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Profile Palestinian Doctor in Beersheba Does His Part for Cause of Peace

December 24, 2001
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Every week, some of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s neighbors beg him to carry them across the Gaza border to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba.

Abuelaish scrutinizes all requests, examining how desperate the patients’ conditions are, whether they come recommended and whether they’ll be able to afford treatment — let alone receive a permit from Israel to cross the border.

He doesn’t want to be embarrassed, Abuelaish says, by making a reservation for someone who can’t follow through. An average medical check-up costs $75, he noted — though the Palestinian Authority ultimately is responsible for the payment.

The first Palestinian doctor on staff at Soroka University Hospital, Abuelaish, 46, wears his badge with pride, and uses his post to do what he can to foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

"Peace is achieved one person at a time," Abuelaish said, and Soroka has given him the chance to develop friendships through humanitarian work.

For the three years before the Palestinian intifada broke out in Sept. 2000, Abuelaish was an unofficial peace envoy for the region, hosting 40 or 50 Israelis in his Gaza home and the homes of friends one weekend every month.

The weekends consisted of tours of the Jabaliya refugee camp and Gaza City, and culminated in long dinners where Israelis and Palestinians would inevitably shout and fight.

What began with arguments almost always ended with the exchange of telephone numbers and the forging of friendships, Abuelaish says.

After 15 months of violence, however, things are different.

"Believe me, everything has been destroyed. No one speaks of cooperation. Everyone is thinking of themselves," he says.

In addition, the Israeli government no longer allows Israelis to enter Palestinian-ruled areas because their safety can’t be guaranteed.

Abuelaish was raised in the Jabaliya camp. He still lives there today, in a single house with 30 members of his family, including his mother, his five brothers and their families. His three sisters live in Gaza with their husbands’ families.

After completing medical school in Egypt, Abuelaish went to Saudi Arabia for further studies in obstetrics and gynecology.

He then began at Soroka as a volunteer consultant with Palestinian patients, and was hired on a work-study fellowship in Ob/Gyn in 1993.

Abuelaish was in New York recently to speak at a symposium Soroka sponsored, on coping with terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Abuelaish hopes to win a fellowship to study fetal and maternal health in the United States, returning to the Middle East with additional skills. Already, he works and teaches informally on weekends in Palestinian schools and clinics.

During the first several weeks of the intifada, Abuelaish was unable to reach his job. Later, he asked Palestinian friends if he should return to Soroka. Most are proud of his work, he said, and encouraged him to continue.

When he returned to Soroka he received a warm homecoming, and one Israeli colleague told Abuelaish he would give his life to protect him from danger.

Asked if Israeli patients ever hesitate to be treated by a Palestinian doctor, Abuelaish smiles broadly.

"Never," he says.

He also makes no distinction between patients.

"Any patient for me is like one of my relatives. She is my mother, my sister," he said, talking of his duty to give each newborn the same hope for health and peace.

Abuelaish is fiercely loyal to Soroka. As a Palestinian representing the hospital, he feels an added responsibility to earn each patient’s trust by showing that he is friendly and receptive.

The hospital has returned that trust to him.

When Abuelaish’s sister-in-law was diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition after a Caesarian section performed in Gaza, Abuelaish called Soroka. Within ten minutes, a reservation was made for her.

When he arrived at the checkpoint, the guards wanted to know why Abuelaish was late: An ambulance was already waiting.

Abuelaish already has decided who is the next patient he’ll help across the border — a young Palestinian girl with a constant tingling in her fingers.

The girl’s father took her to Egypt for treatment. When no one there could help, he had someone try to cut a nerve in the girl’s wrist, hoping to block the sensation from reaching her fingers.

Abuelaish winces at the thought of the child’s scar.

"She’s a beautiful girl," he says.

Abuelaish is dismayed at the way relations between Israelis and Palestinians have deteriorated after peace once seemed so close. Each side needs to stop focusing on its pain and suffering and stop blaming the other, he said, concentrating instead on saving lives and making peace.

"I want to close and open my eyes and be where we were a year ago, liking each other and speaking with each other," he says. "I hope that time will return, and we have to learn from this" period.

And what of his own role in the peace process.

"I am not a politician," Abuelaish says, "just a doctor trying to fill the gap."

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