Palestinian doctor, author and bereaved father IZZELDIN ABUELAISH is adamant that Hamas does not represent his people and that both sides need fresh leadership.
In 2011, I interviewed Izzeldin Abuelaish at the Sydney Writers Festival about his global bestseller, I Shall Not Hate. The memoir is a compelling, heartbreaking call for peace following the tragic death of his three daughters, aged between 13 and 21, killed by Israeli shelling of his home in Gaza in 2009.
Ever since, Abuelaish has been an advocate for dialogue and understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. His book was referenced in a speech by then US president Barack Obama during Abuelaish’s Australian book tour, giving him a sense of hope that turned out to be short-lived. And yet he continues to be a rational voice for a different kind of dialogue.
Today, Abuelaish is Professor of Public and Global Health at the University of Toronto where he lectures on women’s health in times of conflict. Five of his children live with him in Canada, but he returns to Gaza twice a year, where he has an extended family of more than 90, including brothers who are engineers, pharmacists and teach at the university, as well as sisters, nieces and nephews, that he supports from afar.
“All up, I have more than a thousand relatives,” he tells me via Facetime. Most live in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, where he helped his brothers build a multi-storey family compound.
Abuelaish was in Seattle when he learned of the attacks of October 7, speaking about Daughters for Life, the charitable foundation he set up in memory of his three girls. The foundation gives scholarships to girls to pursue tertiary education internationally, no matter their nationality or religion, from across the Middle East, from Israel to Jordan, Morocco and Syria.
“In July 2023 we gave a scholarship in Israel and at the ceremony, I met the recipient’s mother and realised that I had actually delivered her daughter at the Soroka hospital in Beersheva,” says Abuelaish, who was the first Palestinian doctor to be employed at an Israeli hospital.
When the attacks of October 7 occurred, he and his Gaza family braced themselves. “My children in Toronto could not sleep, they were so worried. My body is here, but my mind and my soul are there,” he says. “My relatives were told to evacuate, but there was nowhere to go. They knew their fate.”
“The Israelis are one-eyed and angry but I still keep them as friends; we do not need to agree on everything.”
When I made contact with Abuelaish to inquire about the wellbeing of his family in Gaza, he sent me a list of the 22 members who had been killed in Israeli bombing attacks on Jabalia. Despite this, he has tried to maintain his faith in the possibility of peace throughout this harrowing time, talking throughout with the friends he made while working in Israel.
“It is hard, because the emotions are too high. They are seeing with one eye, angry and focused on retaliation, but I still keep them as friends because we do not need to agree on everything.”
When I ask him about Hamas’s use of the Al-Shifa hospital as a decoy for its command centre, he is unconvinced by Israel’s extensive video footage: “A hospital is a sacred space to me. That hospital was built by the Israelis themselves, including bunkers underneath it, for future expansion.
“Of course, the Israelis have the right to inspect the tunnels beneath that, but they should have done it with witnesses. So far, they have not found any evidence that is independently verified. And they did not show us what they found immediately, it took them days. Why the delay? Just like it took them a month to admit responsibility for killing my daughters.”
As for Israel’s claim that Hamas uses people as shields by embedding military equipment within civilian infrastructure, he is emphatic: “I can honestly say that no one in my family has ever been used as a human shield; we have never been forced to do anything like that. They could not force me. Also, I have never seen a Hamas militant in the street, and I have never seen a missile fired from anywhere near our home in Jabalia.”
He also adds that Hamas that does not represent the Palestinian people and that he hopes elections will result in new leadership by the PA that is “legitimate and pragmatic. But we also need fresh leadership in Israel that genuinely believes in peace and which results in freedom, equality and respect for all”.
“They have the right to inspect the tunnels but they should have done it with witnesses.”
These days, Abuelaish is focused on a new initiative: establishing a global institute to study hatred and its origins.
“To me this is like a public health issue, because hatred spreads like a virus, it is highly contagious and we have seen the effects of that with Covid. Hatred is a threat to public health. It disrupts our ability to function fully as humans.”
To date, there has been interest in funding from European sources. As a medical doctor, Abuelaish believes it is imperative to understand the causes of an illness before you treat it. Whether his institute will find a cure, or better still, a vaccine against hatred, is a hope he clings to as he continues to advocate for a different way to resolve the conflict which has exacted such a terrible toll.