A Gaza doctor’s tragedy, brought to the stage by an Israeli soldier who was serving nearby

A combat reservist who served in Operation Cast Lead, exactly four years ago, has dramatized the life story of Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost three daughters and a niece to IDF fire. The play is on now at Israel’s national theater

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Shay Pitowsky after a performance of 'I Shall Not Hate in Tel Aviv' (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)
Shay Pitowsky after a performance of 'I Shall Not Hate in Tel Aviv' (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Shay Pitowsky, a reservist, was called to war in the usual way: He was summoned by a cold, metallic voice on the phone.

The recording asked for his army ID number and then told him he was being drafted in an emergency call-up. He was to report immediately to his elite, anti-tank paratroop reserve unit.

This was December, 2008. At the time, Pitowsky was in his final year of a degree in drama and education studies. Feeling, after eight years of rocket fire from Gaza, that Israel had no choice but to respond with force, he threw his clothes into a bag and reported for duty.

The preparations for a ground incursion into Gaza, as part of Operation Cast Lead, seemed surreal. Parents were allowed to visit the base. Pitowsky’s mother ambled in and out of parked armed personnel carriers. Israeli rock star Ninette performed for the troops. The men danced shirtless. Rabbis and religious NCOs handed out books of Psalms and words of encouragement. Female soldiers distributed letters and pictures drawn by schoolchildren.

Sitting in a café adjacent to the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv late one night last week, Pitowsky was somewhat reluctant to discuss the operation itself, but said it had impacted him immensely. Further, it led to his decision to adapt and direct a play about the tragedy that befell Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, an infertility specialist from Gaza who had worked in Israel for years — delivering scores of Israeli babies during his residency at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba — only to lose three of his daughters to Israeli tank fire on January 16, 2009, Day 20 of Operation Cast Lead.

The loss was documented in real time on Israeli television. Shlomi Eldar, Channel 10’s Arab affairs correspondent, took a live call from Abuelaish, breaking into the evening news roundup. The ob-gyn from Gaza, the first Palestinian to complete an Israeli medical residency and a father of eight who had recently lost his wife to sickness, rasped through Eldar’s speakerphone: “I want to save them. Their heads are not in place. What did we do to them? Ya rabi, ya Allah, what did we do? What’s left? What’s left? My girls! They’ve been killed.”

After initial claims from an Israel Broadcasting Authority reporter that the fire had come from a barrage of Palestinian Kassam rockets, the IDF Spokesperson’s Office acknowledged on February 4, 2009, that a Golani infantry force, under fire and believing it had seen Hamas surveillance “spotters” in the vicinity of Abuelaish’s home, had radioed in a request for tank fire. The IDF, the report said, was “saddened by the harm caused” to the family, but contended that “the forces’ action and the decision to fire towards the building were reasonable.”

For Israelis, the deaths of Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 14, along with their cousin Noor, put a face to Palestinian suffering during Operation Cast Lead.

Pitowsky, at war, did not hear about the tragedy until later. He was holed up in an apartment in Ein Atatra, in the northernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Speaking to Nurit Kedar in a documentary film made about Operation Cast Lead, “Concrete,” he described entering a house that had just been abandoned by regular troops. The soldiers had used the family’s clothes to cover the windows. They had scrawled eyeglasses and mustaches on the family’s photos. And they had defecated on the bathroom floor — either out of necessity (there was no water in the building, and they dared not go outside) or out of spite.

During his first days in Gaza, Pitowsky was preoccupied with survival. There were alerts about mines and anti-tank fire and female terrorists wearing explosive vests. At night, he said, his team opened fire at indeterminate targets. At one point his officer asked him to come forward and fire a rocket-launched grenade through a dark window into a building near the one they were occupying. He complied, he said, even though he had no idea what was inside.

