From Forgiveness to Compassion: The personal journey of a Gaza physician

Izzeldin Abuelaish, often referred to as “the Gaza Doctor” in the media, is a Palestinian medical doctor and infertility specialist who has dedicated his life to peace in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Dr. Abuelaish has overcome many personal hardships, including poverty and violence, to become one of the most outspoken, prominent and beloved educators and public speakers on peace and development in the Middle East. His personal doctrine is that hate is not a response to war. Rather, open communication, understanding and compassion are the tools to bridge the divide between Israeli and Palestinian interests. “All can live in harmony,” he says. “And all can reach their full potentials spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually.”

Dr. Abuelaish received his elementary, preparatory and secondary educations in the refugee camp school system in Jabalia, Gaza. As a child and as an adult, he and his family endured the dismal and severely impoverished conditions of the refugee camp, as well as the constant humiliation and inhumanity of the siege and its associated checkpoints and travel restrictions.

At all times, Dr. Abuelaish strived to maintain a balanced and positive perspective toward his experiences and the Israeli people, knowing that the latter are not representative of the sentiments that fuel one of the world’s longest conflicts and the conflict that threatens overall world security.

Dr. Abuelaish, who has worked in Israeli hospitals caring for patients and delivering babies of both Palestinian and Israeli descent, has always said that all people, regardless of their religious and political beliefs, are equal, deserve access to quality education and health care, and should have every opportunity to lead fulfilling and rewarding lives.

From a young age, Dr. Abuelaish set his sights on becoming a doctor and studied hard to achieve his dream, despite having to work outside his profession to support both himself and his family. He eventually garnered a scholarship to attend medical school at the University of Cairo. Following this, he obtained a diploma in Obstetrics and Gynecology with the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia in collaboration with the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of London. He later completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Saroka Hospital in Israel, followed by further study in fetal medicine and genetics at V. Buzzi Hospital in Milan, Italy and Erasme Hospital in Brussels, Belgium. He then went on to earn his Master’s degree in Public Health, Health Policy and Management at Harvard University. Dr. Abuelaish was the first Palestinian doctor to receive a staff position at an Israeli hospital. For many years, he worked as a senior researcher at the Gertner Institute in Sheba hospital in Israel.

On January 16, 2009, tragedy struck when an Israeli tank shelled his home in Gaza and killed three of his daughters, Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15 and Aya, 13, and his niece Noor, 17. This hearbreaking loss came only four months after losing his wife to cancer. Rather than retreat into despair, he deepened his resolve to become a beacon of hope for peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. In 2010 his memoir I Shall Not Hate: a Gaza Doctor’s Journey became an instant best seller and has been translated into 16 languages. He has travelled all over the world with his message of peace through non-violence and is a nominee for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for the third consecutive year.

Dr. Abuelaish has won many awards, including the 2009 recipient of the Stavros Niarchos Prize for Survivorship, the 2009 Search for Common Ground Award, the 2009 Middle East Institute Award, the 2010 Uncommon Courage Award from the Centre for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding at Queen’s College (New York), and the 2010 Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award of Canada. He has also been named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in 2009 and again in 2010 by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan. He was one of the three finalists for the 2009 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought. He has received honorary degrees from Queen’s University, the University of Manitoba and the University of Western Ontario, and was recently appointed to the Order of Ontario, the province’s highest honour.
Dr. Abuelaish believes that doctors can act as messengers of peace, and work toward bridging the divide between people in conflict zones everywhere. He believes that the real enemy, not only between Palestinian and Israeli but in all conflicts, is ignorance, the dehumanization of others and an inability to understand and communicate with others. He believes the future must be about tolerance, dignity, respect and embracing our universal humanity and interconnectedness.

Currently, Dr. Abuelaish is an Associate Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, Canada. He is teaching three courses in public health: Women’s Health in Countries of Conflict, Health as an Engine for the Journey to Peace, and International Perspectives on Health Services Management. These courses center on understanding the underpinnings of social and political conflict, and providing tangible and pragmatic ways to promote health as a strategy to building peace.

Dr. Abuelaish is the Founder and President of the Daughters for Life Foundation, a Canadian charity that provides awards and scholarships to young women in the Middle East in memory of his slain daughters. His aim in establishing the Foundation was to give other young women the opportunity to fulfill his daughters’ dreams for an educated future as agents of change in the journey towards peace.