I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity

Mar 18, 2011

Full Video

Global Ethics Forum TV Show

Born in a Palestinian refugee camp, Dr. Abuelaish has devoted his life to medicine and to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, even though his three daughters and a niece were killed by Israeli shelling. His personal doctrine is that hate is the wrong response to war. What's needed is communication, compassion, and understanding.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for joining us this morning.

For many years, our speaker, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, was a rarity in the heart of the Middle East. Although a resident of Gaza, he had a permit which allowed him to enter and work in Israel. Each morning he would travel from his home in the Gaza refugee camp to a modern Israeli hospital. He was known as "the Palestinian obstetrician who delivered hope for the future."

Unfortunately, that moniker did not last long. On January 16, 2009, during the height of the Gaza war, Israeli shells hit his home in the Gaza Strip, killing three of his daughters and a niece.

Already well known as a television commentator, his response to this tragedy was broadcast live via cell phone to a news anchorman on Israeli TV. His urgent and harrowing emotional reaction, combined with a plea for understanding on both sides, immediately launched him as the human face of suffering in this ongoing war.

As he captured hearts and minds, making news all around the world, Dr. Abuelaish was unwittingly placed right in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although his story has many layers, simply said, it is the remarkable tale of one man and his continuing faith in human possibility. I Shall Not Hate is a personal journey about hope, of faith in human decency, and the ability to transcend political and religious boundaries.

Dr. Abuelaish's response to the loss of his children was to call for the people of the Middle East to begin talking to each other, to learn to settle things peacefully and treat each other as they are, brothers in humanity.

His memoir reaffirms his belief that the decades-long conflict will only be transformed when individual Palestinians and Israelis recognize their shared precarious humanity.

In reading this book, it is impossible not to feel deep compassion for Dr. Abuelaish and his surviving children and profound respect for his determination to turn his tragedy into triumph. Yet, I think just as important are the moral and ethical questions it raises about how we lead our own lives and how we treat others.

Our speaker writes that he knows revenge will not bring back his daughters. Instead, he prefers to keep their memory alive by doing good deeds. Accordingly, he has set up a foundation, called Daughters for Life, to memorialize his children and to provide scholarships for young women in the Middle East.

Dr. Abuelaish's remarkable commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation and a belief that it is possible for Jews and Arabs to coexist is an example for us all.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a man who does not dwell on what could have been but looks towards the future and what could be; our guest today, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Thank you.


IZZELDIN ABUELAISH: Thank you for coming. It's 8:20 AM, and I look at that as a sign of hope. To come early in the morning shows that people care about what is happening in this world. This inspires me. For some people who lost hope, your presence is a sign of this hope. We need to promote it and to work for it. This hope doesn't happen without your presence.

I wrote a book, which is not my book—it's everyone's book. It's a human. I thought of writing this book a few years ago about my life experience as a Palestinian child who was born and raised in a refugee camp. As a child I never tasted my childhood. It was as if I was born for manmade suffering. It's not from God; it's from people like us, who are creating suffering. Hundreds of millions of children are suffering the same, and we are watching them.

I was blessed to look at it this way. It is the hope that it's manmade; it's not from God. So me and you, as a human being, we can challenge those people who are doing these bad things in this world, by not accepting it, and taking the responsibility to change.

I succeeded in my life because of what I have achieved and I have learned that nothing is impossible. The word "impossible" is not in my mind. The only impossible thing that I believe in is to return my daughters back. Anything in life I planned, I have succeeded in achieving.

But, as a believer, everything has its time to come. Writing my book came after an awful, terrible tragedy. For me, the number 16, I don't know to like it or not, but it will never be erased from my mind. The 16th of September, 2008, at quarter to 5:00 PM, is when I lost my wife to an acute disease.

I was blessed from her to have six bright, lovely, beautiful daughters that I am proud of. Daughters who succeeded to earn 97 percent grades in their schools, and two sons. I thought it was the end of the world when I lost my wife, because I fully believe for children to be raised, they must be raised with their mothers.

