Izzeldin Abuelaish lost his three daughters during an Israeli attack in Gaza on January 16th, 2009. In the aftermath of the tragedy, he wrote the book “I Shall Not Hate”, which has been made into a play in Brussels. He continues to strive for justice, peace, and the desire to keep the memory of his daughters alive.
Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The explosion let him numb. He looked at his hands, his legs. Was he still alive? Dust floated in the air, he could barely see around him. He coughed. The smell of burnt plastic filled his nose. He called his daughters names but he heard no reply. In his apartment in Gaza, Izzeldin Abuelaish ran to the room where his three daughters and niece had been just a moment ago. In the doorway he stood looking at a space he could not recognize. The shell fired by the Israeli tank had exploded in his daughters’ bedroom. It had torn flesh and bone. Izzeldin dropped to his knees and wailed. He kept calling his daughters’ names.
In the aftermath of the tragedy that occurred on January 16th, 2009, Abuelaish wrote a book called “I Shall Not Hate”, where he recounts his life growing up in the Jabalila refugee camp, his studies in Egypt, how he became a doctor, specializing in obstetrics, gynecology and infertility. He shares his experience as a Palestinian doctor practicing in Israel, the hassles and humiliations he had to go through at checkpoints between the two countries. He describes how, two days after the tragedy, on January 18th, the Israeli government declared a unilateral ceasefire, putting an end to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Abuelaish now lives in Toronto where he is Full Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. In memory of his daughters, he created the “Daughters for Life” Foundation, which aims to provide scholarship awards to encourage young women from Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria to pursue their studies at universities in Canada, the United States and Belgium.
In October, he visited Brussels for the premiere of Je ne haïrai pas, a version of his book brought to the stage at Théâtre de Poche, where I had the opportunity to speak with him.
What gives you the energy and courage to strive for reconciliation after all that has happened?
The energy the courage to move forward, I get it from my faith. I am a person of faith. When everything else is gone my faith remains and I count on God’s support. Then there is education, which is the light that helps us to move forward in times of darkness. It’s the vision. We can see what is happening around the world and choose not to be blind to injustice.
Also my life experience as a Palestinian and the Palestinian people. We have been tested until now. We are tested on daily basis in all aspects of life. But it hasn’t weakened us. We’re resilient and tolerant but at the same time we are steadfast and determined to move forward and to achieve our goals. Einstein said: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep the balance you must keep moving.” So for the Palestinians to keep the balance and be determined, to keep the focus, they have to keep moving forward.
In my profession as a medical doctor, I’ve faced many emergencies. I learned to manage those situations. When patient dies I move on to the next patient because the priority in life is to the living ones. Not to the dead. But we need to learn the lessons. What were the causes of death and what can we do to prevent it?
What were your impressions of Brussels? After you saw the play at Théâtre de Poche, what impact did it have on you?
I am so grateful to the Theatre de Poche. To all the staff, in particular the director, Denis Laujol, as well as everyone else who believed in the importance of the message. When he read the book he said, “We will have to transform it into play because it’s highly needed.” Most of the people who saw the play were impressed. And this meant a lot to me.
They were moved, the message touched them. That’s what is important. I am sure it will trigger a change in their minds. So I can say to my daughters, “Your names are written in the heart, the soul and the spirit of the Belgian people.”
That’s the blessing I can send to my daughters to keep them alive.
The final section where the actress turns to the audience and she speaks your words is very powerful
I’d never thought of it but the play touched the woman side in me. It started with my mother, my wife, and my daughters, and even the actress. Deborah [Rauch] got rid of everything called ‘the other’. She came on stage with the determination to advocate for humanity, to play that role as a Belgian Jewish woman. And this is a strong message.
Where politics divide, the human aspect of life brings us together. So the play, with the story of my life, has brought people together.
You mentioned that you are still looking for justice for what happened to you and your family. What is the current status after the Beersheba district court’s decision?
I’ve been trying to give back a human face to my daughters. They were innocent young women with the dreams, with plans. They have names, they have faces. Not to justify what happened because there is no reason to justify the killing of any human being.
I want the Israeli court, in a civilized way, to acknowledge that my daughters deserve to receive justice. But unfortunately, when we politicize the judicial system and the legal issues, it goes nowhere. We need to have the courage to admit what happened, only then can we move forward.
And we need to reconcile with our past. It’s important for me to say to my daughters: You were not collateral damage. There is no reason that could justify that. So’ve I tried through every possible legal means at the district court first, then I had to appeal to the Supreme Court with all of the administrative challenges.
Unfortunately, it was rejected but I will not let this bring me down. I will continue to advocate with courage, with wisdom, with kind, courageous words and in a civilized legal way until I bring justice to my daughters.
What is the Daughters for Life Foundation, and how can people get involved?
I founded Daughters for Life Foundation after the tragedy. I thought, What can I do to keep my daughters alive? Nothing is more important than education and establishing a charity in their name for good cause, for education of girls and young women in the Middle East and North Africa.
If politics and war divide, education can bring people together to overcome the darkness and the ignorance that war creates. That’s why I established it in 2010 as a Canadian charity to educate young women from the Middle East and North Africa who are suffering from social economic hardship. We don’t apply any discrimination based on ethnicity or religious or political view. We are expanding now in Europe and with the support of the Belgian government, the Brussels Region government, and the City of a Brussels including Philippe Close the mayor of a Brussels. We launched Daughters for Life in Belgium at the city hall in Brussels.
