Thursday, 5 February 2009

Finding Gaza in Tel Aviv



By Mona Eltahawy
Feb. 4, 2009

TEL AVIV – “Are you proud of yourself for visiting Israel? Especially now?”

I am an Egyptian whose country has been at peace with Israel for almost 30 years but my decision to come to Tel Aviv a day after the ceasefire ended the war between Israel and Hamas did not go down well on Facebook, where I have almost 4,000 “friends”, most of whom I’ve never met but who form an invaluable and instant polling pool to current events.

For one Egyptian, I was in cahoots with the “Zionists, the Jews, the Unbelievers and Islam haters”.

“Don’t forget to take a few lovely flowers along with your sweet smile to Uncle (Ariel) Sharon, your godfather,” he wrote to me.

A Jordanian was a bit more measured in his criticism.

“I'm one of the few people remaining in the Arab world who still believes that a fair and just peace with Israel can be achieved,” he told me. “But…it's not right to visit the Jewish state at this time when you can smell the charred Palestinian flesh from the terrace of your hotel in Tel Aviv!”

Heavy-handed imagery aside, by coming to Tel Aviv I found Gaza itself, its heartbreak, its misery and all its complexity when I met Dr. Izzeldine Abouelaish and his family, or what is left of it.

A Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters when Israeli shells struck their home in Gaza two days before the ceasefire, 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 hope this is the last tragedy,” he told me when we met at the hospital near Tel Aviv where he works part time but where that day he was not the healer but the father of a patient – his 17-year old daughter Shadha whose eye was blown out of its socket and who lost several fingers in the shelling. Four months earlier, his wife died of leukemia, leaving him with eight children.

“We need to immunize both sides with love, respect, dignity and equality.”

Ever the doctor, he is the talisman for those of us who refuse to be silenced by tribal allegiance. I lost track of the number of times Israeli friends whispered to me they had to keep their views to themselves during the war in Gaza; Arab friends emailed me the same sentiments.

I was here to speak at a Tel Aviv University conference on Middle East youth and had no idea that I would meet Dr. Abouelaish but hearing him, crying with him as he recalled the horror of finding the shattered bodies of his daughters – one was beheaded in the shelling – the physician and his confusing life story became the raison d’etre of my visit.

I am a huge fan of confusion as the antidote to stereotypes. I was born shortly after one war with Israel, two of my uncles fought in another one and I was the first Egyptian to work in Israel for a western news agency. I am a proud Muslim who rejects everything Hamas represents and who believes Palestinians deserve better than their Islamist agenda, especially its obsession with Israel.

Dr. Abouelaish is the antithesis of the lazy lines drawn by too many in this too bloody conflict.

A Palestinian who met Israelis on an equal footing - not as the laborer, gardener or cleaner – he is a gynecologist who trained in two Israeli hospitals and who treated infertile Israeli women and delivered their babies. He is a known peace activist whose deceased daughters had attended a peace camp for Israeli and Palestinian children. And he is an academic who studied the effects of war on Gazan and Israeli children and whose own heartbreak has now ironically enriched his research.

A Hebrew speaker whose wails announcing the deaths of his girls on live television moved the presenters to tears, his grief marked the moment Al Jazeera and its unblinking and often overbearing war coverage entered Israeli living rooms. Up until then, most Israelis had been watching a very different war whose narrative - focused on soldiers as the nation’s sons sent to stem an eight-year tide of Hamas rocket attacks on southern towns - was largely free of Palestinian civilian suffering in Gaza.

But surrounded by Israeli friends, one of whom he calls the “surrogate mother” of Shadha he upends the Al Jazeera narrative with its fondness for using Palestinian misery as both advertisement and fuel for the angry masses.

It is a privilege and a curse to be able to move among all sides. Dr. Abouelaish could be the loneliest man on earth but he is the role model for those of us who believe Israelis and Palestinians need more than crocodile tears and fiery rhetoric.

As both sides declare victory in the Gaza war, its most obvious losers are Palestinian civilians and those on all sides who feel they must whisper their objection to violence by Hamas and the onslaught of the Israeli Defense Forces.

I came to Israel because I didn’t want to whisper, I wanted to talk, loudly and in the open, to Israelis and Palestinians who are fed up with war. In Dr. Abouelaish’s heartbreak and grace, I found the clearest message.

Copyright 2009 Mona Eltahawy

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