intimidate, can humiliate, can do every bad thing, but no one can prevent us from dreaming.'”
DAUGHTERS FOR LIFE
TEDxWaterloo: Izzeldin Abuelaish - Refusing to Hate
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight
Izzeldin Abuelaish - Oslo Freedom Forum 2011