Krakow Film Festival 2024

From tragedy to will

CONFLICT / A Palestinian doctor's heartbreaking loss fuels his mission for peace, emphasizing the need for compassion and unity in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

A film portrait of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish – a Palestinian doctor working in an Israeli hospital whose three daughters were killed in the Israeli shelling in 2008, ends with the start of the current new chapter of human annihilation in Gaza. Despite this, the film strongly resonates with what is happening before our eyes, adding a wider historical and humanistic perspective to the events unfolding in the Gaza territory, which the World Health Organization declared to be a death zone. It is a call to «humanise, not politicise» the approach to the conflict, to focus on how to avoid human suffering and to secure a peaceful life for Palestinians and Israelis, whose future is «deeply intertwined.»

I Shall Note Hate Tal Barda
I Shall Not Hate, a film by Tal Barda

According to illness

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish was born and raised in the Jabalia Refugee Camp in Gaza, housing generations of Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948’s Nakba. He and his family lived through prevalent #poverty and deprivation, the food stamps, regular dislocations and dispossessions, unemployment, hopelessness, aimlessness and despair, and since 2007 – the total blockade of movement of goods and people. The suffering in Gaza has been transmitted from one generation to the other in a chain of events that never improve the situation but make it worse and worse. Very early on, he understood that the only way out of this unbearable reality was through education, and he decided to become a medical doctor. He studied first at Cairo University and later in London, to return to Gaza in the late 1980s to work as a children’s medical doctor in his clinic and to establish his own family, which by 2002 consisted of six beautiful and healthy daughters and two sons.

Working as a children’s doctor in the Jabalia Refugee Camp made him not only face illness but also a lack of adequate tools and medicines, which he found on the other side of the wall, in Israel, at the hospital in Be’er Sheva. The Israeli doctors helped Dr Abuelaish’s underprivileged patients from Gaza and, with time, started to collaborate with him regularly – he was employed in the Israeli hospital and became a «human messenger» who treated the patients «not according to their background and nationality or religion, but according to their disease.» In late 2008, the situation changed yet again with the war that started in the wake of the Hamas taking over power in Gaza. Heavy Israeli air strikes, naval boats, and tank and artillery shelling pounded all over North Gaza – the schools, mosques, streets, and apartment buildings. Until the fateful day of 16 January, 2009, Dr Abuelaish’s extended family was hiding in their house – 25 children and their parents. It was the day when a tank came, stopped nearby, and started shelling of the building. Four little girls, Bessan, Mayar, Aya, and Noor, were hit instantly in one of the rooms and died, decapitated on-site. The next missile killed further family members.

It is a call to «humanise, not politicise» the approach to the conflict

Emigration to Canada

The attack and death of Dr Abuelaish’s daughters have been captured by the Israeli TV live coverage of the events at his house. It led to admitting entry for ambulances into Gaza and securing help for some of the wounded. It also prompted the Israeli government’s unilateral ceasefire. Surrounded by the Israeli media, Dr Abuelaish transformed his grief and tragedy into a resounding call for compassion, empathy, dignity, equality and peaceful co-existence: «I shall not hate. […] Hatred is a disease. And it’s contagious. It spreads.» His story hit a nerve in the world media, which reported extensive news coverage of the destroyed house. It also sparked heated discussions on the ways the Israeli army operates in the Gaza Strip. Eight months later, Dr. Abuelaish emigrated with his children to Canada, leaving his extended family and the tragic strife for existence in Gaza behind. In Canada, he established a programme to bring the wounded children from Gaza to Ontario for medical treatment and the Daughter for Life Foundation – a scholarship program for Palestinian and Israeli girls at the Hebrew University and the Gaza University.

I Shall Note Hate Tal Barda
I Shall Not Hate, a film by Tal Barda

A path forward?

I Shall Not Hate uses a wide array of stylistic tools – archival footage of the Jabalia Refugee Camp at different points in time, warm-coloured painted animation, Israeli and world media news coverage, interviews, and home video movies – in order to construct a flowing and engaging narrative focused on a charismatic character and his fight for dignity and a right to live. At the same time, his personal story is seamlessly interwoven into a wider canvas of political events, which form the history of Gaza and its people. Next, US Presidents give statements and comments on the unfolding tragedy, which none apparently has the power to stop. And again and again, the words fail in the face of ongoing trauma. As Barack Obama puts it: «The world looks at a conflict that is grinded on and on and on and sees nothing but stalemate.» Dr Abuelaish’s fight for justice and apology for taking innocent lives cut across this slumber with a loud voice reminding that «Bessan, Mayar, Aya, and Noor and others, they are not just numbers! And will never be numbers!» […] «Recognise our human face. The truth is that we are victims.»

Transformation of one’s pain and tragedy into will, an urge to help others and a wish to stop the humanitarian disaster unfolding all over again for nearly 100 years goes across numerous voices full of pain, fear, and enmity. Refusing the hatred and vengeance, which take only further lives of the next generations without bringing resolution to the conflict, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish attempts to carve a path forward, calling for courageous leaders able to set an agreement between the two countries. Hopefully, he will not stand alone.

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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