The Gazan Peace Doctor and A Solution for Israel/Palestine?

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, before the successful Gaza War with Hamas
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, before the successful Gaza War with Hamas

At first I was shocked when I read the story of the Gazan peace doctor who has been working with Israelis for years, whose daughters were decapitated and cut to pieces in front of him, from an Israeli shell aimed without care or caution at Hamas.

But then I went through a second stage of reaction when I was warmed by how amazing a reception he received in Israel. His surviving wounded daughter was operated on to save her eye as he was surrounded by sobbing Israeli Jewish colleagues. Here are excerpts from the story:

“I dedicated my life really for peace, for medicine,” said Dr. Abuelaish, who does joint research projects with Israeli physicians and for years has worked as something of a one-man force to bring injured and ailing Gazans for treatment in Israel.

“The Israeli Defense Forces does not target innocents or civilians, and during the operation the army has been fighting an enemy that does not hesitate to fire from within civilian targets,” said the spokesman, speaking anonymously on behalf of the army.

The Israeli public became witness to the Abuelaish family’s tragedy on Friday night when a conversation that a television journalist was having with Dr. Abuelaish was broadcast live.

After the broadcast, an ambulance was sent to a border crossing to pick up the doctor and the two wounded girls. His four other children remain in Gaza and are expected to join him in Israel soon.

At the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer on Saturday, Dr. Abuelaish was surrounded by Israeli colleagues. Several were crying. Tammie Ronen, a professor of social work at Tel Aviv University, knelt beside the doctor. “You cannot let yourself collapse, you have your living children to take care of,” said Dr. Ronen. Dr. Ronen had worked with him in researching the effects of conflict-related stress on Palestinian children in Gaza and Israeli children in Sderot, a border town that has been the main target of Gazan rocket fire in recent years.

“Tell them who my children were,” said Dr. Abuelaish, spotting Anael Harpaz, an Israeli woman who runs a peace camp in New Mexico for Israeli and Palestinian girls that three of his daughters attended, including his eldest, Bisan, 20, who was killed Friday. The other two daughters who were killed were Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13. The doctor’s niece who died, Nur Abuelaish, was 17.

Dr. Abuelaish recalled that it was Bisan who, after her mother died of leukemia, urged him to continue his work in Israel, saying she would look after the younger children.

In a hospital room, Ms. Harpaz held 17-year-old Shada Abuelaish’s hand as a nurse placed drops of medicine on her tongue. The girl’s forehead was covered in bandages as was her right eye, which had been operated on in hopes of saving it. The niece who was wounded is in critical condition, with shrapnel wounds.

Outside the room, Ms. Harpaz crumpled into a chair, sobbing.

I read this story several times in several versions for a number of days, and then weeks. I just was confused by something but could not pin it down. I was amazed at the rapidity of medical attention for this man’s remaining children because he personally knew Israelis and they knew him so well. Also, it is well known in the community of peacebuilders that Israeli hospitals are a remarkable exception to the deeply segregated society, and that it is the one place, when bodies are broken, that Arab and Jew seem to get along well.

Then it donned on me what confused me. Jabalya refugee camp is comprised of hundreds of thousands of people who used to live in Ashkelon, in Ashdod, in what is now part of Southern Israel. Many of those refugees are still hoping to come back, or for some justice and acknowledgment by the world of what happened to them in 1948.

So I thought maybe everyone from Jabalya should get to know some Israeli, like this doctor, be invited to visit, maybe live in Israel, and the whole conflict would be gone. But, then I remembered, you can only be welcomed back with love and open arms if your body is broken, and your three sisters were cut into pieces.