As a child, I used to have bad nightmares. If I had the choice to lose my father or my mother, I said I would love to stay with my mother. The mother is the main pillar. She is vital. But now I am burned by that fire, because my children lost their mother.

But my daughter Bessan, who was 20, said, "You have to continue your work and count on God and on our support." I continued my work. I write about Bessan in books—she was the first Palestinian girl I sent from these camps at the age of 14, to the States, and she came to tell me, "I found how similar we are as Muslims, Jews, and Christians." Bessan, at the age of 14, she said, "To meet terrorism with terrorism or violence with violence doesn't solve any problem."

I learned from my children. We want to ask our children questions because they are honest, there is no conflict of interest, they don't suppress their feelings, and they are smart enough to show us the light.

Then the unexpected happened. The 16th of January 2009 at quarter to 5:00 PM, an Israeli antitank shell hit my daughter's room, killing three daughters, a niece, and severely wounding others—for nothing they did, and I can say there was no reason to be killed.

I don't want anyone to see what have I seen. Seconds after I left my daughter's room the first shell came. I was blessed to be a medical doctor, to help them in emergency situations, to focus on my daughter Shadah, who was severely wounded, my niece, my brother, because I know those who are killed, they can't do anything to them.

I realized this is a tragedy. But for everything in life that we think is bad, there is also something good. This tragedy must not be forgotten and it will be invested for good. It opened the eyes of others.

At the same moment, I was supposed to be interviewed live by Israeli TV. It's a moment of moral courage when my Israeli friend opened the speaker to transmit the message that it's time to save lives; saving one, you save the world; killing one, you kill the world.

The most holy thing in the universe is a human being. We must understand and practice that. How hard are we working as medical doctors to save one life? We must give the human being the life they deserve and freedom from fear, sickness, poverty, and unemployment. No one was born oppressed or poor. Freedom is free for everyone. Noone should be killed to get his freedom. I am not free as long as others are not free. My freedom comes from others' freedom.

The first message of support came from my son, who was 12 years old. I started to think of the future: What is he going to do? Is he going to hate himself, be violent, be crazy, be extreme? He wasn't born extreme. He wasn't born violent.

We have to ask and blame ourselves: What did we do to make our children violent or extreme? No one is born extreme or violent. We are born a human being with open and good hearts. The environment, the context in which we live, makes us violent and lose control. If we want to change, we must change the context and the environment in which our children are living.

He looked at me and said, "Why are you crying? Why are you screaming? You must be happy."

"Your sisters are killed—Bessan, Aya, Mayar—Noor, and you want me to be happy?"

"My sisters are happy there. They are with their mom. She asked for them." That's the young, 12 years old, but still a child who believed that.

I said, "I don't need to worry about them. I have just to carry the pain and to move forward. I have Shadah."

My niece and my brother were transferred to the hospital where I used to work in Tel Aviv. It's the hospital where medicine has one face, and that is a human face, which saves lives and gives hope to others. It doesn't discriminate.

That's the message for leaders in this world: to learn from doctors where we treat all with equality, with respect, with privacy. Our goal is to save and to heal, to teach others outside to practice that, to give hope to people, and to deal with them as a human being, and just as a human being.

It's time for our leaders in this world to be risk takers and challengers. They are not leaders if they are not risk takers and challengers, and don't have the moral courage to take responsibility. We want leaders with their eyes focused on their nations, the unemployed, schools, students, and hospitals; not their eyes on their position and the next election. We want leaders to sacrifice their position for the sake of the nation.

Someone asked, "Why the title, I Shall Not Hate"? I was asked many times, "Still, Izzeldin, you don't hate?"

I can say, "If I want to hate in my life, as a child suffering, and to write a list of everyone who did bad things to me and to hate him, the list will be endless. If each of us is going to hate anyone who did bad things to him, we will be drowning in hate. The world will be endemic with hate.

