‘The antidote to hatred is success and education’

Updated November 10, 2018

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In this file photo, a  Palestinian woman waves her national flag during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabalia in May, as Palestinians protest over the inauguration of the US embassy following its controversial move to Jerusalem. — AFP/File photo
In this file photo, a Palestinian woman waves her national flag during clashes with Israeli forces near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Jabalia in May, as Palestinians protest over the inauguration of the US embassy following its controversial move to Jerusalem. — AFP/File photo

Rarely can history have dictated that the blood of three beheaded daughters should be injected into a vein of hope.

The operation, I suppose, was self-administered by the stout little man with thick, matted hair sitting in front of me in an upper floor of the University of Toronto’s medical centre.

I might even call Izzeldin Abuelaish stubborn, save for his awesome courage and his instant invitation for coffee and dates.

He welcomes visitors to his fifth floor office with a large coloured photograph on the opposite wall which has the dignity and objectivity of an Impressionist painting.

It shows his three daughters, Mayar, Aya and Bessan, sitting on a blustery Gaza beach in the early new year of 2009.

Mayar, in a white scarf and looking slightly to her right, Aya in the middle in a woollen cap, Bessan also in a scarf, almost full length, resting on her right hand, looking at her own name, in English, which she has drawn in the sand.

As her father said to me, every time the tide came in, it erased their names and they wrote them again.

Two weeks after the photographs was taken, they will be with their father Izzeldin in their Gaza home when Israeli tank shells smash into the house. I don’t ask Izzeldin to repeat what happened next.

He told the story, eloquently, terribly, unanswerably in the months that followed.

Mayar appeared to be the first to die.

This is how he described the events when he spoke at the Karachi Literary Festival: “I can’t recognise my daughters. Their heads were cut off their bodies. They were separated from their bodies and I can’t recognise whose body is this. They were drowning in a pool of blood. This is their brain. These are parts of their brain. Aya was lying on the ground. Shatha [another daughter] was injured and her eye is coming out. Her fingers were torn, just attached by a tag of skin. I felt disloved [sic], out of space, screaming. The second shell soon came to kill Aya, to injure my niece who came down from the third floor, and to kill my eldest daughter Bessan, who was in the kitchen and came at that moment, screaming and jumping, ‘Dad! Dad! Aya is injured.’”

This took place at 4.45 pm on 16 January 2009.

Bessan was 21, Mayar 15, Aya 13.

Izzeldin Abuelaish is an associate professor of global health, born in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, but the 63-year-old gynaecologist still mops his eyes when he comes to this point in our conversation almost 10 years later.

I do not bring up the terrible ironies.

I do not refer to his wife, who died of cancer only four months before the Israelis killed the three young women and Izzeldin’s niece.

He was himself already the first Palestinian to receive a staff position at an Israeli hospital — could there have been a more appropriate symbol of human trust between two sides?

And he speaks Hebrew, of course, and was speaking Hebrew on a live broadcast to Israeli television in the room where his daughters’ remains were lying in their blood in January 2009.

It would be pleasant to record that this changed everything, that the Israelis realised finally, in one terrifying, humbling live broadcast that their army’s butchery of the civilians of Gaza — along with its pathetic Islamist militia — must now end.

But the wars went on; in 2012 and then again in 2014.

For what?

Each time Gaza was eviscerated, the Israelis claimed self-defence after Hamas’ largely inaccurate and often home-made rockets were fired into the Israeli frontier town of Sderot.

A few years ago, I went down to Sderot and discovered that it was once a Palestinian village called Huj whose Arab inhabitants — who helped their Jewish neighbours in the 1948 war — were ruthlessly driven out by the Israeli army of the time.

Indeed, the Israelis even ignored the appeal of David Ben-Gurion to let the villagers stay.

And one of Izzeldin’s surviving daughters read my old article and told her father — which is why he greeted me warmly in the early cold autumn of Toronto.

Because his grandfather was the mayor of Huj in 1948 and because his family, unbeknown to me of course, came from the old village of Huj.

And thus Izzeldin’s grandparents were forced from their village by the new Israeli state and abandoned to the camps of Gaza – from which the Hamas rockets now fall on what was Huj and what is now Sderot.

I am therefore not surprised to find that Izzeldin has been to Huj/Sderot, found his destroyed village’s cemetery of stones and some of its fruit orchards and talked to the leaders of the local Jewish kibbutzim and even found, not far away, the gated enclosure which protects the grave of that most warlike of all Israeli leaders, Ariel Sharon, the man who sent his army’s militias into the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut in 1982 and which murdered there its Palestinians inhabitants, up to 1,700 of them.

By arrangement with The Independent

Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2018