So then I wondered, maybe each refugee family should  get to know any Israeli, then surrender one child to be cut down by bullets, killed, and another child wounded, and then the survivors invited to recover and live in Israel. Then the whole conflict would be over. This would be ‘the right of return’ achieved through child sacrifice. It sounds barbaric but maybe it would be more orderly, more predictable, less traumatizing, at least for the survivors. I thought maybe it would be more efficient and faster to just skip the war part and get to the child sacrifice. And we can do it proportionally to be fair. Find out the proportion of Palestinian kids and Jewish kids who are killed every ten years, say, line them up and shoot them, and then welcome everyone to fall into each other’s arms with guilt and grief and regret, and then build a new world for the survivors together. We can call the children’s killing place, Babi Yar, or Bergen Belsen, or Deir Yassin, or Sabra and Shatila.

Now that the war has left Hamas in power, and now that more and more stories will emerge in Israel of what really happened, and now that Hamas will be determined to build bigger and better rockets, I wonder how long it will take for Israeli liberals who supported the war by the thousands to feel cheated, betrayed, as Americans came to feel after Abu Ghraib. Don’t know. The evidence in this conflict is that there is very little learning going on, an endless cycle of revenge that has fed successive generations of fighters, criminals–call them what you like–on both sides.

Of course, that is why I place my trust in outsiders to guide, with a strong hand, those sad children of Abraham who place their undying faith and trust not in God but in guns, even as they scream their prayers in synagogues. Such is war in the “Holy Land”, but it does not resemble the religion of my youth.

I cannot abide this deterioration of great cultures in these decades of my life. After 9/11 and in the wake of the craze of suicide bombings in the Islamic world I exposed every nook and cranny of extremism in that world. I was interviewed on television constantly by a world thirsting to know what was wrong with Islam.

And now we face an overwhelming Israeli support for this use of so much excessive force that anyone not blinded by prejudice and fear of annihilation would call the blowing up of 400 children and the wounding of thousands more a war crime. I see a world of Jews and Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism, sinking to endless depths in support of this violence, and I must ask what we asked of Islam, what has gone wrong with Jewish culture, with Judaism?

The answer in both cases was never really about the religion, or about the culture. What is right or wrong about Islamic or Jewish culture has always been there. These are conservative cultures that conserve every last text of history, and they therefore are a repository for every political and military view imaginable. Comes along states and powerful forces of history and they mold and shape to their needs. They reek havoc on the human psyche, a psyche waiting to be ordered, to obey, to follow blindly whoever says, ‘I will protect you, but you must kill for me, you must thirst for blood, you must give me some of your children, you must kill the children of others, and then I will make you safe’.

Stanley Milgram and others have proved the inexorable and eternal potential of the human psyche to move in this direction. Yes, some always protest, but most fall prey to orders, to the promise of safety, and the order that this way, the way of killing and murder, is the only way to live, to guarantee life. Life through blood, through the shedding of the blood of children.

This is not religion or anti-religion, this is the tale of humanity. And the obedient killers only retreat from their killing sprees when someone in authority orders them to retreat, just as happens at the end of Waltz with Bashir, or I should say, at the end of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre.

Someone of authority must come to the Middle East and say, as the soldier said at the end, ‘Enough, go home. Enough’. Is it George Mitchell? Is it Barack Obama? Is it the Son of David?Is it every major leader in the Middle East together with Obama?

Must they come together with the leaders of the European world, and their churches, a world that destroyed the body and the psyche and the hopes and dreams and the decency of my powerless people for a thousand endless years? Do they all have to come together to Jerusalem, to the Jews who finally have weapons after a thousand years of passivity? Do they have to plead with these Jewish people, plead for the life of the Palestinian people? Do they need to say to them, “Dai! Enough! We are sorry for history, we promise never to kill you again in history, we will stand with your right to life, but we are ordering you to stop, we are ordering you to no longer sacrifice in blood in order to live”? Everyone is waiting, everyone is afraid, but we do not know who is giving the orders. Who can order us to stop? But someone must. Someone must order, with love and forgiveness, Dai kevar. Dai. Habibi, dai kevar.

Sabra and Shatila Massacre, 27 years ago
Sabra and Shatila Massacre, 27 years ago
© Marc Gopin