Jonathan Jansen
The Times (Opinion)
October 27, 2011 - 12:00am

For a Palestinian man whose daughters were maimed and killed, one decapitated, by a shell from an Israeli tank, Izzeldin Abuelaish is astonishingly without any bitterness.

In response to this unspeakable family tragedy, the Gaza doctor established a foundation called Daughters for Life, which provides scholarships for studies to girls from the Middle East, including Jewish girls from inside Israel.

I could see quiet tears in the mesmerised campus audience in the face of such uncommon grace.

The famous physician, an expert in infertility, has delivered babies on both sides of the contested borders of the old country. When once asked whether he hated Jews, he asked: "Which Jews should I hate? Those who are my friends or whose babies I delivered?"

When his surviving eldest daughter was asked by CNN, "Doesn't this [the death of her twin sister at the hands of the Israeli military] make you angry?", her unearthly response was: "Angry with whom?"

You are mistaken if you think that the Abuelaish family's commitment to reconciliation is an alternative to social justice; their stance makes social justice possible.

He uses his position as an eminent physician to press the Israeli authorities to change their oppressive policies. He presents a powerful case within the US to press the main supporters of the Israeli government for justice towards the Palestinians. He speaks openly, everywhere, about oppression and injustice against his countrymen and women - and he is heard precisely because he does this from the rare platform of inclusion and embrace.

I am astounded by the ways in which this humble man embraces his many identities - from his roots in a Palestinian refugee camp, his religious devotions as a Muslim, his academic ambitions as a professor in Toronto, and his commitments as the father of surviving children whose mother died of leukaemia just before the Israeli shell landed in his daughters' bedroom.

His perspective is informed by his discipline. So he argues that trying to resolve the historic conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians can be done only by recognising the vulnerabilities of both sides.

"It's like conjoined twins; trying to separate and save one could kill the other," he says.

"And how does one prevent children from inheriting bitterness and hatred? It's like diabetes; prevention is better than cure; get to the problem early."

Are current strategies working to resolve the conflict?

"No, because as doctors you learn not to treat the symptoms of the problem but the underlying causes; the causes include the occupation and the loss of Palestinian land; that is what must be dealt with."

Once you start reading his book, I Shall not Hate, it grabs you as you find yourself recalling the startling similarities of the Palestinian struggle to the struggle against apartheid. His stories of the daily humiliation of Palestinians crossing checkpoints to work on the other side of these inhumane borders reminds you of the pettiness of racial discrimination that slowly builds up the anger of a gatvol people.

But Abuelaish does not tell these stories to inflame, the way we do as if to justify our anger and resentment. He shares these stories to remind us of the urgency of resolving one of the longest human conflicts in history.

Most of all, he tells these stories of oppression alongside stories of hope. After the signing of the Oslo Accord - and the Israeli tanks withdrew - the children threw not stones but candles and flowers.

In a week in which we called Indians "coolies" and in which judges pushed for a place on the KwaZulu-Natal bench by pitting our ethnic African identity against that of our Indian brothers, the Gaza doctor taught us how to remember and how to account for our past and our future. His pedagogy is faultless - tell the stories of tragedy in concert with the stories of triumph.

I stare at the well-set, talkative man in amazement. A million questions run through my head, like: "What is the source of your compassion and your ability to forgive, when your flesh and blood lies submerged under the rubble of a collapsed bedroom?"

And then you realise the ordinary man sitting in front of you was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and that he might very well be the Nelson Mandela of the Middle East who brings together Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs in an unlikely settlement.


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