Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Izzeldin Gandhi

A book review of  “I Shall Not Hate” by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, Bloomsbury, 2012 (Kindle edition)

Opinionated Israelis and Americans often ask accusingly why there is no Palestinian Gandhi. I have just met one in Izzeldin Abuelaish’s “I Shall Not Hate.” Her name was Bessan and she had participated with Israelis in a peace camp in the USA. Alas, she was eliminated by a shell fired into her bedroom killing her with two of her sisters and one cousin, not to mention maimed siblings. Which brings back fond memories of another Gandhi gosling that I knew personally before he was executed by a bullet to the back of the neck at close range while sitting under an olive tree at the outskirts of my village. His name was Aseel Asleh and he was a youth leader of the bi-national Seeds of Peace project before participating in the fateful demonstration in October 2000. He didn’t limit his leadership of age mates only to peace galas.

The tragic yet uplifting story of Dr. Abuelaish needs to be repeated even though it was broadcast live in real time on an Israeli news channel at the height of the Israeli 2008-9 Cast Led attack on the imprisoned population of Gaza. The larger saga was made famous through the UN document known as the Goldstone Report, which, contradictorily, has gained further credence through the eventual recanting of its chief author when he came under massive tribal pressure at home. At the time, Dr. Abuelaish was the first and only physician from Gaza working in an Israeli major hospital. But the attack caught him at home in Gaza and he was incarcerated there nearly for the entire twenty-three days of bombardment from land air and sea. He served as an eyewitness reporting from inside hell to Israeli TV audiences. Towards the end, his three daughters and a niece were killed by a cannon shell that was lobbed at a close range into their bedroom. What makes the horror story more poignant is that the doctor had lulled himself into believing that his home was safe. He had managed earlier to use his mobile phone to get his influential Israeli contacts to ask the IDF commanders to turn back an advancing tank with its cannon aimed at the home only minutes before it would have fired its explosive payload into the building. And he had just shared with his children some photos of him next to the two top Israeli leaders at the helm of the country’s decision-making team as if to reassure the agitated children of their home’s guaranteed safety thanks to those significant connections.

That, in part, was why I hesitated first to nominate the good doctor himself for the honorary Gandhi title. Clearly, he belonged to another category of heroes, the occasional Don Quixote intent on making our desert wilderness bloom with peace and equality through sheer persistence and loud prodding of all of us, especially the Palestinians in the crowd, to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. When first encountered, he seems to prefer the glory of a fantasy world of peace and understanding over our real world of conflict and daily death and destruction. But Izzeldin has another worthy title: He is a real Gazan, Gaza being a veritable mark of distinction among Palestinians that implies willpower, rock-solid obstinacy, persistence against all odds, tolerance of punishing life conditions and readiness to wrestle with giants. He is a refugee who grew up, I imagine, able to look out from the roof of his family’s hobble in the Jabalia camp, the most congested spot on the face of earth, and see the empty expanse of land that once was his ancestral village of Houg now turned to General Ariel Sharon’s ranch. He could see the village’s only remaining structure, the former mosque, left standing out of pious considerations, now serving as the pen for the General’s Arabian thoroughbred horses. As Izzeldin grows up struggling with the standard harsh conditions of Gaza refugees, Sharon pursues him, demolishing his family’s shack along with a whole section of the refugee camp to clear a safe passage for his tanks. This was long before Sharon’s protégés and heirs, the likes of Olmert and Barak with whom Ezziddin had rubbed shoulders and for whom he had provided exotic photo ops, let loose their tanks to target the doctor’s home, the eventuality that robbed us all of the promise of a Palestinian Gandhi named Bessan, if not of four Gandhis. And, as in the case of my teenage village friend, Aseel, before Bessan, no one has ever been punished or has ever apologized formally for the assassination of the promised Messiah. And yet those same potential peacemakers had been nurtured by liberal Israeli and American do-gooders who fret over the details of arranging peace encounters for youth from across the conflicted borders. I do not doubt such activists’ sincerity and dedication, witness for example, Anael Harpaz who wrote a moving ode in memory of Bessan and spent ten weeks next to the bed of her injured sister, Shatha.

Izzeldin takes stock of what has happened to his family that fateful day and decides he has a job to do: bring peace through his profession, the tired old mantra that his many Israeli friends and mentors readily reinforce. Faced with that, I am sad to admit that, unlike the good doctor, I am unable to bridge the moral and psychological gap between such liberal after-the-fact understanding of, or even commiserating with, Izzeldin’s suffering on one hand and, on the other hand, the culpability of the same colleagues and sympathizers as part and parcel of a public that gave its full support to its government in attacking Gaza, the vicious process that led to the loss of four Abuelaish girls. That is not to mention the trauma, physical and psychological, to all the other members of the family if not all of Gaza’s population or even humanity as a whole. Take for example the heroic role played by Shlomi Eldar, not as a person but as a representative of a genre: The caring and empathetic relationship between the daring newscaster and the doctor who endured the horrendous private nakba of gathering the body parts of his three daughters touches one’s heart. Yet, Eldar is a central cog in the Israeli media machine that prepared the atmosphere, led the parade and egged on the militant extremists in Israel in the clamor that led to the monstrous Cast Led campaign.

I worked for the Israeli Ministry of Health for many years. In 1976, on the eve of Land Day, I submitted my resignation in protest intending to abandon my self-assigned humanitarian mission in my home village in Galilee and to immigrate to the USA. After two years I was reconciled and returned still committed to my impossible mission. In 1992 an outbreak of measles among Bedouin children in the Negev brought to a head my conflict with my superiors about the system’s policy of neglect and discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially the Bedouins in the south. I resigned my position, at the time the highest-ranking professional position held by a Palestinian in the ministry. Much help it did! But I had reached the end of my tolerance. And I pride myself on my pacifism and tolerance. I relate this only to offer a contrast and to amplify my admiration and amazement at Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish stick-to-itiveness in his pursuit of peace and understanding come what may. For that I take my hat off for the man and nominate him for the title of the Palestinian Gandhi.

On re-reading the introduction written by Izzeldin’s mentor and boss at the Beer Sheba hospital, I feel a sense of letdown. Somehow, he comes across in this as another peace activists. But in the account in his book he looms bigger than life. In this land there once was another man who carried his cross and wouldn’t stop spouting off about peace and love. So Abuelaish is not the first Palestinian with a commitment to peace, understanding and reconciliation. Or was the man from Nazareth Jewish? I guess one can be Jewish and Palestinian at the same time.

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