I am not going to hate. Even the one that I want to hate, is he thinking of me at all? He is not. I must carry the pain, the wound, the scar, and move forward, but also send messages to the one that I planned to hate that I will never collapse. I am stronger. I am standing steadfast to challenge you and to send you messages of wisdom, of good words and, most important, messages of success."

Hate is a fire that eats the one who carries it. Hate for me is a chronic disease. You will never be cured. Hate is a poison. Once we are injected with it, you will never recover from it. Don't allow it.

We want to be angry and outraged about what is happening in this world. By not accepting our anger and outrage, it gives us the energy to invest in positive ways and do something; not just to be moved emotionally. We want to do something. The patient in the hospital, he doesn't need words. He needs action. He needs a prescription to be treated, to be cured, and to get out of the hospital. That's what is needed in this world, the right prescription.

To save this world, the antidote to hate and revenge is success, to not lose direction, and to stay focused. My daughter Shadah that I am proud of, as other daughters who are 17, was studying day and night during the war to be one of the top ten in Palestine, in high school. She was severely wounded. What did she suffer during the year? She lost her mother at the start of the school year. Four months later she lost three sisters, a niece, and she was severely wounded. She remained in the hospital for a few months. She lost sight in one eye and two fingers. But she didn't lose hope and the determination. She said, "I have to go"—before completing her treatment—"to continue my study."

She went and she sat for the exam, with all the difficulties of the exams. It's a standardized exam for the whole of the Palestinian Authority, and they don't care what has happened to you. The day we moved to Canada, they announced the result. She succeeded as if nothing happened. She succeeded with 96 percent. Now she is studying computer engineering at the University of Toronto.

That is the success, to send messages of success, not to collapse but to be focused and determined. That's my daughters. What did they do? I am here to give you hope. Hope is my life and your life. As long as we are breathing, there is hope. But hope will never be achieved if we don't act.

It's good to be moved emotionally. But what makes evil flourish? It's good people who do nothing, and just watch. The silent camp, which is the majority of the people who are watching, and allowing the minority to dominate through their actions and loud voices. It's time for no one to think that he is far away from the risk. Maybe the distance is far, but at the end we all live and ride in the same boat. Any harm induced, all of us will suffer from it. Actions are more than words.

I can tell you the story of a young girl who believed in action. Don't underestimate the power of your actions. Don't reject yourself. Start to do it. Don't wait for others. The young girl was sitting on the shore when hundreds of starfish were thrown out by a heavy tide. She started to think of saving them, to throw them back one by one. She was a young girl with a good heart.

A man came across that girl and asked, "What are you doing?"

She said, "I am saving lives," as the young girl will be a mother one day, and therefore felt value in life.

He said to her, "But there are hundreds. It is not going to make any difference."

With her confidence, with evidence-based action, she threw another one, telling him, "It made a difference to that one." So it is important for us to do, to save, to help, to give a smile to anyone.

Don't blame others. Blame yourself. Ask yourself what can you do. We don't want to blame. The change will never come from outside. The change starts first when each of us take the responsibility to be honest with themselves—what can I do?

We lost the happiness. We lost the love. With happiness, we think how much do we have. Happiness is not how much do I have. Happiness I get from others, from sharing, from giving, from engagement, and contacting others. That's why we will never find happiness and God will never change what is in people until they change.

Most important is what is in their hearts, minds, and souls. The heart is the key to change. Our hearts are not there just to pump blood. There is another function—to feel, to feel connected and attached. That's what we need.

As a medical doctor, we are not allowed to lose hope as long as the patient is still alive. It may be difficult, because today there is no treatment. Tomorrow the future is there, to give us the treatment, and also the hope that you can do something.

My daughters were able to see their names written in sand two weeks before they were killed, when I took them to the Gaza beach to heal from the first tragedy. Where are their names written now? They are written in stone on their tomb.

For those girls who were able to plan—Bessan was supposed to get her B.A. a few months later; Mayar, who was 15, planned to be a medical doctor; and Aya planned to be a journalist—and they had a father who could help them. What about other girls in this world who are deprived of the resources?

