It’s admittedly sh%tty that it takes a horrific and ongoing event in a region to make me finally pick up a book about it. But the ever-escalating Israel–Palestine conflict finally made me move Izzeldin Abuelaish’s I Shall Not Hate from the black hole that is the to-be-read-at-some-stage list to the I-need-to-read-this-right-now one.
Like Desert Flower, which I blogged about a few weeks ago and which was also plucked from a similar almost-never-read fate, I Shall Not Hate both gripped me from its opening paragraphs and had me rueing that I had taken so long to get round to reading it.
Izzeldin (I think this is his first name, but I’m breaking with convention to follow the book’s style and refer to him that way—methinks it was a deliberate decision to humanise him and I have to confess I like it) is a Palestinian doctor who works to help patients of all backgrounds and creeds. He for a long time worked in an Israeli hospital, making time-consuming, humiliating daily and weekly trips to travel from his home in Gaza to his workplace.
He is the first Palestinian to have accomplished such things, with even his residency requiring special permission for him to cross the border to do his research. It also meant someone had to cover for him if he was prevented from crossing the border for some arbitrary security reason.
A pragmatic optimist who believes medicine can bridge the seemingly insurmountable divide between Israelis and Palestinians, his thesis is that healthcare is one of the few things that transcend ideological differences and fighting.
By treating Jewish patients as a Palestinian Arab, he’s simply showing care and concern for human beings. This, despite experiencing a horror at the hands of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) that would make it understandable that he could hate Jewish people: Three of his daughters and his niece were killed by an IDF bomb aimed directly at their family home.
The IDF apparently has pinpoint-accurate technology that presumably enables them to, well, not make bombing target mistakes. So it remains unclear how—and no one’s accepted responsibility for—the house of a Palestinian doctor widely known to be working to help both Jewish and Palestinian people, came to be blown up. What’s clear is that Izzeldin lost three daughters and a niece without warning and for no valid reason, and just months after the family had lost their mother, Izzeldin’s wife, to leukaemia.
His words on the matter are gracious and humbling: ‘If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I could accept it.’ I can’t help but wonder how he must be feeling during this latest round of fighting.
My understanding of the region’s contentious history is hazy at best, and I worry I’ve used wrong titles and terminology in this blog post (apologies if I have, and please feel free to let me know), but I feel that Izzeldin affords me insight into a deeply troubling experience.
Izzeldin has a way of expressing the issues that is both matter of fact and beautiful: ‘Gaza is a human time bomb in the process of imploding,’ he writes. And later:
The primitive and cheap Qassam is actually the most expensive rocket in the world when you consider the consequences—the life-altering repercussions it has created on both sides of the divide and on the Palestinians in particular.
Of the region’s sabra plant he says:
It’s a cactuslike succulent that has been used for thousands of years as a hedge to mark the borders of Palestinian farmlands. The prickly exterior hides a sweet fruit; the rubbery leaves are beautiful in their way, each one unique, with protrusions like stubby toes. For sixty years the land has been bulldozed, reassigned, and developed as if to scrub out any vestige of the Palestinians who lived, worked, and thrived here. But the enduring sabra plant remains like an invincible sentry, silently sending the message ‘We are here, and there, and down by the river and over near those woods and across that field. This land is where we were.’
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder, once said of how Palestinians would cope with the loss of their land that ‘the old will die and the new generations will forget’. That’s a ruthlessly naïve and stupid thing to say, and it clearly hasn’t happened. Izzeldin advocates not forgetting or glossing over the past, but instead trying to forge a future that has both sides working together. His overriding belief is that, extremist leaders on both sides aside, people at the grassroots on both sides simply want to live in peace. He writes:
We know that military ways are futile, for both sides. We say that words are stronger than bullets, but the bullets continue to find their targets. My philosophy is simple, it’s the advice parents give to children: stop quarrelling with your brother and make friends—you’ll both be better off.
It’s difficult not to be incensed by the circumstances and occurrences Izzeldin describes in the book, including how then leader Ariel Sharon was concerned roads weren’t wide enough for his tanks, so he bulldozed people’s homes to obtain that room. Or the numerous examples he outlines of power-abusing tedium to stall and deny him and other Palestinians travel, both into Israel and overseas.
There’s also the time he accidentally left his briefcase behind at a border crossing and the guards, despite knowing him and seeing him cross the border weekly for work, blew the briefcase up. They saw him as a potential terrorist. He justifiably felt they should have seen him as a man who simply forgot his suitcase.
New York columnist Mona Elthaway wrote of him: ‘He seems to be the only person left in this small slice of the Middle East with its supersized servings of “us” and “them” who refuses to hate’. I consider that an incredibly, insightfully apt description.
There are no winners in the current conflict. Reading or watching anything and everything about the region—or the world more broadly, right now—makes my chest tight with despair. Yet Izzeldin’s book—and the man and his approach to life—offer me small hopes and enormous admiration and gratitude. I’m not imploring you to pick the book up at this moment in time, because that would be timely-ly sh%tty. But at the same time, I am.