This month in Convocation Hall at The University of Winnipeg, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger inaugurated the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award of Canada, being presented to Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Abuelaish is a Palestinian medical doctor born and raised in a refugee camp, and is the author of I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey. He is a strong advocate of dialogue and non-violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
Dr. K. Dakshinamurti, founder of the Award and co-founder of The Mahatma Gandhi Centre of Canada said, “This is the perfect occasion on which to inaugurate this Award, celebrating the diversity of Winnipeg and welcoming hundreds of peace educators who are here to attend the international Peace and Justice Studies Association conference, hosted by Menno Simons College and The University of Winnipeg Global College.”
Less than a year ago, the Winnipeg Jewish Review wrote a story covering Dr. Abuelaish’s remarks in a lecture he delivered the Sol Kanee Lecture of the Arthur Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at the University of Manitoba on November 2,2009 before a large crowd who gave him a standing ovation following his presentation.
“Hate and revenge is a disease, but I am a doctor whose job is to heal…I do not want to be full of hatred. It is a toxin that must be purified,” said Abuelaish, a Gazan obstetrician and gynecologist who is currently an associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Dr. Abuelaish, treated both Palestinian and Israeli patients in Israeli hospitals for many years before a horrific tragedy befell him in Israeli Operation Cast Lead incursion into Gaza launched in response to rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas militants.
On January 16, 2009 Dr. Abuelaish’s urgent pleas for help were captured by Israeli television and broadcast around the world , after three of his “precious” daughters and a niece died when Israeli tank shells shattered his house in the Jabalia refugee camp. A fourth daughter and niece were severely injured.
Dr Abuelaish, who was nominated by Belgium for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, has said all that of his life he has worked as a doctor “with one leg in Israel and one leg in Gaza”, in order to serve as a model of co-existence.
He recounted that as he looked at “the blood bath” of his “decapitated” daughters, he began to understand why “God planned” for his wife to die of cancer three months earlier.
“I am a believer with great faith…God is good. He did not want her to see her three daughters killed before her eyes,” he said fighting back tears.
Dr. Abuelaish said that his 13 year old son, Mohammed told him after the horrific loss that “My sisters are with my mom. Mom has asked for them.”
The doctor explained that Israeli television was on the scene on the day in question because he was scheduled to interview him about “issues of women’s health.”
Although the Israel Defense Forces initially claimed that Hamas militants were firing from the house, Abuelaish said, later the I.D.F “announced its responsibility (for) the shelling of my house.”
He said that the fact that his story was captured live on television had served to “disclose a secret,” to the world, showing “the craziness and prejudice that was practiced against Gazan civilians.”
Prior to the tragedy, Dr. Abuelaish had received offers to work at the University of Toronto as well as the University of Haifa in Israel. Despite his tremendous suffering, Dr. Abuelaish, has decided, to continue conducting “joint research with my Israeli colleagues” at the University of Haifa, while he is now working and living in Toronto.
“If we [ Israelis and Palestinians] want to have better lives, we need to work together jointly,” he said.
He explained that his personal tragedy had motivated him to take steps to “ achieve justice,” and noted that although he “could never get back” what he lost, he “still had to move forward,” since “I am blessed with five other children and a future.”
In his address, Dr. Abuelaish said “I hope a day will come when there is a Palestinian state living side by side an Israeli state,” and referred to these “two independent states” as “living in partnership.”
During the question period, he said that reconciliation would require a “joint effort between Israelis and Palestinians,” and said that “I understand Israeli needs and their fears…”
As he noted, “Every coin has two sides.”
When asked during the question period, whether he would favour a “one state solution” [ for the area that now comprises Israel, the West Bank and Gaza], he responded that the solution could be “ a one state or two state or whatever” and then said “I don’t mind a one state.”
While he expressed criticism of the Netanyahu government for not actively pursuing peace, he also said “Palestinians must stop any violent actions” and unequivocally condemned violence.
He criticized Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “He came to visit Israelis injured in the war who were in Tel-Aviv’s [Tel Hashomer] hospital, but he didn’t come to visit my daughter and niece who were being treated there in that hospital [where Dr. Abuelaish used to work].”
Dr. Abuelaish recounted how he decided to go hear Barak speak in Prague. “I sat in the front line and Barak started to wave to me. He knew me. But afterwards he left without speaking to me. Twenty minutes later he came back to talk to me. ..I said the meeting was supposed to have been in Tel-Aviv [at the hospital], but never mind, it’s not too late. Once we communicate, we build trust…we must face each other and express our fears…”
Dr Abuelaish also spoke about sending Bisan, his eldest now deceased daughter, to a peace-camp in Santé Fe, Mexico to be with Jewish Israeli girls, so “she could get to know the other.” At first it was difficult, but she ended up becoming friendly with them.
“During the war, all of the [Israeli] girls came to visit my daughter who was in hospital in Tel-Aviv,” he said.
The doctor concluded that “We must give women a greater role in making peace.”
Abuelaish has also been honored with the he 2009 Stavros Niarchos Prize for Survivorship, the 2009 Search for Common Ground Award, the 2009 Middle East Institute Award, and the 2010 Uncommon Courage Award, from the Centre for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding at Queens College, NY. He was one of three finalists for the 2009 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, the European Parliament’s award for human rights and democracy campaigners. He was also chosen as one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in both 2009 and 2010 by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan.
EDITOR’S COMMENT: Although Abuelaish has suffered a tremendous personal tragedy and is to be commended for advocating dialogue and non-violence, on a political level it is most unfortunate that Dr. Abuelaish in his remarks at the University of Manitoba last year did not negate outright the idea of a “one state” solution to the conflict. It is unfortunate that he did not inform his audience that there is virtually no support among Israeli Jews for this “one state” option, and realistically, such a result will never be agreed upon between the parties. It is a false illusion. Such a notion means the end of the State of Israel and Israel understandably will never agree to commit national suicide. Thus, any eventual reconciliation will have to come in the form of a two state solution to have any chance of ever being implemented.