Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat – Even after the death of his three daughters at the hands of Israel in the Jabalia Refugee Camp during Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish has persisted in promoting peace, and has continued in his search for justice and equality, treating any Israelis that need [medical] treatment. This may come as a surprise to many people.
Dr. Abu al-Aish told Asharq Al-Awsat that he does not hate the Jews at all and that he is still willing to provide medical treatment to one and all, even those that fired the tank shells at his home which resulted in the deaths of those he held most precious. Dr. Abu al-Aish explains this by saying that he is a “human being” and is committed to humanity. More than this, he is unable to hate people [in themselves] but hates their actions.
Perhaps the conditions of extreme “poverty and injustice” which Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish experienced as a child in the refugee camps, a student, and even a doctor, explain this man’s determination to transform this tragedy into a “positive change” that will build bridges of peace between the Arab and Israeli communities, and achieve a peace that will prevent other Palestinian fathers from losing their sons and daughters and experiencing the bitter reality that he recently did.
Dr. Abu al-Aish – who specializes in embryology and genetics – believes in the justice of his cause and says that ideas and words are more capable of reaching the truth and achieving peace. To this end, he has travelled to a number of countries around the world to emphasize the importance of achieving peace in the region. Dr. Abu al-Aish also believes that he must “call for and help Palestinians to achieve, even prior to peace, such things as love, respect, and the right to a dignified life.”
Due to this stance, Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish has recently been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Belgian state secretary who described him as a “soldier of peace.” He received honorary Belgian citizenship “in recognition of his efforts in service of humanity.” Professor Avishay Braverman, Israeli Minister for Minorities, congratulated Dr. Abu al-Aish by phone recently, saying that this is a victory for humanity, and promising to support his nomination.
So who is this Palestinian doctor who is an example of the tragedy in Palestine on one hand, and a symbol of the Palestinians’ hopes for peace, on the other?
Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish was born in the Jabalia Refugee Camp in northern Gaza on 3 February 1955. His family was expelled from the Al Hawj village which would later become part of farmland owned by former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. Ezzeldeen grew up on the streets of the camp, listening to stories from his father and others about their expulsion from their land in Al Hawj. This caused him to have a great sensitivity to injustice from an early age. Abu al-Aish said, “What can be expected of a child whose home has been invaded by Ariel Sharon?”
He experienced the bitterness of extreme poverty. He belonged to a simple family; his father was a labourer, and his mother was the daughter of a farmer. Abu al-Aish described his childhood: “I lived under very poor conditions, and experienced real poverty and difficulties, which our children continue to experience in the camps. My father was a labourer, my mother was the daughter of a farmer, we lived displaced and evicted from our land, without work and without income.” Like any child in the refugee camp, Ezzeldeen enrolled at the Jabalia at the UNRWA refugee camp in 1962, while the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control. Whilst at school he experienced an even greater sense of suffering, poverty, and injustice.
When the school asked his mother for one or two piastres [to cover school fees], she replied by saying, “We do not want schooling if it requires money.” This poverty caused him to end his childhood early, and by the time he was 11 years old he was working in the streets selling sweets and other goods in order to earn enough money for himself [to attend school], for his parents, and for his siblings.
Ezzeldeen excelled at school, but did not achieve the required assessment; he says that he remembers how the teacher responsible for these assessments would award [academic] prizes to the students dressed in the best clothes. This increased his sense of “poverty, oppression, and injustice.” He added, “I expected to be awarded the prize because I was top of my class, but instead it went to the children of rich backgrounds. I asked myself: does this mean that if my father was rich I would have been awarded the prize?” Ezzeldeen was even more determined to complete his studies, and enrol in a university outside of the Gaza Strip, as this was the only way to escape poverty and help his family.
Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish continued his studies, while at the same time continuing to sell his goods in the streets of the Gaza Strip. Then during the summer holidays of 1970 he spent 40 consecutive days working in Israel [as a farm labourer]. When he returned to the Gaza Strip, Abu al-Aish found the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] destroying his home, which was on the outskirts of the Jabalia Camp in an area known as ‘Block 7.’ It appeared that once again Ariel Sharon would have a direct impact on Abu al-Aish’s life. Ariel Sharon, the then Commander of the Israeli Forces in Gaza had ordered the destruction of a number of houses in order to widen the street to allow Israeli tanks to pass. With the money Ezzeldeen made in Israel during the summer holidays, he managed to buy another house for his family, not far from their first home, and Abu al-Aish, his siblings, and his children, continue to live in this house to this day.
