Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I Shall Not Hate (Book Review #103 of 2015)

I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity
I read this book immediately after Ari Shavit's My Promised Land. While Shavit's work tells the history of 20th century Zionism with a guilty conscience, he largely ignores Palestinian politics, including the election of Hamas to power in 2006. While Shavit brings to light massacres that occurred in 1948, the Palestinian struggle is mostly evident in the background.  I highly recommend reading both books successively.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is a contemporary of Shavit, so much of the writing covers the same periods. Abuelaish shows us what it's like to grow up in a Gaza refugee camp-- far from the colonialist ideas of the Zionists, they are without electricity, radio, television. Abuelaish had never seen the bright lights of the city until taken on a smuggling trip to Cairo as a boy. He was a driven entrepreneur and an even more motivated student, devoting his life to obstetrics when he saw he could save lives and improve the lives of others through simple means. As a boy he spent time with an Israeli family and it was in a hospital that he witnessed men and women working together for the first time. He deals with Arab superstitions about women and infertility, that the "unfruitful tree should be cut." His research endears him to Israelis and he is able to bridge major divides. Being a Palestinian doctor who delivers Israeli babies sometimes makes him enemies on both sides.

Abuelaish was able to travel abroad and get a sense of the world most Palestinians do not. Just before the 1991 Gulf War he finished a residency in Saudi Arabia where he witnessed Palestinians being laid off and discriminated against. Being a voice for peace and reconciliation, he attended a dialog after 9/11, using the platform of health care as a way to bridge the gap. He earned a health policy management degree from Harvard in 2003. He eventually worked in Afghanistan for the WHO. After attempting to run for a Palestinian parliamentary position with the PLA, against Hamas, he eventually ran independently after the threats and intimidation from the PLA became a burden; he lost the race and suffered humiliation of going into debt and having others steal money from his campaign.

This makes him quite a bit different than the Palestinians we in the US might see on the news queing up at an Israeli border checkpoint, where they work to weed out smugglers, angry partisan, illegal migrant workers, etc. But Abuelaish documents the cruelty of the checkpoints. A Fulbright scholar denied an exit visa to study abroad, critical medicine and food kept from reaching the occupied territories, loved ones unable to reach others in need on the other side, opportunities and dignity lost.
He remembers a day as a boy when Ariel Sharon bulldozed homes in the Gaza refugee to make the streets wide enough to be easily navigable by tanks. Any expression of outrage or anger is constantly met with arrest, or worse.

The frustration with the Israeli checkpoints reaches a head when he was leaving for a job interview in Kenya and Europe in 2008; suddenly, all Palestinians were banned from traveling and, despite assurances from authorities, Abuelaish is caught up in Israeli red tape. While he is away, his wife is diagnosed with cancer and fades quickly. While re-entering Gaza from Jordan, the distance of a few miles again becomes hours waiting at checkpoints while Israeli computer glitches hold him for screening and his wife lays dying. This is just maddeningly frustrating for a reader, mental torture for the good doctor. When she dies in an Israeli hospital, he needs paperwork to bring his wife's coffin back to be buried-- more red tape and more frustration.

Just four months later, in 2008, Israeli troops invade Gaza. His family is holed up in their apartment watching Israeli bombs and tanks obliterate their neighborhood. His daughters jury-rig a cellphone charger which provides them a lifeline both to friends abroad and eventually the larger Palestinian diaspora calling for information. Most importantly, he provides nightly updates to an Israeli news broadcast. The connection saves their lives once when an Israeli commander mistakenly had a tank outside their door about to blow it apart. Toward the end of the siege, the Israelis mistakenly target his house and his three daughters and niece are obliterated, just after speaking on the evening news. Israeli news carried the aftermath live on air, and his tragedy brought the war home to many Israeli households and government ministers for the first time. He later started the Daughters for Life foundation to provide scholarships for women to study abroad. His family had already resolved to move to Canada during the siege, and his daughters were never allowed to fulfill their dreams.

The Israelis later admitted the bombing was a mistake before then making a host of insulting excuses. Ultimately there were no apologies or compensation. But Abuelaish explains why he does not seek revenge-- it could not bring his daughters back and would simply make the situation work. Instead, he works for peace. He compares himself both to the biblical Job and to Martin Luther King, Jr. He is deeply religious. He has a dream of peaceful coexistence in Palestine and using health care and education to bridge the divide. He admits that he chooses to see the world through rose-colored glasses. He bemoans the increasing culture of death on both sides, the disregard for or indifference to life he sees among young people today. He chooses to remain an optimist, to make the world a better place where he can.

The book is the remarkable autobiography of a remarkable Palestinian. The human tragedy is really missing from many other books over the same period. It really paints the picture of life under occupation well. The downside is that he seems to avoid some of the talk of the PLA-Hamas rivaly and some of the terrorist acts actually committed against Israel that draw the army into places like Gaza to end missile strikes, tunneling, and more. The book closes with thoughts on his daughters and Dr. Abuelaish's own advice for life and wisdom. That could have been left out and been made a better book. 4 stars out of 5.

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