Israeli tanks at the staging ground outside Gaza on December 29, 2008, the third day of Operation Cast Lead (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)
Israeli tanks at the staging ground outside Gaza on December 29, 2008, the third day of Operation Cast Lead (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash 90)

But Pitowsky, who described their mission as “holding the street,” also looked out at the abandoned neighborhood, inhaled the smell of the charred chickens and the burnt feathers, watched the wandering dogs and the starved horses, and began to think about the lives of the absent people in whose home he was staying.

The house belonged to a well-to-do family. Their presence, through the inanimate objects they left behind — the chandelier and the sofas, the children’s rocking horse and the little writing table — wormed into his mind.

“We turned the house into an outpost,” he said, “but after a while I started to think about them, and their response when they came back.”

On January 20, 2009, after seven days in Gaza, the team left the house and the Gaza Strip. Pitowsky wrote a letter, ran it by his buddies for authorization, and then posted it on the front door.

“To the family that lives here,” he wrote in Hebrew. “We are sorry for the mess and destruction that your house has endured… As soldiers who have families, the last thing we wanted was to be here. We embarked on this war after eight years of rocket fire on our country; we were left with no choice but to protect our citizens. We are sorry for the damage caused to you and your people. War is brutal and awful and to our dismay not always humane. We hope that one day peace between us will be attained and we can live in this difficult land together, in happiness, in love and in quiet.”

Many kindergartens and other sanctuaries in Gaza were used to hide weapons; many were not (Photo credit: Thair Alhassany/ Flash 90)
Pitowsky spent a week holed up in the empty home of a Gaza family. Pictured: A kindergarten damaged in the fighting (Photo credit: Thair Alhassany/ Flash 90)

The letter, published later in Yedioth Ahronoth, ends: “We feel the pain of your circumstances.” It is signed “Ha-miluimnikim” — the reserve soldiers.

Pitowsky returned to Israel to a refurbished home. His wife and mother had painted the house and hung up new shelves. His mother bought him a giant plasma-screen television. “I love TV,” he said in the documentary film, but the sight of it conjured images of the Gaza family returning to a broken neighborhood and the “smell of soldiers” in their beds.

He joined a group called Combatants for Peace, where former fighters from both sides of the conflict strive to find common ground. For the Palestinians he met, he said, it was the first time they had seen an Israeli without a helmet.

In 2011, while Pitowsky was directing the Young Habima Company, the artistic director of Israel’s national theater, Ilan Ronen, who knew Pitowsky and knew the mark that the operation had left on him, asked him if he wanted to write and direct a play based on the memoir of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.

The play that resulted tells a wrenching story, eye-opening, riveting — not without tinges of hope, but shadowed throughout by the loss of young life. If the deaths of Abuelaish’s three daughters and niece pierced the Israeli consciousness more acutely than did any of the other Palestinian casualties in a conflict overwhelmingly supported by the rocket-scarred Israeli public, then this dramatization appears to constitute a kind of catharsis for a psychologically battered combat soldier, one plainly designed to shatter Israeli complacencies.

“It’s so sad that, between Israelis and Palestinians, there’s a kind of war of pain over who suffers more,” said Pitowsky: To sympathize with Palestinians, he suggested, has become almost unthinkable in Israeli society. If so, it’s a taboo his play emphatically shatters.

The play

Pitowsky, who has yet to meet Abuelaish in person, read his memoir, “I Shall not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity.” He then chose what he called “headlines” from the 250-page book, each one serving as the departure point for a monologue. With close to a dozen of them completed, he strung the beads together into a story.

“Sometimes it’s like with a psychologist,” he said of the process of adaptation. “He makes order out of many incidents and builds the narrative.”

The book, as opposed to the play, begins with Abuelaish’s recollection of a day at the beach: Walking from the family’s small plot of land to the shore, his eight children darting in and out of the surf, the smells and sights of his hometown, the old men with their worry beads and the “thick, unrelenting oppression that touches every single aspect of life in Gaza.”

But Pitowsky, who had friends tell him they were “not interested” in seeing the play, fearing it would be too one-sided or left-wing — he later also had a threatening phone call after Channel 2 reported on his work — knew that for an Israeli audience he would have to first humanize the protagonist.

