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A Palestinian doctor pushes for peace, but suffers a devastating blow from war

Palestinian Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish with four of his five surviving children in Gaza in May 2009. Several months earlier, an Israeli tank shell killed three of his daughters in their home. Abuelaish has worked in Israeli and Palestinian hospitals and is an outspoken advocate for peace. He now lives in Canada, but on Nov. 7, an Israeli airstrike killed 22 members of his extended family in Gaza.
Khalil Hamra
/
AP
Palestinian Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish with four of his five surviving children in Gaza in May 2009. Several months earlier, an Israeli tank shell killed three of his daughters in their home. Abuelaish has worked in Israeli and Palestinian hospitals and is an outspoken advocate for peace. He now lives in Canada, but on Nov. 7, an Israeli airstrike killed 22 members of his extended family in Gaza.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish initially gained prominence in the 1990s as the first Palestinian doctor appointed to work in an Israeli hospital, paving the way for many others that followed.

"If you go to any hospital, you will see Palestinian doctors, Israeli doctors, nurses, patients. All of them are equal inside the hospital," he said.

I first met Abuelaish in 2001 in southern Israel, in the the desert town of Beersheba, where he straddled two worlds. During the week, he worked and lived at Soroka Hospital, where he specialized in fertility medicine.

On weekends, he drove a short distance home to the Gaza Strip to be with his wife and eight children in the Jabalia refugee camp.

His aim, then and now, is the same.

"I want equality between Palestinians and Israelis, not someone superior to the other," he said. "No one will accept the others being superior to them."

Tragedy strikes

Yet none of his efforts spared him or his family from terrible tragedies in the Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

He was pushing for peace in the 1990s as the Israelis and Palestinians tried — but ultimately failed — to reach a deal ending generations of conflict. In the heavy fighting that followed in the early 2000s, an Israeli clampdown on Gaza eventually made it too difficult for Abuelaish to enter Israel to work.

Then came a terrible loss in 2008 when his wife died of leukemia.

The following year, he suffered another devastating blow that played out live on Israeli television. During an intense bout of Israel-Hamas fighting in 2009, Israel's Channel 10 television station called him regularly for an update from Gaza, which he delivered in his fluent Hebrew.

One evening he was about to go on air when an Israeli tank shell slammed into his home. Three of his daughters, ages 14, 15 and 21, were killed, as was one of his nieces.

The doctor wailed in grief as he spoke to the Israeli television anchor.

"My God, My God, what have we done?" he cried. "I wanted to try to save them, but they died of head wounds immediately."

Abuelaish spoke to NPR later that year.

"I lost three precious, beautiful daughters, but I can't return them back," he said. "I have five more [children], and I have the future. I have many good things that I can do for others."

He wrote a book entitled, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity.

He left Gaza with his surviving children. Today he's a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, where I reached him for this interview.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish prays in 2021 at the graves of his three daughters and a niece who were killed by an Israeli tank shell at his home in northern Gaza in the 2009 fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Khalil Hamra / AP
/
AP
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish prays in 2021 at the graves of his three daughters and a niece who were killed by an Israeli tank shell at his home in northern Gaza in the 2009 fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Another devastating blow

Abuelaish has remained in close contact with relatives and friends in Gaza, and visited this summer, before the current fighting.

But now tragedy has struck again. He said that on Nov. 7, an Israeli airstrike hit the home where his relatives were sheltering in the Jabalia refugee camp, killing 22 members of his extended family, including cousins, nephews and nieces.

"I just saw them in August. I was there and now they are gone," he said. "One niece is a medical doctor and she is 25 years old. She was supposed to start her residency soon."

Every day seems to bring a new jolt of pain — like the recent fighting around Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City.

Israel said its military took over the hospital because Hamas operated from a network of tunnels network below the medical compound.

Abuelaish first went to the hospital at age 9, spending nearly a week there as he was treated for rheumatic fever. Later, as a young doctor, he worked at Al-Shifa.

Hospitals have traditionally been one of the few places in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where both sides check their hostilities at the door. Abuelaish recalled the newborns in Israeli hospital nurseries where he worked.

"They are in their beds close to each other. You can't recognize who is your daughter or who is your son," he said. "Once they step outside the borders of the hospital, they become different and they are treated differently. Why? That's the problem. It's man-made."

Abuelaish remains in touch with Israelis he's befriended. But with emotions running so high during the war, he acknowledges they don't see eye to eye.

"I want them to see the pain of the Palestinians as equal to the Israelis," he said. "Every baby is a precious. Every human life is a precious. And that's when we start to see the other side."

He sees this war, like the ones that preceded it, as sheer folly, predicting nothing will be resolved.

"I hope the war will end. But I hope no one will celebrate victory, because all are losers," he said.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who was based in Jerusalem from 2000-2007. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.