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July 14, 2010

A saint speaks at our October dinners

The Canadian Charger

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Dr. Izzeldine Abuelaish is as close to a saint as we are apt to find in the world today. During the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2009, an Israeli tank fired into his house, killing three of his daughters and a niece and wounding other family members. His reaction? The title of his book tells it; I Shall Not Hate.

Dr. Abuelaish will be the guest speaker at the Canadian Charger’s fundraising dinners this October (in Toronto on Saturday Oct 23 and in Waterloo, Ontario, on Sunday Oct 24) where Dr. Abuelaish will sign copies of his book to be given to donors.

In answer to the question of why he refuses to hate, he, a devout Muslim, referred to Prophet Mohamed’s dictum that he is strongest who controls his anger.

Dr. Abuelaish has made it his life’s work to bring people together, in his situation, especially Palestinians and Jews. 

He has shared hospitality with “the other” and he has worked in Israeli hospitals as a doctor, treating people without regard to religion or nationality.  The tragic death of his children did not change his focus.

His personal story is one of amazing success in spite of conditions of abject poverty and deprivation. 

A product of a Gaza refugee camp, forced to work beginning as a small child in order to help in supporting his large family while going to school, he was able to excel.

He won a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo.  From there, he went from success to success, furthering studies and practice in Israel, Saudi Arabia, London, Belgium, and Italy. 

The picture he presents of life in Gaza is one of devastation and deprivation, even before Cast Lead. 

A shortage of food and of essential supplies, even of medicine, imposed by the Israeli blockade. 

Humiliation by bureaucrats and petty unpredictable regulations.

Then came Israel’s Cast Lead, with what he described as indiscriminate leveling of homes and public buildings and destruction of facilities such as sewage treatment and water supply. 

While the matter was unstated, it is clear that he fared better than most Gazans who suffered similar tragedies.

Yes, he lost children in the attack, but he got on the phone to contacts in Israel. 

Without going into detail, we can report that his anguished call describing what was happening to him and his family got him an ambulance to take family members to the border and an Israeli ambulance at the border to take them to the Israeli hospital where he worked. 

He also got another child to a closer Israeli hospital, as her condition was more critical.  On an earlier incident, a tank was aiming its gun at his house, and he called contacts in Israel.  The tank backed off.

Dr. Abuelaish was a Gazan with important connections. 

You can well imagine what happened to Gazans without such connections.  No ambulance to Israeli hospitals.  No calling off tanks. 

While he does not specifically make the contrast between his exceptional position and that of other Gazans, he paints a vivid picture of life in Gaza and of the misery imposed by Israel. 

Dr. Abuelaish is now in Toronto with his remaining children, teaching public health on a five-year contract at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health of the University of Toronto. 

He was looking for a more peaceful existence, at least for a while, for himself and his children. 

He commits himself to return to Gaza, but it will be surprising if all his children go back.  In the morass that is Palestine—and even Israel—people who have options often take the opportunity to leave.

Two of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s children have left for New York and Paris. 

Christian Palestinians are leaving in such numbers that they are now an endangered species in Israel and Palestine. 

While Abuelaish proudly proclaims that he will not stop hoping, one can perhaps be excused for pessimism—or is that simply realism?

At a speaking and book signing event in Ottawa, Bloc Québécois MP Richard Nadeau spoke briefly. 

He, Libby Davies of the NDP, and Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskj visited Gaza and saw the gruesome aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. 

They have a 15-minue appointment to meet with Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, to try to have some impact on the government’s policy with regard to the situation. 

What, asked Nadeau, should they say to Cannon?  “Ask him what he would want for his children in such a situation,” replied Abuelaish.

Dr. Abuelaish’s dedication to promoting personal understanding across barriers of religion and nationality is important. 

However, that alone will not bring about the needed changes.  Israel has a vested interest in continuing its oppression, and he does not offer a plan to overcome it. 

Unfortunately, saintliness alone will not suffice.

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