Exactly three years ago, Israel attacked the Gaza Strip. It is of course quite impossible to write anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without being accused of bias by someone, and the Gaza war is no exception. But here are what I believe to be agreed facts.
Israel stated the attack was to stop rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel. Since 2001, thousands had been launched resulting in 28 Israeli deaths and hundreds of casualties. The Gazans responsible said they were justified in attacking Israel as an occupying power.
During the three-week operation, 1,200 to 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Of the 13, three were civilians and ten soldiers. Of the Palestinians, about 700 were civilians, 250 of them younger than 16. All fighting occurred on Gaza soil. Four thousand homes were destroyed by the Israeli Defence Forces. Tens of thousands were left homeless. Many observers, including Israeli human rights groups and a UN commission, found the Israelis guilty of using seriously disproportionate force.
Despite these findings, Stephen Harper's government offered its usual unconditional support for Israel and showed its usual indifference to the plight of the Palestinian people of Gaza.
Among the Palestinian civilian dead were three daughters, aged 21, 15 and 14, and a 17-year old niece, of Izzeldin Abuelaish. Dr. Abuelaish was born and raised in a refugee camp in the tiny, squalid Gaza strip and Gaza remained his home until last year. He now holds a position at the University of Toronto's school of public health.
"Thick, unrelenting oppression touches every single aspect of life in Gaza," he writes in his remarkable little book, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey. It is "a human time bomb in the process of imploding. … Gazans are trapped. ... The frustration and humiliation were a constant burden." As in any description of Israel-Palestine relations, always that key word reappears: humiliation, the relentless humiliation of powerless Palestinians by Israelis, utterly disconnected to any legitimate Israeli security concerns.
Yet despite all the obvious obstacles, Dr. Abuelaish became a medical doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology and infertility. He also became the rare Palestinian doctor who worked in both Israel and the Gaza Strip and who had many good friends in Israel, mostly doctors. Nevertheless, even for him every single trip between Gaza and Israel was another protracted experience in humiliation at the hands of Israeli soldiers.
On Sept. 16, 2008, Dr. Abuelaish's wife, mother of his eight children, died from acute leukemia after a very brief illness. He was on a working trip in Europe and the story of his frantic attempt to return is one long Israeli-imposed logistical nightmare. At last he arrived at her bedside, in an Israeli hospital, in time to be with her when she died. The children were not allowed to leave Gaza to be with their mother at the end.
On Dec. 27, the Gaza war began with an air strike by Israel. Dr. Abuelaish and his family were all in Gaza. What followed, he writes, was Israel's "scorched earth policy" and the "wanton destruction" of the Gaza Strip. He derides "the blind stupidity of attacking the citizens of Gaza and claiming the rampage was aimed at stopping the rockets being fired into Israel."
On Jan. 16, exactly four months after his wife died, two Israeli rockets were fired into his daughters' bedroom in the home where his extended family were attempting to hide from the Israeli bombardment:
There was a monstrous explosion.… Suddenly it was pitch dark, something was sucking the air out of me, I was suffocating. … 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.
Dr. Abuelaish then describes, in clinical, detached yet unbearable detail, the precise horror of the scene before him.
After a period of lies and denials by Israelis about what happened, he reports that the Israeli government finally took responsibility "for wrongly targeting my home and killing my daughters, but it has never apologized and no official has ever said 'I'm sorry'."
The nightmare was not yet over. After his daughters and niece were killed, Dr. Abuelaish travelled to Israel where other family members who had been wounded in the same attack were in hospital. But the Israelis would not allow him back in Gaza in time for the burial of his children. Nor were his daughters allowed to be buried beside their mother because, he writes, "Israeli soldiers said no one was allowed to go into that area."
Here is where Dr. Abuelaish's story moves to dimensions beyond the extraordinary. In an introduction to the book, Marek Glazerman, a leading Israeli doctor, articulates what all must wonder: Izzeldin Abuelaish seems too good to be true. "Having lost his daughters, how can he still speak about love and peace and keep his Israeli friends?" Yet this is exactly what he does:
Let my daughters be the last to die. … 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, I fully believe what is from God is for good and what is bad is man-made and can be prevented or changed. … The Quran 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.
Let there be no misunderstanding here. Dr. Abuelaish has no illusions about Hamas, its brutality, corruption and authoritarianism. But he also shows that for the Palestinian people – his people – the chief obstacle to peace and dignity is Israel. He repeatedly and harshly criticizes Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and presents evidence from many credible sources, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, documenting the miserable conditions of life in Gaza, a virtual prison controlled by Israel.
Yet even so, he forgives Israel for its trespasses, even – unbelievably enough – for the deaths of his family and his lifetime of humiliation at their hands.
It seems to me that no normal person can read this book without being both moved and influenced. It's very short and can be read in a couple of holiday afternoons. If Stephen Harper, John Baird and Jason Kenney were to do so, with an open mind, it's inconceivable that they would not review their Middle East policy with a new and balanced perspective.
After all, at this time of year we're permitted to dream of miracles.
An excerpt from a poem by Anael Harpaz, an Israeli woman who met Dr. Abuelaish's daughters at a peace camp. It is dedicated to his eldest, Bessan, dead at age 21.
I feel I have been betrayed by God
By my country
By the cruelty of humanity
By the warmongers
By those who think violence is the solution
Bessan forgive me
For not being able to save you
From my own people
Forgive me for giving you hope
That peace is possible
And then taking that dream from you