Gerald Caplan is an African scholar, former NDP organizer and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power and Politics.
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. The latest one-sided conflict between Israel and Dr. Abuelaish’s Gaza homeland is simply another in a life in which justice and fairness seem like distant dreams.
Dr. Abuelaish, now based at the University of Toronto, first came to the world’s attention in 2008 for the worst imaginable reason. During Israel’s assault against Gaza, around 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Of the 13, three were civilians, 10 were soldiers. Of the Palestinians, about 700 were civilians, 250 of them younger than 16. Four thousand Palestinian homes were destroyed, tens of thousands left homeless.
Among the Palestinian civilian dead were Izzeldin Abuelaish’s three daughters, aged 21, 15 and 14, and a 17-year-old niece. Four months earlier, his wife, mother of his eight children, had died from acute leukemia after a very brief illness. Now, during an Israeli air strike, two rockets were fired at Dr. Abuelaish’s home, smashing into his daughters’ bedroom.
“There was a monstrous explosion …I realized the explosion had come from my daughters’ bedroom…The sight in front of me was something I hope no other person ever has to witness – the body parts of my daughters and niece.”
Here is where Dr. Abuelaish’s story moves to dimensions beyond the extraordinary. He wrote a memoir called I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey. The world would be a better place if everyone read this short volume, beginning with the governments of Israel and Canada.
“Let my daughters be the last to die [he wrote] …If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, then I would accept their loss…What we need is respect [for each other] and the inner strength to refuse to hate. Then we will achieve peace.
“As a Muslim with deep faith, the Koran taught me…to forgive those who create the man-made injustices that cause human suffering. This does not mean that we do not act to correct those injustices.”
Frankly, I have never understood this nobility of spirit. I’m certain I could never be as magnanimous. Even now, anguished as he is, he refuses to hate.
Still, the latest conflict must be crushing for him. His daughters prove to be very far from “the last sacrifice on the road to peace.” As of the time of writing, some 260 Gazans have been killed, two thousand wounded. A majority of both are civilians, and again many of them are children. In a reprise of 2008, one Israeli has been killed, a small number wounded. (The pattern is inarguable. In another operation in 2012, four Israeli civilians and one soldier were killed, as were 158 Palestinians, perhaps two-thirds of them civilians including 30 children.)
Emotionally wrought, Dr. Abuelaish has thrown himself into initiatives to stop the bloodshed – yes, on both sides. He has no doubts about the ultimate source of the never-ending conflict – Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, its humiliating treatment of Palestinians, the “thick, unrelenting oppression [that]touches every single aspect of life in Gaza,” in his words. Nor has he any illusions about Hamas – its brutality, corruption, authoritarianism and, as I believe, its provocations of Israel that simply guarantee the death of even more Palestinians.
But none of this is what Dr. Abuelaish talks about at the moment. On Tuesday he organized a vigil in Toronto “to call for an immediate end to all hostilities and stop bloodshed of innocent people in the Gaza Strip. The life and blood of all are equal and precious and we all bleed the same colour.” In a breathtaking moment, he told the crowd that what sustains him is the hope that he will meet his three departed daughters one day and be able to tell them “we achieved justice at last.”
Like so many of us, Dr. Abuelaish must be mystified by the stance of the Canadian government. Why does it always blame Hamas for everything and Israel for nothing? Why does it not use its unique friendship with the Israeli government to plead for an end to the killing and maiming? What can Israel gain from continuing this one-sided slaughter? How dare Messrs. Harper and Baird use this terrible conflict to score political points at home?
Before he came to Canada, Dr. Abuelaish had been that rare person, a highly respected Palestinian medical specialist who worked in both Gaza and Israel, with many good Israeli friends, mostly doctors. But after his great tragedy, he accepted an invitation to work at the School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, and Toronto is where he and his family have now lived for exactly five years. He is eligible for, and has applied for, Canadian citizenship. It seems to me that all Canadians should be honoured that this special man chose our country. He inspires us to the better angels of our nature. Becoming a Canadian will not end his nightmares. But what a proud day it will be for us.