I’m proud of that achievement, and thankful to all the people who’ve supported the initiative. I continue to appeal to many universities in Belgium, other institutions and the public to spread the message of Daughters for Life, which is a message of humanity. It’s an opportunity for people to join and help financially, as a volunteer, or in any way they can.
Can you tell us about your relationship with Shlomi Elder? How did you meet him?
Shlomi is close friend of mine and we are as one family. We were not really friends before the tragedy. We used to meet because he’s a journalist. I crossed the borders many times. We always had a good relationship. But after the tragedy, with moral courage he had to broadcast our conversation live to put an end to the war, because once it was out into the world, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the unilateral cease fire.
I met Shlomi last week and we have a good relationship. We are a friends. We are one family, his wife, his children, my children. And when we meet, we meet as two brothers. Two brothers in a human way. That’s what we need. We get rid of all the labels. I am Belgian, I am Palestinian, it doesn’t matter. In the end, we are a human. That’s what should prevail.
What are your thoughts on the current status of refugee camp? Have you visited any recently?
Yes. I was there last Thursday. On Thursday I have been to Jabalia camp and unfortunately, the situation is getting worse and worse. I’ve also been to the Jenin camp, to Al-Shati beach camp. The same.
A refugee is someone who one day had a country, a place, a home, a land, a family. But then they are dependent on humanitarian aid and it’s painful. It’s the most prolonged conflict, and the world keeps watching the injustice. Silence is injustice.
Even the United Nations, they declared the situation unbearable in 2020. We are now 2022. The water resources, the environment, the electricity. The unemployment rate among the youth is very high, about 60%. They are educated and looking for work. But the most important thing is freedom. And they are deprived from it. How can we tolerate this?
What do you think of the current revolution in Iran? Could this be the beginning of the end for the regime?
I am not expert in this field and what is going on. I don’t want to engage to much in this issue, but I believe every human being has the right to live as a free individual based on the context in which they live. We have to let the people themselves decide for themselves.
They have the right to have a free, just and peaceful life regardless of who they are or where they live. It’s the responsibility of the people to take the lead without any authoritarian forces intervening. What happened in the Arab Spring and what were its consequences?
I am fully supportive of the rights of every human being. Authorities should acknowledge the rights of citizens. We shouldn’t need revolutions to get basic rights granted to you. It’s the responsibility of the state leaders. They are there as civil servants to work for the people not to exercise control over them.
You’ve been living in Canada for some time. What are your impressions on the Justin Trudeau? What are the differences in migration policies with respect to Europe? Canada is often seen as an example
The people in Canada are divided in their opinions about Justin Trudeau. Regarding my personal experience, I came to Canada with a work permit. I have a job and a good life. I was here when he ran for the election for the first time in 2014. At that time there was a war and a raid against the Palestinians in Gaza where more than 2,000 were killed and about 10,000 Palestinians were wounded, mostly children. So I started an initiative as a medical doctor to help these children so they could be treated because the health resources and the health system in Gaza Strip can’t deal with all of them.
The initiative was called “Heal 100 kids”. The goal was to bring Palestinian children and also any Israeli child who was in need of healthcare to Canada for treatment. We succeeded in increasing awareness and thanks to the Canadian public who supported this initiative, which was signed by about 50,000 people, the government of Ontario, the hospitals, offered to help.
But at that time, the conservative government rejected to give visas to these children. Justin Trudeau was running for the election, and he tweeted twice he would support the initiative.
Sadly, after he won the reality was different. There were articles published saying to him, “Now you are the Prime Minister. Stand by what you tweeted.” He denied it and didn’t do anything. Then there was war again. I reminded him many times to walk the talk, to be honest. But I realized that Justin Trudeau is not any different from anyone else who wants to stay in power. He is a politician without any interest in promoting the human cause that he allegedly supported.
You’ve talked about this very difficult situation of people in Gaza. And at the same time, you wrote this book, I Shall Not Hate. You also have many many friends in Israel who support your cause. How do you see the future for Palestine and Israel?
Tyranny will not stay forever. It has an end. War and violence, any military means will never put an end to our resilience. Israel has tried it many times. The only way is to realize that we have to live together as equal neighbors and citizens, as a free nations in two independent states or in one state where all are equal.
This is the only way, because I see with the current Israeli government shifting to the right. This will never bring peace to anyone. And we as Palestinians and as Israelis, we are on the same boat. We have to reach the shore peacefully as equal, free citizens.
And that’s what I believe. Israel’s independence, safety, security, future, and freedom are dependent and linked to those of the Palestinians’. We are like siamese twins. No one can deny the rights of the other. The only way is to recognize the rights of all based on international resolutions.
Do you think this is feasible?
Nothing is impossible in life. How did it use to be between Germany and France? How was it in South Africa? In Ireland? In many countries we have seen many similar situations. This is the only long-standing conflict. It is a test for the international community. Not only for the Americans, because the Americans are biased. We don’t trust them to be a mediator on this matter. We are only asking for fairness.
We need the European Union, the Arab League, the international community, the United Nations, and many other countries to stand by what was voted to be implemented and was accepted by the majority. Any party violating these decisions should be held accountable.