There were many questions in the mind of young Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish; why does a Palestinian child not live like an Israeli or American child? Why are Palestinians displaced from one house to the next, forced to work and toil just to study? Abu al-Aish completed his secondary education in 1975, and applied to study at a number of Egyptian universities; he was accepted by Cairo University for the next academic year. In the meantime Abu al-Aish continued to work in Israel to secure the money he would need for his travel and necessities during his time at Cairo University. Regarding the work he undertook in Israel, Abu al-Aish said, “I worked every type of job.”
Abu al-Aish was driven towards study, initially in order to improve the situation of his small family, but later his work in Israel gave him a sense of challenge in that “I am a Palestinian from the Jabalia Camp in the Gaza Strip, and I am the same as you, in fact better [academically].” Abu al-Aish was accepted to study medicine, and had been captivated by this profession from a young age. Once, when he was a child suffering from rheumatic fever, he began to examine what the doctors had written, and even started to learn such medical writings by heart. But he clarified that his main concern was to receive an education, even if he had to accept studying a different subject.
As a youngster, Abu al-Aish was interested in reading novels, and did not read much about politics. He did not read as a hobby, or for enjoyment, or to fill his time, but rather to strengthen his grasp of the Arabic language. He would also attend Quranic school for this purpose. In addition to being fluent in Arabic, Abu al-Aish is fluent in Hebrew as a result of working in Israel from a young age, and in English, which he learnt during his time at Western universities. Abu al-Aish studied medicine at Cairo University, and once again was about to experience oppression and justice when he returned to the Gaza Strip to work in 1985. Abu al-Aish explained, “If you wanted to be employed at this time [when Israel was occupying Gaza] you had to be the son of an important employee, or a millionaire, or an Israeli collaborator.”
Dr. Abu al-Aish did not find employment, and in 1987 he travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after receiving a work permit to work at the Al-Aziziyah Maternity Ward in Jeddah. From here, the Saudi hospital sent him to London so that he could receive specialist training in fertility. He returned to Jeddah in 1988, and worked at the Al-Aziziyah Maternity Ward for three years. However in 1991, Abu al-Aish decided to return to Jabalia.
He opened a private clinic, and his main concern was treating the poverty-stricken people in the camp. Abu al-Aish said that during his studies he learnt that an area with a high rate of reproduction also has a high rate of infertility. He began to communicate with the Israeli medical community [on this issue] in order to exchange opinions. Soon after, he began working at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheeba, as a volunteer without salary.
In late 1993, Dr. Abu al-Aish was appointed UNRWA Director for Women’s Health, although he left this job after only one year to return to his private clinic and volunteering at Soroka Medical Center.
He excelled [at Soroka] and in 1997, after three years, he was the first Palestinian doctor to be put on staff at an Israeli hospital. At the same time, Dr. Abu al-Aish continued to work at his clinic one day a week where he would give medical treatment for free, as he was determined to treat the poor and those who had been displaced from their homes.
In 2002, Soroka Medical Center sent Dr. Abu al-Aish to receive specialist training in embryology and genetics at an Italian university. From there he transferred to Harvard University in the US where he studied Health Policy Planning. His graduation was a proud day for Palestinians, and he said, “I wish all Palestinians could have been present, I wish my father and mother could have risen from their graves to see me, their son, a boy of poverty, make this great achievement.” He returned to Gaza that same year, continuing to work at Soroka Medical Center and his private clinic. After six years he transferred to Tel Hashomer hospital. His relationship with Israelis expanded, and he would tell them, the poor child whose land Ariel Sharon invaded and whose house Ariel Sharon destroyed and who worked for them as a labourer on their farms, has returned as a famous doctor with a special position.
But in early 2009, Abu al-Aish experienced what was to be the most tragic event of his life. During the war that Israel launched on the Gaza Strip on December 17, 2008, Abu al-Aish was very much concerned about the wellbeing of his eight children; his six daughters who he loved very much and his two sons.
On January 16 at 4.45pm, after twenty days of war, Abu al-Aish’s nightmare came true. Israel fired a tank shell towards Abu al-Aish’s house and the explosion was followed by a second. This doctor, who was accustomed to helping Israel’s wounded, was playing with his 6-year-old son when the house was struck.
The doctor rushed towards his daughters’ bedroom. He cries as he recalls that moment and loses control of his emotions. He saw pools of blood and the remains of his daughters’ bodies.
“I began to scream like a madman,” he said. He frantically began to look for his eldest daughter Bisan before another shell was fired towards them.