Personally, I am in debt to my mother, my wife, and my daughters. I fully believe in the role of girls and women. It's not women's status or women's rights. It's a women's role. It's time for women to be part of the decision making and, I fully believe that is true in any country's development. I worked in many countries. Any country's development is not measured by the GDP or the income. It's by women's education.

Women's education is the key to development and success. Give me five women in history who were behind the tragedies in this world. You can't find them.

I would love to see one day, two women negotiating between countries to create peace and give humanity, and to understand that peace can come through participation and engagement of the hearts and minds of women.

Healthy, educated girls and women will raise healthy, educated children, husbands, families, communities, and nations. It's time. Let us try. At least if we don't succeed, it will not become worse than it is now. Give them the opportunity to do this through education.

And it's not biology. I want to see the plans of my daughters fulfilled by other girls, to see in every girl my daughters' dreams. That's why I swore to God and to my daughters not to relax or rest, because I believe one day I will meet them, and be proud to tell them, "Your blood, your holy souls, were not wasted. It made a difference in others' lives, and it remained holy and noble, with wisdom, with good words and good deeds." This is the gift I am going to take with me to my daughters, and the justice. I am determined about that.

There is hope. Nothing is impossible. To achieve that, a foundation called Daughters for Life was established as a Canadian charity for girls in the Middle East. The first project will be this June to give 35 awards to new graduate females from six countries—Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

I am doing my part, and it's time for every one of us to do his part. For us as Palestinians and Israelis, it's a crazy time now, but all of us must take responsibility and speak loudly. We must not generalize and we must understand that our enemy is our ignorance of each other. We don't know each other. We are close geographically but far mentally and spiritually.

It's time to smash those mental and physical barriers. Peace is a joint project, especially between Palestinians and Israelis. It's not working away from each other. We must work jointly to build bridges, not to build walls.

Peace will never be and can't be just and good for only one; it must be just and good for all. And it's not by force. It must be by choice, with the heart and by good people. Let us know and respect each other. How far do we want to go with violence? In the end, there will be no other way but to have to sit, listen, and admit the rights of all to live jointly with respect.

The existence, safety, security, dignity, and the future of the Israelis is linked to the existence, safety, security, dignity of the Palestinians. We are one. We are like conjoined twins, with one heart and one brain. Any harm induced to one will affect the other. We have to realize that and to understand that military ways and violence have proved its failure—not today, but decades ago. The means of fighting have changed. Look at what is happening in the Middle East. They are not fighting with weapons. Technology, minds, information, knowledge—that's what we want and want to teach our children.

For us in this world, for us as men here, we want to know and to find the love that we lost. Where is it?

This is a poem which was written by an Israeli-Jewish woman in memory of Bessan:

In memory of Bessan

I long to touch you Bessan
one more time
to hug you
to tell you how sorry I am
that your mom died.

But now you too are gone.
Your smiling face
Your gentle way
Your softness
Your non-judgmental words
Your pain for your people
Your way of life
Your dreams, aspirations
And your hope for peace.

Just days before the war
I spoke with your dad
He gave me your phone number
It is still in my car.

I glance at the number
Seeing your name
I wish I had spoken with you more
but I didn't have the guts
I spoke with you three days before you died
I told you that I am praying for your safety

My prayers were not heard
through the shelling
the bombing
the kassams
the smoke

I feel I have been betrayed
by God
by my country
by the cruelty of humanity
by the warmongers
by those who think violence is the solution

And with all of this
I have been given a gift
To have spent six weeks
with Shadah,
Izzaldeen, Ata and Raida
I heard no words of revenge or hatred
I heard no anger
I heard the deep belief
that peace is possible
even with this enormous loss.

I have been strengthened
from their strength
I am more determined
from their determination
I am more at peace
from their peacefulness.

Bessan forgive me
for not being able to save you
from my own people
Forgive me for giving you hope
that peace is possible
and then taking that dream from you
You will always be my symbol
of hope, peace, and mostly gentleness.

