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Conflict in Gaza is a public health issue, says Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

Peace advocate asks both sides to focus on needs of the children

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish in his office at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health (photo by Jon Horvatin)

In January 2009, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish watched as two tank shells hit his apartment in Gaza, killing three of his daughters and a niece, and seriously wounding a fourth daughter.

Just moments before, Dr. Abuelaish and his children had decided that he should accept a research fellowship at the University of Toronto. Rather than casting blame or seeking revenge, Dr. Abuelaish, a renowned gynecologist and fertility expert, sought a way to help bring peace to the troubled region. He wrote a bestselling book, I Shall Not Hate, toured extensively to spread his message, and established the Daughters for Life Foundation in memory of his daughters.

Today, Dr. Abuelaish balances a demanding schedule of speeches and appearances around the world, and raising his five children with his duties as an associate professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Recently he found the time to sit down with writer Terry Lavender to talk about the present crisis in Gaza.

What are your thoughts on the current strife in Gaza?

As Albert Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. No-one wins in war. Violence has been tried many times before and it hasn’t succeeded. Both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, need to change course.

The Palestinians are angry. At the same time, the Israelis are living in fear. When someone is angry, or afraid, we need to ask: Why are you angry? Why are you afraid? And if someone is violent, you have to ask what made him or her violent?

Has the present conflict affected your belief that peace is possible?

It strengthens my determination not to give up, my determination to speak out louder that there is an alternative.

Nothing justifies the killing of any human being. We’re living in the 21st century – we have advanced in technology, in science, and in medicine. But where is the advancement in justice, in equity and equality and valuing human life? There is no difference between an Israeli baby and a Palestinian baby, no difference between Canadians, Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, Afgahnis and Iraqis.

At U of T you teach a course called Health: An Engine for the Journey to Peace. How is health related to peace?

Health professionals can play a vital role in bringing about peace, justice and freedom. They can help heal the wounds of war. Health is not just the absence of disease, or disability or infirmity. It’s far beyond that. Health is about wellness, about happiness, about freedom, about justice. It’s everything alive. My peace is connected to your peace and my health is connected to your health. If I am not healthy, you are not healthy. Conversely, hatred is like disease; it is contagious and can easily cross borders. And literally, hatred leads to violence, which of course affects health. It’s a personal health issue and a public health issue.

After the death of your daughters and niece, you established the Daughters for Life Foundation. How does the Foundation contribute to the peace process?

I established the Daughters for Life Foundation in memory of my daughters Bessan, Mayar and Aya, to honour their love of life and learning and their hopes and dreams for an educated future. The foundation offers scholarships and awards for the education of girls and women from the Middle East regardless of their ethnic or geographical identity or their religion. Lasting peace in the Middle East depends on empowering girls and young women through education to develop strong voices for the betterment of life throughout the Middle East.

Recently you called upon Canadians to give medical help to children wounded in the conflict. What sort of response did you get?

The response was so positive, supportive and promising. The provincial government responded positively, as did the Ontario Federation of Labour, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and, most importantly, many members of the public. 

In your book you say that Israelis and Palestinians need to focus on realistic goals that lead to peace. What goals should they focus on?

They need to focus on the children. What future do we want for the Palestinian and Israeli children, what legacy do we want to leave them? A heavy legacy of hatred, of violence, of anger, of fear? Or do we want to leave them a lighter legacy; one of happiness, of joy, of respect for each other?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

More information about the Daughters of Life Foundation can be found at www.daughtersforlife.com.

Terry Lavender writes about global and international issues for U of T News.