Editor’s Note: The following interview includes graphic language. Reader discretion is advised.
When I speak to Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish on the phone, his voice is heavy with jetlag and grief.
Abuelaish — known as the first Palestinian doctor to hold a staff position at an Israeli hospital — has just returned to his adopted home of Toronto.
For the past few days he’s been in Cairo, comforting his brother who is mourning the loss of three of his children killed in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike.
“Even if he could get back,” Abuelaish says of his brother who left Gaza for Egypt in September for health reasons, “he doesn’t have anything to go back to.”
It’s a sorrow Abuelaish knows painfully well. In 2009, he shot to fame after describing live on Israel’s Channel 10 TV the horror of discovering three of his own daughters — aged 21, 15 and 13 — and his 17-year-old niece, killed after an Israeli tank strike on their home in Gaza.
For weeks, Abuelaish had been delivering regular updates to Israeli television in his fluent Hebrew on the intense Israel-Hamas fighting happening in Gaza at the end of 2008/start of 2009.
Then on January 16, he called his friend and Channel 10 reporter Shlomi Eldar, who put his message on speaker phone, live on TV.
It was a moment of television that shook the presenters — and Israeli audiences — to the core.
“My God, My God, what have we done?” wailed a grief-stricken Abuelaish from the phone held aloft, of his mutilated children.
With the help of Shlomi, other injured members of Abuelaish’s family were evacuated to an Israeli hospital. And in his anguish, Abuelaish used the media spotlight to advocate for equality and peace.
He later wrote a memoir of his experience: “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the road to Peace and Human Dignity.” The five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, 68, emigrated to Canada with his remaining children, and is now a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
But almost 15 years after his harrowing phone call on live TV, Abuelaish is again grappling with family tragedy following Israeli bombardment in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack.
This time, more than 20 members of Abuelaish’s extended family were killed after an airstrike on the Jabalya refugee camp in late October. (The Israel Defense Forces say the strike was targeting Hamas members).
In this interview with CNN Opinion, Abuelaish reflects on his reasons for wanting to work alongside Israeli doctors, the dire situation for hospitals in Gaza now, and why he sees his own daughters in the faces of every Palestinian child.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
CNN: Tell me about your early years growing up in Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish: There is nothing called “life” there. You are waiting for humanitarian aid. You go to sleep starving. Water, you have to collect it.
But at least, at that time public water was available. These days, there is no water. There is no food. It’s abject poverty. It’s deprivation. You feel the despair, the frustration of the people there.
In 1970, our house was demolished by the Israelis. What is home? Home is your dignity. Home is your freedom, your privacy, your family, your life. It’s more than just the four walls.
It was a very simple home — two rooms. But it was protecting us from winter, and from the sun.
Once the home is gone, the dignity, freedom, privacy are gone with it.
CNN: You are known as the first Palestinian doctor to hold a staff position at an Israeli hospital — what did you learn from working on the other side of the border?
Abuelaish: Doctors, for me, are messengers of humanity. They spread humanity, they heal the wounds. And when we treat patients, we treat them equally, based on the diagnosis. Not based on the name, ethnicity, religion, background.
That’s what I practiced. And that’s what I’m proud of.
Why do we treat patients equally inside hospitals and then once they step outside they are treated differently?
When I went to work there, I wanted the Israelis to learn, and to understand, and to know who the Palestinians are. Because our enemies are our ignorance, arrogance and greed. How can I judge you without knowing you? Without dealing with you?
I wanted the Israelis not to see the Palestinians as workers working for them, or only to see them in the child who is throwing stones during the First Intifada. I want them to see the Palestinians as equal, as talented, as human as they are.
CNN: In 2009, your phone call to Israeli TV relayed the horror of your three daughters and niece killed after an Israeli tank shell hit your home in Gaza. How did this moment shake Israelis?
Abuelaish: During that time [of intense Israel-Hamas fighting from Dec 2008 to January 2009], every day, every night, we can’t approach the windows because of the bombing, shelling, all around us.
And now, it’s much worse than what we experienced then.
