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Commentary: A conciliatory Gazan voice emerges

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish appeared on a prime time Israeli news program, speaking in fluent Hebrew, representing the possibility that there might, after all, be a Palestinian Nelson Mandela. 

Abuelaish (or Abu al-Aish) is the physician who held appointments in both Gazan and Israeli hospitals, and lost three of his eight children during the IDF onslaught at the beginning of 2009.

The topic of his interview was a new book, I Shall Not Hate (Random House), which also represents the theme of numerous public appearances. He told of relocating to the University of Toronto, where he says that he has found peace for himself and his remaining children. His wife died of leukemia during 2008, prior to the Gaza invasion.

Abuelaish represents both the hope and frustration of Palestinians and Israelis. He is by no means the only individual to have separated himself from the insular and hateful culture that is all too prevalent among his people. There are several anti-Islamic Arabs expressing admiration for Israel on clips circulating through the internet, as well as commentators from throughout the Middle East whose work is translated on Memri . My own circle of friends, colleagues, and students includes individuals who prefer to remain below the radar of public scrutiny while they work as Arabs in the Jewish sector, in East Jerusalem, or the West Bank.

Abuelaish stands out due to his work as a physician with Israeli and Gazans, personal tragedy, and appealing demeanor. He also appears to be apolitical, and has removed himself from the Middle East.

Reference to Mandela is not meant to legitimize a comparison between Israel and South Africa. That is the stuff of the mad and ignorant, or crafty activists desperate for a slogan. Mandela’s relevance is a symbol of moderation and accommodation. There are plenty of those among Israeli Jews, with a capacity to recruit a substantial majority of the population if conditions ever become appropriate, and to deal with those who would say No in Hebrew. There are at least a few among Palestinians, but one of the crucial differences between their setting and South Africa is the Muslim mass, a religion with a component that is hateful of others, plus the infrastructure of politics, wealth, and theology stretching out from Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia across the region from Morocco to Indonesia.

One can argue if the story of Abuelaish is one of optimism or pessimism, or is anything more than an indication of one human face in a region usually reduced to one-liners.

One of Thomas Friedman’s latest columns deals with other human faces: a Gazan infant treated in an Israeli hospital, publicized by one of the Israeli television personalities who used to travel throughout Gaza until kept from there by the IDF and his own good sense. The light in this story is the success of the treatment and the full payment received from an Israeli Jew whose son had been killed during military service. The sadness is what the child’s mother told the Israeli journalist. She described being criticized in Gaza for having her son treated in Israel, and hoped that he would grow up to be a suicide bomber. “From the smallest infant, even smaller than Mohammed, to the oldest person, we will all sacrifice ourselves.”

Friedman goes from the personal stories to his own record as a critic of Israel. Then he warns about   “. . . something foul in the air. It is a trend . . . to delegitimize Israel — to turn it into a pariah state . . . If you just landed from Mars, you might think that Israel is the only country that has killed civilians in war — never Hamas, never Hezbollah, never Turkey, never Iran, never Syria, never America. . . .Destructive criticism closes Israeli ears. . . Destructive critics dismiss Gaza as an Israeli prison, without ever mentioning that had Hamas decided — after Israel unilaterally left Gaza — to turn it into Dubai rather than Tehran, Israel would have behaved differently, too. Destructive criticism only empowers the most destructive elements in Israel to argue that nothing Israel does matters, so why change? . . . if you still want to be a critic (as I do), be a constructive one. A lot more Israelis and Palestinians will listen to you.”

If there is anything positive in all of this, it may take a long time to emerge from what is negative. There is plenty of the latter in the Middle East, and among the Know Nothings of Western Leftists. Insofar as many of the Leftists may have drawn their inspiration from Friedman’s own self-righteous harping against his favorite target (Israeli settlements), he may be as much a part of the problem as a remedy.

My own assessment is that it is a time for well-intentioned hyper-actives in the White House and elsewhere to redirect themselves toward another mission for the next few years or decades. I will never say never, but it appears to me that now is not the time to engineer a breakthrough for the sake of the Holy Land.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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