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review: memoir

Izzeldin Abuelaish photographed at home in Toronto.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Izzeldin Abuelaish first caught international attention during the Gaza War of 2008-09. The Israeli military had banned foreign media from entering Gaza, and so Abuelaish, a resident of Jabalia refugee camp at the time, became an essential source for the daily goings-on inside the war zone. He would regularly give live reportage via cellphone to news anchorman Shlomo Eldar on Israel's Channel Ten.

Two days before the ceasefire, an Israeli tank launched several shells at his apartment, one of which landed in the bedroom containing three of his daughters and his niece - Bessan, Mayar, Aya and Noor. They instantly perished. His phone call with Eldar immediately after their deaths was broadcast live on Israeli television and later on YouTube. The urgent and harrowing emotional response by Abuelaish became the human face of suffering in the war. It transcended political and religious boundaries. Who can't empathize with the loss of another's children?

Abuelaish is a Palestinian obstetrician and gynecologist who specializes in infertility. A well-respected doctor with an international career that has spanned several decades (he lives and works in Toronto at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health), he is also known as a promoter of peace. In spite of his enormous loss, Abuelaish, a Muslim, was not transformed into a hateful, vengeful man. Instead, the loss of his daughters made him more adamant about the need for co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. The result is, in part, this book, I Shall Not Hate.

The book is about that tragic day in Gaza. It also outlines his philosophy of peace, which is deeply rooted in his medical practice. Medicine, for Abuelaish, transcends political and cultural borders and focuses on the human need to end disease and suffering. Importantly, he has held staff positions as a doctor in several Israeli hospitals. This brought him in close contact with Israelis, forging deep, personal bonds with them. These relationships are, he believes, essential for peace in the region, as important as political re-drawings on the map: People need to relate to each other as individuals and not hide behind walls of hate that generalize the other under banners of nationalism.

The strength of this book - and there are many reasons why it is one of the most affecting I have read on the subject of Israel and Palestine - is its personal angle. It tells the story of a man who grew up and raised eight children in the most densely populated, and one of the most impoverished, parts of the world: Gaza. His story is important not only for its message of peace, but for the fact that it personalizes the Palestinian experience.

During the war in 1948, his family voluntarily left their farm in southern Israel for Gaza, planning to return when matters settled. They never returned (Abuelaish still has the papers for his grandfather's farmland; it became part of Ariel Sharon's ranch).

Born in Jabalia in 1955, Abuelaish witnessed the transformation of the refugee camp from tent community to permanent apartment blocks. He lived in Gaza for nearly six decades, through four wars and two intifadas.

The daily, personal stories are moving. He describes the humiliating process of crossing the checkpoint so he can work at an Israeli hospital. He writes about the time Sharon ordered his family's house to be bulldozed in the 1970s so Israeli tanks could fit through the narrow roads of Gaza. Impressively, he conveys these stories as facts of experience; he presents them without getting angry and with the same patience he endures the daily tribulations of occupation. He also balances this with stories of good relations he has with Israelis, like the Sephardis who employed him when he was 15 and treated him like a son. It was thanks to their employment that he was able to buy his family a new house in Gaza.

The book is not a political solution to the conflict, it is a human cry for peace. But the political and the humane are not mutually exclusive. He writes, "If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss." Urged on by the spirits of those he lost, his belief in medicine and his deep faith in Islam, Abuelaish offers practical ways of bridging the gaps between two peoples he believes have more similarities than differences. He has opened a foundation in honour of his daughters that he says will "empower the women and girls of the Middle East through health and education."

This gripping memoir suggests the best solutions for peace are emerging from the grassroots; time and again, politicians on both sides of the wall have let us down. If only a politician in Palestine or Israel had the courage to forgive, as Abuelaish has forgiven, and to commit, as he has, to understanding the other, to listening, to respect, to the realization that peace is not a liberal's dream but an existential reality: The patient will simply not survive without it.

Jonathan Garfinkel is the author of a book of poetry and several plays. His memoir, Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide, was published in 2007. He is currently based in Budapest.

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