I had six daughters and two sons. So I used to put them: three beside one wall, three beside the other, and we remaining on another wall, in case a strike should come from one side and not all of us be killed.
That day, when I saw the smoke, the dust, the damage, at first I didn’t believe it. But then I realized, it’s my home.
I went inside to see where is Bessan, my eldest daughter, who took the role of the mother after her mother passed away? (Abuelaish’s wife had died of leukemia the previous year).
Where’s Mayar? Who was 15 and planned to be a medical doctor. She was decapitated.
Aya, who was 13 and planned to be a journalist. And my niece Noor, who was 17, and came this evening to be with us, and who planned to be a teacher.
They became parts. Slaughtered, scattered everywhere. The brains, the blood, on the roof, the ceiling, on the ground.
So at that moment, what can I do? I was supposed to be interviewed live by Israeli TV about the situation in the Gaza Strip. When I called my friend the journalist telling him what happened, I left him a voice message. Fortunately, he was sitting with the TV anchor who was supposed to interview me.
He told her, something has happened with Dr. Abuelaish. He put it on loud speaker — I didn’t know what was happening there in the studio — and I asked him, what can be done to stop the shooting of the house, to evacuate those who were killed and the causalities.
My daughter Shatha, with her eye ruptured and two fingers completely torn. She was gasping. So at that moment I called, to see if I can take then to the hospital where I am working. And then it was broadcast live to Israel — opening a closed box.
It showed them: these are Palestinian people. This is the doctor who is treating us, delivering our babies. These are his daughters who are peace activists.
So they opened the borders for us. I went to the hospital.
Once it was broadcast live, it came to symbolize the war. Two days later, Ehud Olmert, who was the prime minister, who knows me, he announced a unilateral ceasefire.
At least this satisfied me. It helped to save lives. But no one should be killed in order for that to happen.
CNN: Having worked in Palestinian hospitals throughout your career, paint a picture of the challenges they will be facing now.
Abuelaish: About 25 hospitals are not functioning, they are demolished. And the others are functioning minimally. (According to World Health Organization assessments as of December 27, Gaza has 13 partially functioning hospitals, 2 minimally functioning ones, and 21 that are not functioning at all).
The most important things you need for a hospital to work are human resources, facilities and security.
Also, electricity is vital. It is an integral part of any hospital. What is needed for these destructive wounds from these merciless attacks? We need to do an X-ray, and an X-ray needs electricity.
You need a lab. You need a blood transfusion, so you need a blood bank. You need anesthesia and you need to operate in a theater.
You need water, antibiotics, medication.
And what about the patients with chronic diseases? Things like bronchial asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer.
Speaking as a gynecologist, with the current situation, what does this mean for women who are pregnant? How can they deliver without sanitation? Or imagine a caesarean section without anaesthesia.
CNN: You’ve said that you see your daughters in every Palestinian child. What does the future look like for Palestinian children now?
Abuelaish: There is no future for them. How can we give them hope to stop this bloodshed? How can we start to give them a future, not to be an extremist or be a fanatic?
The cost of this war is not just what is happening now. The cost of war is the invisible ghost. It’s the post-war. The physical, social, spiritual and mental wounds that lasts generations.
It’s ongoing, persistent, transgenerational stress disorder.
We need to change the context and environment which led to this. We need to equalize the Palestinians and the Israelis — not as “occupier” and “occupied,” “oppressor” and “oppressed.” But as equal people, side by side.
This is the guarantee to help our Palestinian children. And also the Israeli children. To move forward and build a future.
CNN: What life do you dream of for your family in Gaza? And how can that possibly be achieved?
Abuelaish: Since the war, they have been like nomads. They have moved about 10 times, from one place to the other, scattered everywhere.
So what I wish for them, is for the world to think of them. Thinking of those who are waiting to drink fresh water, to have shelter.
Freedom should never stop at the borders of the Palestinian people. And I want the world to understand that the Palestinian people deserve it. They are educated and talented people who can share in the world’s development and progress.
Life is like riding a bicycle — to keep balanced, we must keep moving. We as Palestinian people have been challenged and we are ready to start from zero.
But we need this zero to be attached, accompanied and translated into freedom, dignity and equality.