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Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian-Canadian physician and internationally recognized human rights and peace activist, gives remarks after receiving an honorary doctorate at Toronto Metropolitan University’s fall convocation on Oct. 12.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

A Palestinian doctor from Gaza, who is spreading a message of peace and dialogue as the Middle East again erupts into war, received an honorary degree and a standing ovation this week.

“We all share this humanity,” Izzeldin Abuelaish told a crowd of gowned graduates at Toronto Metropolitan University on Thursday.

In a commencement address, he urged the young adults gathered to build a better world by rising above conflict and division.

“The world in which we live is endemic with violence, with injustice, with fear and hatred,” he told the crowd. “To endure this world, we need truth.”

Now a Canadian citizen, Dr. Abuelaish grew up in the Jabalia refugee camp before earning a medical degree and working around the world as a celebrated doctor. He is currently a faculty member at the University of Toronto’s health department.

But he is mostly known for his forbearance and for speaking out about how he saw three of his daughters die in Gaza during a 2009 clash between Israel and Hamas.

“I saw the life leave my beloved daughters, in front of my eyes,” Dr. Abuelaish told the graduating students this week.

In 2009, an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) tank pursuing Hamas militants fired a shell at his apartment building. His pain was instantly broadcast on Israeli national television. “My daughters have been killed,” he sobbed into a phone moments after the strike.

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Already a widower then, Dr. Abuelaish moved with his surviving children to Canada. Ever since arriving, he has found that talking about Aya, 13, Mayar, 15, and Bessan, 21 is a way to keep them alive.

“I’m keeping them in your minds, in your hearts, in your soul,” he told the university crowd gathering at the former Maple Leaf Gardens.

The author of a 2010 autobiography called I Shall Not Hate, Dr. Abuelaish said security and freedom are universal struggles and that experiencing suffering is also a constant.

During his speech Thursday, he did he not overtly reference the IDF, Hamas, or this week’s deadly events in the Middle East, preferring to emphasize shared sentiments.

But in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Abuelaish was more plain-spoken, noting that one of his cousins, two of his nephews, and his sister-in-law have been killed in recent days as civilian casualties in Gaza.

The IDF has launched air strikes in retaliation for surprise Hamas attacks that killed more than 1,300 Israelis last weekend. Now, international rights groups are warning that more deaths will follow, as Israeli forces prepare to march into Gaza.

While he is a celebrated figure, Dr. Abuelaish has at times been a controversial one.

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In a 2014 opinion column in The Globe, he angered some Jewish groups in Canada by writing of a “genocide” in Gaza. Today, he says that he does not regret using that word. “The loss of my daughters is a genocide for me,” he said this week.

He has tried unsuccessfully to sue the Israeli government over his daughters’ deaths. The IDF had acknowledged firing tank shells at his multistorey apartment building. But in 2018, an Israeli court found that Hamas bore responsibility for the girls’ deaths, because its militants were suspected of being active there at the time.

In 2016, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg featured an interactive exhibit about Dr. Abuelaish and his daughters’ deaths. That led Haskell Greenfield, co-ordinator of Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba, to go public with his concerns that the exhibit was creating intolerance against Jews by giving a one-sided portrayal of a complex conflict.

Despite their divergent views, the two men later met in Manitoba.

“We talked,” Prof. Greenfield said. “It’s always productive when you can sit down and talk to someone face to face, feel their pain. And realize they have the ability to feel your pain.”

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