Your dad shared the dream with me.
Days after you died
he came into a room full of men,
and there you were
sitting amongst them.
He asked you
"Why are you sitting here, Bessan?
You know it is not acceptable
in our society."
You answered
"All is fine now, Dad.
I am happy and well.
I can be here now among the men
where I am needed."

May no other woman need to die
In order to be able to influence
the men as you have Bessan.
May we women
be heard and heeded,
and may the men in this world
get the chance
to know from deep within their hearts
that this is where the answer lies
In their hearts, where love resides

Dear friends, with all of my heart, I believe in you. Have hope, have faith, but take action.

In our life we have priorities. Our priority in life is our future. But who is the future? Our children.

It's time to make a difference and to understand that the roadmap is not the territory but the humanity, and the future will be addressed differently.

I assure you this world can be changed, and I will continue in that way.

Until we celebrate that day, thank you and God bless you.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

Dr. Abuelaish, I am absolutely sure I speak for everyone in this room in saying you are an inspiration and your message is inspiring.

I want to ask you a question based on that. The people that all of us would wish to see inspired are the political leaders of the various factions in the Middle East. I wanted to ask you about your communication with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas.

Have you met with them? Have they listened to you? Do you think they are taking your message as seriously as they ought to?

My message is one to leaders, to nations, and to the people themselves. What I say here, I said in Gaza, I said in Tel Aviv, and in every place. It's not going to be a colored message, to change with the audience. It's to everyone. And believe me, in Gaza I said it. I condemned violence, I condemned rockets. In Tel Aviv I said it too.

People are receptive. From my meetings and from my speeches everywhere, the ground is receptive to the message.

All of the time, I get from people: "What can we do?"

Momentum and change is coming. It's time that people tell the leaders what to do. It's time that people everywhere are more mature than their leaders. Leaders have to listen to their nations and to their people. So it's the same message.

Because I am a medical doctor, I don't know politics or how to play games. I know it's black or white. I can't satisfy or please—we are not going to please leaders. We want to open their eyes about what is happening and what can be done.

It's time for leaders to change the means of the game. It's time to humanize, not to politicize. The world is open. There is no need for political games.

QUESTION: Thank you, Doctor. James Starkman.

The one matter of action that everyone in this room can do is to support an organization which was founded in the first Clinton Administration, called Seeds of Peace. Seeds of Peace takes young people from opposing political entities, particularly Palestinians and Israelis primarily, future leaders of those countries, and puts them together in an arbitration setting, in a summer camp in Maine.

These are young people whose parents were killed by their alter-egos at the camp. It puts them in this negotiating setting and works toward a mutuality of purpose for the future.

Many of these people turned out to be future leaders of their societies. Even Bosnian and the Serb children were put together in the same setting. Are you familiar with that organization?

IZZELDIN ABUELAISH: I am familiar with it. It is a good step, but it is not enough. When you speak about Bosnia and Herzogovenia, the conflict is settled. We need those steps at the grassroots.

This is from bottom-up. But what about the top-down? They must meet together. What is the value of treating a patient in the best hospital, and then sending him back to the same environment?

Those young leaders, we must tell them to change the environment in which they live. It's time for the political leaders to make decisions to enable those leaders to practice their role, and not to go back frustrated and disappointed. It's good and it's positive in this darkness. But it must be accompanied by political decisions to magnify and to increase the impact of those leaders.

QUESTION: Catherine Dumait-Harper. I used to work with Medecins Sans Frontiers, Doctors Without Borders, and I was in Gaza on a very short visit in 2004 in the West Bank.

You talk about ignorance. You talk about dignity. There is a lot of ignorance actually here in our country. There is a lot of misinformation about the situation in the West Bank as well as in Gaza. When I was there, to me it was like a ghetto at the time. Now, with the embargo, I can just imagine the situation for the Palestinian people over there.

I have been very frustrated and angered myself about the result of our leadership here and other people. But my question has more to go back to what you said about school and education. My husband, who is not here today, asked me to ask you: Are you optimistic for academic and professional exchange? Is it possible for more Palestinians to study in Israel?

