Review: I Shall Not Hate

A Palestinian doctor's brave account of deep personal suffering shows the way to heal the wounds of the Middle East

By Jonathan Wittenberg, March 11, 2011
Dr Izzeldin Abulelaish: love and humility

Dr Izzeldin Abulelaish: love and humility

Izzeldin Abuelaish
Bloomsbury, £16.99

This humbling, courageous and important book goes straight to the heart.

On January 16, 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, three of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish's daughters, Bessan, Mayar and Aya, together with their cousin Noor, were killed by Israeli shells.

In his anguish over his other injured children, Dr Abuelaish phoned broadcasting producer Shlomi Eldar, who took his call live: "The Palestinian pain, which the majority of Israeli society doesn't want to see, had a voice and a face. The invisible became visible… there was one man, one story, one tragedy…"

Even now, what Dr Abuelaish seeks most is partnership and understanding. "All that was fired out of our house", he writes, "was love, hugs, and acts of peace - nothing else, ever."

He was born in the Jabbaliya refugee camp. His grandfather had been mukhtar in the village of Houg near Sderot; the family were famed for their hospitality. In 1948, amid rumours of massacres, they left.The land is now registered as Ariel Sharon's farm.

The author's early life in Gaza is described in all its harshness. The family live in one tiny room. Izzeldin is woken at 3.00am by his mother to earn money before school. Hunger and tiredness are perpetual.

The sole hope is education; his teachers inspire him and his school books are his treasure. After studying medicine in Cairo, he specialises in obstetrics. His work leads him into contact with Israeli colleagues; he becomes the first Palestinian doctor on the staff of an Israeli Hospital. Eventually his international qualifications in public health policy bring him to the Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv.

He writes in order to be a bridge, "to reveal the secrets of Gaza… the pain of dislocation, the humiliation of the occupation, and the suffocation that comes from a siege, so that, once and for all, Palestinians and Israelis can find a way to live side by side."

The endless delays and insults at checkpoints are shocking, especially when he has to run to his dying wife in Tel Aviv. It is there, to the Sheba Hospital, that his daughter Shatha - desperately injured in the shelling that killed her three sisters - is rushed on January 16, "to… passionate blessings from Arab, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian people in Israel who… had gathered in the hospital foyer to wait for us".

Asked if he doesn't now loathe Israelis, Abuelaish's response is: which Israelis, those who welcomed him as a teenager, his colleagues, those who saved his daughter's life? Indeed, the book, while thoroughly condemning Israeli policy in Gaza, as well as the violence of Hamas, is full of intelligent and compassionate Israeli and Jewish voices.

As the head of the Sheba Centre, Dr Rotstein, writes of Abuelaish: "His message [is] that his own personal disaster should serve as a kind of milestone, and from here we should do more for peace".

I shall never forget the first time I spoke to Dr Abuelaish. I was given his number and, in misery over what was happening in Gaza, called. His quiet, kind voice came on the phone immediately: "We must never forget our shared humanity", he urged.

His heart-rending book has the power to change the Middle East with its love, humility, wisdom and extraordinary strength of character. But it must be read, not with self-justification or recrimination, but with shame, pain and an open heart.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the minister of the New North London Synagogue

Last updated: 11:13am, March 11 2011