A doctor without borders: the power of forgiveness

June 10, 2012, Sunday/ 11:58:00

In 1990 I visited a Welsh friend who was nursing in an eye hospital in East Jerusalem. Coming from South London, you miss the import of the name “East Jerusalem.”

Not just the addition of a compass point to describe a part of a city, it is heavily laden with political implications. Reflecting the part of the city captured by Jordan in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, annexed by Jordan along with the West Bank in 1950 and recaptured by the Israelis during the Six-Day War of 1967, this much fought-over land is part of the municipality of Jerusalem: one of the holiest cities in the world. Most of the patients in Rachel’s children’s ward were Palestinian. Marriages to distant cousins produced an abundance of squints. It was the beginning of the Second Intifada, and the border from the West Bank would often be closed by Israel, leading to parents being unable to bring their children to hospital for follow-up treatment after a squint operation. This would leave some visually impaired for life.

Seeing the realities of the conflict -- and its impact on ordinary families -- on the ground was very different from watching politicians speak on television. I could only imagine the despair and frustration that would be experienced by worried parents turned back at the border, and the way this could so easily turn to hatred and vengeance if a precious child’s healing was adversely affected. I was amazed to discover, through my friend’s experiences, the suffering of many of those she was seeking to help. Since then, this part of the city has been surrounded with a wall euphemistically called a “security barrier,” limiting passage between communities even more. And the situation for the Palestinians in Gaza, faced with a total blockade, is graver still.

Of course there are political reasons for the conflict. Of course there are those on each side who seek to heinously destroy others. Of course there are factions who derive political power and strength from continuing to inflict terror and oppression on their enemies. But when the story is looked at through the eyes of ordinary people just aiming to earn a living and care for their families, it takes on a harrowing dimension.

Just the title of a book by a Palestinian doctor born and raised in a refugee camp in Gaza challenges the usual response of hatred and vengeance. “I Shall Not Hate” by Izzeldin Abuelaish will not only open your eyes to the daily realities of life in a divided land, it will inspire you to question your own responses to daily difficulties. Against all odds, having studied hard and qualified as a doctor, Abuelaish was the first Palestinian to be given an appointment in an Israeli hospital. This meant that twice a week every week for many years he would face the border crossing to exit the Gaza Strip and travel to his place of work. If for some reason he was refused entry, a colleague would hastily have to cover his shift.

Jan. 16, 2009 was a day that would shatter his life and change it forever. Following Hamas-led rocket attacks on cities in southern Israel, including the major cities of Beersheba and Ashdod, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) launched an offensive within the Gaza Strip. As if having lost his beloved wife, Nadia, to leukemia a few months before, just two weeks after she had been diagnosed, was not too much agony to bear, on that fateful morning and Israeli shell ripped apart his family home and his family. Three of his beloved daughters and a niece died in their bedroom. They were, quite simply, on the wrong wall. Abuelaish explains: “Like everyone else, we are all sleeping in the same room. We put some children against one wall and some against another wall, so if we’re hit we won’t be all wiped out.”

A day that changes your life. How you respond it to will define the rest of your life.

This is an amazing book about the power of forgiveness over hatred and revenge. It is a remarkable book tracing the journey of a man who has every reason to be frustrated, horrified, bitter and angry towards the peace and human dignity that give him healing and speak so eloquently to a world still in turmoil. It is a powerful book resounding with the positive results that happen when one man’s remarkable energy is invested not in hatred, but is channeled into passion and dedication for bettering the human condition.

But it is not a sugary sweet story of simply turning the other cheek and easily loving your enemies. We grapple with the realities of these two actions of reconciliation and forgiveness. There are no easy and pat answers given. Instead we walk in stunned silence beside a hero who is human. “Nadia’s death began a chain of events that altered the lives of my children, changed my career and challenged my faith,” he recounts.

His secret? Directing his anger in a focused way, not spreading it wide like a scatter gun. “Just as not all Palestinians are terrorists and bombers, not all Israelis are right-wing occupiers,” he insists. Yes, the map in the front of the book has to carry the date of 2010, as incursions, settlements and walls change the picture every day. But this empathetic doctor with dedication and compassion for his patients tells us, “I maintain that revenge and counter-revenge are suicidal, that mutual respect, equality and coexistence are the way forward, and I firmly believe that the vast majority of people who live in this region agree with me.”

A man who has seen no mercy shows mercy; a man who has seen no compassion shows compassion. In doing so he challenges us about our response not just to our own problems, but to the plight of both Israelis and Palestinians locked in conflict.

I was moved to tears many times by his story. The hardest page in the book contains the photographs of the three girls, listing their hopes and dreams as a caption by each one’s name. Impish Aya, smiling compassionate-eyed Mayar, charming Bessan. Mayar was the top math student in her school in year nine; her father remembers her exclaiming, “When I grow up I want my kids to live in a place where the word rocket is just another word for a space shuttle.”

This doctor without borders believes that “the cycle of taunting [by the Palestinians] and bullying [by the Israelis] is self-destructive.” His anger about “a system that does not allow humans to be human” is expressed in calm and measured sentences as he quietly explains the humiliation, fear and oppression experienced on a daily basis.

Physically crossing the border between Gaza and Israel is hard. A permit is needed to leave; humiliation and fear are built into the system at every check. “You experience the oppression of knowing that, for no reason, you can be detained or turned back,” Abuelaish writes. There is over one mile to walk across no-man’s land, carrying all of your luggage, for no vehicles are allowed. As one of the main reasons for being granted a permit is a hospital appointment, many taking this journey are carrying small children, or struggling with illness or being pushed in a wheelchair.

Crossing the border between hatred and forgiveness is just as challenging, just as frightening and just as uncertain a business. Dr. Abuelaish in no way minimizes the effort needed, but he gives the world a clarion call to follow in his footsteps and seek reconciliation.

“I Shall Not Hate,” by Izzeldin Abuelaish, published by Bloomsbury, 8.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-140882209-8

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