“Bisan was everything; a father, mother and sister to her siblings, she was different. I was praying to find her still alive.” He continued, “I don’t know what happened, I was almost dead and I was asking ‘Where is Bisan? Where is Bisan? What’s happened?’”
Abu al-Aish lost his daughters Bisan, 20, Miyar, 15, Aya, 14 and his niece Noor, 14. His daughters Shezha and Rafa, his brother and another niece were wounded, some critically.
Bisan was close to finishing her university studies in Commerce and Business Administration at the Islamic University in Gaza and she wanted to become a journalist. Miyar wanted to be a doctor, just like her father.
Since the death of his daughters, Abu al-Aish has asked himself, ‘Were my daughters armed when they died? Yes they were armed. They were armed with love, love for other people.’ “Bisan had been going to the Peace Camps since she was 15 years old,” he said.
In spite of the bitterness that Abu al-Aish feels, he believes that God chose him and his daughters to show the world the magnitude of Palestinian suffering during the Israeli war on Gaza.
“Because of my relationship with Israel and because of my personality, God has chosen me and my daughters to show the world, and the Israelis themselves, the catastrophe that the Palestinian nation is experiencing,” said Abu-al Aish. “The death of my daughters has uncovered the truth, the entire truth, and conveyed a clear message of Palestinian suffering to the Israeli community.”
The death of Dr. Abu al-Aish’s daughters caused anger even in Israel after Israeli television transmitted a live broadcast of the moments shortly after the massacre, as Abu al-Aish screamed for help.
Abu al-Aish rejected the IDF’s initial denial of targeting his house and said that the truth would be revealed eventually. The Israeli military later admitted that it fired two tank shells at his house, which killed his three daughters.
A military statement said that investigations revealed that a unit of the Golani Infantry Brigade had been shot at by a sniper and was the target of Hawn missiles in an area laden with explosives and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). The force identified and located the source of fire from a house adjacent to that of the doctor’s, and in response, opened fire.
The statement said, “During the counter-fire opened by the IDF forces, suspicious figures were identified in the upper level of Dr. Abu Al-Aish’s house and were thought to be spotters who directed the Hamas sniper and mortar fire. The commander of the force gave the order to open fire on the suspicious figures. It is from this fire that the three daughters of Dr. Ezzedine Abu Al-Aish were killed.”
Abu al-Aish and eyewitnesses rejected the claim that a sniper had fired shots from a neighbouring house, insisting that the IDF knows his house very well and that the incident occurred after a ceasefire had been reached.
A few days ago, the mayor of the Belgian municipality of Viroinval announced that Jean-Marc Delizee, Belgium’s State Secretary for Pensions and the Fight Against Poverty had nominated Dr. Abu al-Aish for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in advocating peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Abu al-Aish said that his nomination is a victory for justice, for all humanity and for those who seek the truth.
The Israeli Minister of Minorities in the new cabinet and former president of Ben-Gurion University, Professor Avishay Braverman, congratulated Abu al-Aish by phone and said that this nomination was a victory to humanity and that he will support his nomination by sending a message to the concerned committee. In contrast however, not one single Palestinian official has contacted Abu al-Aish. “Only ordinary people from Jabalia called to say that I was an honour to them.”
Abu al-Aish is touring EU members states with a message of peace from the people of Gaza to demand respect for his people’s right to independence and a dignified life. He says that nothing is impossible except bringing his daughters back to life. He is seeking to implement development projects in the Gaza Strip. Abu al-Aish delivered a speech in European Parliament recently, warning against the continuous siege on Gaza and calling for an end to the killing. He called for breaking down the walls of hatred and building bridges of love instead.
Abu al-Aish contributed to the success of a private Palestinian-Belgium project for Palestinian children that was implemented in 2003 in the Jabalia Refugee Camp in the northern Gaza Strip.
Abu al-Aish will visit Belgium, Belgrade, France. He will also return to Harvard University, in the US, where he studied, and will turn down an offer to join the university just as he rejected an offer from Toronto, as he wants to return to his three remaining daughters. His daughter Shezha has recovered and is back at school, and is planning, despite sustaining injuries to her eye and right hand, to make her dream, and the dream of her martyred sisters come true; to achieve the highest grades in her high school exams.
Before starting school in the 1960s, Abu al-Aish’s mother used to tell him that they would return to their hometown in Al Hawj in a matter of days. Abu al-Aish is yet to return. He is a refugee who lives in the Jabalia camp seeking justice and a dignified life for himself and for his people. Will this journey end with Abu al-Aish returning to Al Hawj even after so long?