My last question is: Is the idea of scholarship realistic or not? As you know, we tried to support some Arab students in Israel, and Palestinians as well. But it is very difficult for Palestinians to cross in to Israel. What do you think about that? Thank you.

IZZELDIN ABUELAISH: It can happen. It may be faced with challenges with permits when crossing the borders. I established the Foundation because of that. We were lucky to have 20 scholarships to come to Canada.

We are looking in any place in the world, because traveling has many benefits. We need those girls to be exposed to other cultures, to be equipped with the means: full scholarships to come to Canada to study undergraduate and graduate.

It's not limited to one nationality. Scholarships will be divided among Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, and Egyptians..

The issue of permits for girls from the West Bank to come to Israel, even for patients, it's difficult, but it is not impossible.

We need to communicate. We need your help with that, as you said.

We are not engaged in any security issues. Anyone who is against security, we don't want them. It is time to enable the people who are with good will to go study, to communicate, and to understand each other. Our problem is a lack of communication. I learned this from my practices in Israel for more than 15 years. As long as there is lack of communication, there is lack of trust.

Let us communicate, meet with each other, and know each other. It will help more and more. Why meet here in the States? Why not to meet in Ramallah, in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, in Gaza?

That's what is needed. It will be cost-effective not to waste their resources. It's easier for the Palestinians to meet the Israelis in the States, but they can meet in Ramallah, Tel Aviv, or in Jerusalem.

QUESTION: Harry Langer. You were right in saying it has to be from the top-down. We already have an organization for that, the UN. Suppose the UN made it mandatory that every leader of every member country that was in conflict had to go to that forum and publicly—or even privately—make the arrangements for peace between the peoples, because they're the ones who can dictate the peace?

It's hard to come from the bottom-up. You've got to come from the top-down.

IZZELDIN ABUELAISH: But the bottom-up, it will strengthen any decision coming from top-down.

It reminds me of an organ transplant. When we have organ transplants, we must prepare the body not to reject this major surgery. So the grassroots, the ground, must be well prepared to accept anything that comes from the top-down and not to reject it.

There are many peace agreements. Peace agreements are what I fully believe in. Peace agreements are the first step in the peace journey. It may be rejected. And many times peace agreements fail to bring peace between countries. So it's a must to prepare the ground with the grassroots, with the people, to be receptive, and not to reject it.

QUESTION: Thank you for your inspiring message. I am Jim Robbins.

What message would you have for Representative Peter King from Long Island, who is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee? He is about to conduct hearings in which he will call witnesses to testify about the violence in the American Islamic community. He is convinced that 80 percent of the mosques are fostering violence.

IZZELDIN ABUELAISH: I am not engaged in politics. But what can I say to him? We need to learn. It's important not just to throw judgment like that on mosques, churches, or synagogues and say they promote violence. The coin has two sides.

If my son, or anyone, did something wrong, I have to ask, "Why?" If one of my students who is doing very well and at the end of one of the classes he is not doing well, I will ask him—not to say he is bad, he didn't succeed—I have to go to approach him, to ask him why he didn't do well in this exam.

As a medical doctor, violence is a symptom of a disease. We have to find the disease behind that, not treat or judge the symptoms. If a patient comes to me with fever, I don't treat the fever. There is a disease behind the fever. I must look at the history, the examination, and to each accurate diagnosis, to treat the disease.

That is what is needed from Peter—what? You know, I am not familiar with him.

VOICE: Peter King.

IZZELDIN ABUELAISH:—Peter King. And also to care about all, and not to take one side, or to see by one eye; to see the bad things among Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinians.

That's the message I am telling the Israeli people and the Palestinians: Please, we were blessed to have two eyes. Don't find blame and be selective in what you see. See the whole situation. This will help us to find the right treatment.

JOANNE MYERS: I just have to thank you and say that you are eloquence personified. Really, thank you for sharing your message.


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