Following the violent deaths of his daughters during the last war between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas, Izzeldin Abuelaish became more fanatical in his stubborn efforts to put his mark on the conflict. While he represents a threat to many, he is still allowed to promote his controversial views in complete freedom and has a secure university job in Canada. At a time when the Middle East conflict is often used on Western college campuses and lecture halls to promote further hatred, conspiracy theories and stereotyping, Abuelaish often operates just under the radar. However, if more people listened to his lectures or read his book, he just might emerge as the most "dangerous" Palestinian in the world--just not in the stereotypical way.
After rockets from Gaza rained down on Southern Israel, and Israel responded in 2008 and early 2009, it was innocent people on both sides of the border like Abuelaish and his family who suffered the most. While the death toll from air strikes and a ground offensive was by far greater in Gaza with over one thousand dead, including hundreds of Palestinian non-combatants, relentless rocket attacks instilled terror and paralyzed activities throughout southern Israel.
Dr. Abuelaish was the first Palestinian doctor to have full privileges at an Israeli hospital. Abuelaish, 57, is a renowned fertility expert who in addition to his medical degree has a masters in public health from Harvard, and a current professorship at the University of Toronto. His role as a physician has profoundly influenced his devotion to peace and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize:
Have we learned from doctors, who I believe are messengers of humanity. It is not by words, but by deeds. No one values human life more than doctors. Doctors work months, sometimes years to save one life. It is difficult to build, but it's easy to destroy. We have to learn how to build.
An Unfathomable Loss
He had just lost his wife to leukemia weeks earlier, when on January 16, 2009 Israeli shells struck the apartment that he shared with his children and other relatives.
There was a monstrous explosion that seemed to be all around us, and a thundering, fulminating sound that penetrated my body as though it were coming from within me. I remember the sound. I remember the blinding flash. Suddenly it was pitch dark, there was dust everywhere, something was sucking the air out of me, I was suffocating.... As the dust began to settle, 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.... Bedroom furniture, school books, dolls, running shoes and pieces of wood were splintered in a heap, along with the body parts of my daughters and my niece.
Though I cannot prove it, it is my firm belief that Dr. Abuelaish's loss and his response to it have saved lives in the earlier conflict as well as the current one. The anguish and aftermath of the attack was captured on live television in Israel, and it had a profound effect not only on Palestinians, but on many Israelis as well. Dr. Abuelaish was trusted as someone who had been committed to peace through a variety of activities, and he had actually done interviews from Gaza during the conflict.
Two days later a cease-fire occurred. In circumstances like this, even an imperfect cease-fire is better than an escalating conflict where no one has full control of the outcome and more lives are lost.
Nothing Bad From God
It would have been thoroughly understandable for Dr. Abuelaish to become a bitter and hateful man who also lost his trust in God, but remarkably the opposite happened. Since the tragedy, Dr. Abuelasih has been an indefatigable champion for peace and the dignity of all people and his devotion to faith remains unshakable: "All suffering is man made.... Nothing bad from God, I never believe God gives bad things to human beings."
He explains further that God took his wife of twenty-one years first, because he did not want her to suffer the loss of three of her children. "I have five more children with [a] future and hope, nothing for bad...Even with the loss of three daughters and one niece. Later on, I started to ask myself why I was tested. I am sure [for] something heavy and useful." Even so, Dr. Abuelaish has faced criticism for being too close to Israelis and not tough enough in his criticism of Hamas. Hamas, the elected ruling authority in Gaza is a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated group categorized as a terrorist organization by the United States for its suicide bombing campaigns, indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians, and because its charter calls for the complete destruction of Israel.
Hopes For Peace
He sees his role now as inspiring others to peace:
To meet terrorism with terrorism or violence doesn't solve anything.... The consequences of this harm can't be measured, and it will be with huge consequences and effects on all of us.
What can you do? You can do a lot. You can support justice for all by speaking out loudly to your family, friends, community, politicians and religious leaders. You can support foundations that do good work. You can volunteer for humanitarian organizations. You can vote regressive politicians out of office. You can do many things to move the world toward greater harmony...
During and following an address in Los Angeles in 2009 his statements to me captured a devotion to peace in the face of hardship that is reminiscent of Dr. King, Gandhi and Bobby Kennedy:
Before being Jewish we are human being (sic), before being a Muslim, a Palestinian or Israeli we are a human being (sic) and our humanity brings us together.... When I [am] defending the Jew, or the Christian or the African, I am defending myself.
Our problem in this Holy Land is that we don't know each other....We are stereotyped about each other; we don't want to know the other in the right way....Palestinians look at Israelis as occupiers, as soldiers, as killers, what other bad thing they can imagine.
The Palestinians are Hamas. The Palestinians are sending rockets. They are suicidal bombers.
The bad things, like we look in the glass to the empty part. But I think the glass is relatively full, there are a lot of good people on both sides, but we don't want to see them.
I am defending the humanity that I belong to that brings us together....Everything starts small and becomes big....We need big hearts and big minds where love resides.
A very wise Arab-American scholar involved in the peace process said now more than ever the choices today for Israelis and Palestinians alike are not Jew versus Arab, but echoing Dr. Abuelaish, they are sanity versus insane hatred. Is it not interesting that on this Thanksgiving Day, America again has shown its crucial position to the world by helping to implement one step toward sanity-- the current ceasefire? Perhaps, if American support and influence continues, and the hate mongers are sidelined, one day, the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell from Leviticus, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the Inhabitants thereof" will resonate across two states living side by side in peace.