The last time Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish spoke to Jewish Pittsburgh, it was through a satellite feed. This time, it was face-to-face.
Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician, met with 11 Jewish Pittsburgh leaders Tuesday in a meeting set up by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee. That followed a speech he gave the previous evening to a Brit Tzedek v’Shalom meeting, which 300 people attended.
His message was simple: Israelis and Palestinians need to communicate to stop the violence. They need to listen; they don’t always have to agree, but they do have to respect each other.
“We can disagree; it’s acceptable, Abuelaish told the PAJC gathering, “But we have to listen and not blame. “If we blame each other we will never get out [of this cycle of violence].”
His Pittsburgh stop is part of a multi-city trip through Europe and the United States
Abuelaish, 53, made international news on Jan. 15 when an Israeli tank shell struck his apartment in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp, killing three of his daughters and a niece, also injuring a fourth daughter.
The attack, which was investigated by the Israeli army and determined to be an accident, occurred hours after Abuelaish spoke by satellite to a rally at the Pittsburgh JCC against the fighting in Gaza.
Since the tragedy, Abuelaish has become a cause celebre. The Israeli media interviewed him extensively, the President of the European Parliament received him; the Belgian government gave him honorary citizenship.
And last month, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he has dedicated to both the Israeli and Palestinian people and to the girls and women of the world.
Believing God has a positive reason for every action — even tragic ones — Abuelaish is using his trip to raise interest in a foundation he is establishing to support the advancement of women around the world.
But on Tuesday, the Jewish leaders Abuelaish met with wanted discuss the conflict in Israel.
PAJC Executive Director Lisa Steindel asked him if Palestinians who think like him are viewed as collaborators.
“This is a misunderstanding,” Abuelaish responded. And he asked
rhetorically if Israelis would view their countrymen who speak to Palestinians as collaborators.
Deborah Fidel, director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, wondered how many Palestinians believe as he does, noting that the only message Jews and Israelis seem to hear from Gaza is that of Hamas.
To that, Abuelaish compared Hamas’ message to “the empty part of the glass.” He made it clear to the leaders, and in a previous interview with The Chronicle, that leaders on both sides have failed the people, and suggested that if more women had leadership roles in the two societies, peace might be achieved.
Speaking with The Chronicle Monday, Abulaish dismissed the suggestion that meeting with Jewish leaders Tuesday would somehow be more significant.
“What do you mean Jewish leaders? I meet with people,” he said. “I will tell them what I believe and what I told you. My ideas are the same, as in the Belgium, as in Belgrade, as in Toronto (other stops on his trip) — the same
A Gazan native who studied medicine in Israel, Abuelaish is no stranger to either culture. While a medical resident he had to cross the checkpoints every day to get to work after a while the soldiers came to know him and realized he was not a risk.
All that changed after the 2002 Seder Massacre. The Israelis closed the crossings and he could not get to work for two months. When he was allowed to cross again, he recalled his Israeli colleagues greeted him with flowers.
He wants the dreams of his daughters to be realized, noting that his oldest was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English from Islamic University in Gaza, the second wanted to be a physician, and the youngest had an interest in journalism.
The foundation he envisions would award grants of study; sport schools and general create opportunities for women. It would be headquartered in Gaza, but maintain an office in Toronto.
While visiting the European Parliament he received encouragement that that body would take up his foundation project as an international cause.
“We are not speaking about rights [of women],” he said of its mission, “but participation. It’s something different.”
In addition to his foundation work, Abuelaish also hopes to write a book and is currently seeking a publisher. He’s hopeful that the European Parliament will make his foundation an international initiative.
Despite all the violence that has occurred, he believes that can happen.
“I’m a doctor, with whom are we dealing? Sick people,” he said. “Such people, do we seek to cure them or not? The case is not hopeless or impossible; the patient is still alive.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)