And so, Ghassan Abbas, an Israeli Arab actor at Habima, begins “I Shall Not Hate” by standing above the stage, at the top of a flight of stairs, bidding the audience good evening and introducing himself as Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian from Jabalya: “Nothing I can do about it,” he says. “I didn’t choose it. If I could have, maybe I would have chosen Switzerland or Australia.”

Ghassan Abbas as Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish (Photo credit: Gerard Alon/ courtesy of Habima)
Ghassan Abbas as Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish (Photo credit: Gerard Alon/ courtesy of Habima)

“Abuelaish” talks about being neighbors with Israel, about Jabalya being a mere 86 kilometers from Tel Aviv and about being the fertility doctor “who may have delivered you.” He shares an inside joke about the leaky roof at Habima — “is that the work of Arabs?” he asks. He hesitates before saying that Jabalya is very … “nice,” and then talks about his life in Israel, in Ramat Gan, near the zoo, which reminds him that in Gaza, too, there are “zebras” — white donkeys with painted black stripes, because a real zebra, he tells the audience, would cost 15,000 shekels to deliver through the tunnels. His opening monologue also goes to the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He says he thirsts to return to his family’s land in Israel — which his father tells him is nearby, within view, and on which corn, figs and wheat grow. “There is a farm there now,” he points and says, channeling his father’s voice: “The farm of Arik Sharon.” The use of that name, and the awe and revulsion with which he speaks it, bonds him to at least some members of the audience.

Indeed, the play, which Abuelaish called “the story of my life” in a Skype interview with The Times of Israel, deals far more with the man, and his plight as a Palestinian, than with the tragedy that befalls him.

As a child in Jabalya, the Abuelaish character tells us in the one-man show, his grade school teacher gives him an eraser, which he describes as the first ray of light in his life. When he loses it, the teacher tells him to take his words and wear them like an earring through his ear: “The only way out of this cursed place is if you study,” the teacher says.

At age 7, Abuelaish wins a Koran recitation tournament and is awarded two-and-a-half Egyptian pounds — his father’s monthly salary. He loses the money, apparently to a pickpocket. The following day his mother informs him that he must start to work after school. “Izzeldin,” she scolds: “Before the mouth recites, it must eat.”

He hauls bags, picks oranges, builds chicken coops and collects cow dung — his mother imploring him to “work more, work more.”

At 15, wanting to concentrate on his studies, he takes a month-long position as a worker at a Jewish family farm in Israel, his first exposure to Israelis. He is horrified by the dog, Boozi, who lives in the house and brushes up against his legs. The food is foreign and disappointing. Invited to a Friday night dinner, he says yes to chicken soup but finds no meat in the broth, only dumplings, and remarks, “No wonder the Jews are violent — they are frustrated.” But he returns to the refugee camp and tells his father that the Jews are good people who “have the same God as us.”

Shortly thereafter he sees Israeli bulldozers reduce his house to rubble — for which he again cites Ariel Sharon — his father shriveling like the grape vines left behind in his old home, and his brother, Nur, turning toward extremism and departing for Lebanon. But he fences himself off from hunger and violent nationalism with books and, after high school, is one of four students accepted to medical school in Cairo — his send-off attended by people from across Gaza, “like man’s first flight to the moon.”

Abuelaish goes on to marry a “soft and luminescent” Palestinian woman, fathers eight children, works in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, trains at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba and at Harvard’s school of public health and toys with the notion of a position at the University of Toronto on the eve of war in December 2008 – a mere three months after his wife Nadia dies.

Throughout his married life he is torn between his home, where there is little room to advance in his profession, and his career. This tension is illustrated on stage, where, other than three pairs of girl’s shoes which exert a bleak gravitational pull throughout, there are just two other props — a suitcase and a model of a house, the two competing forces in his life.

The Abuelaish family house, as depicted in the play (Photo credit: Gerard Alon/ courtesy: Habima)
The Abuelaish family house, as depicted in the play (Photo credit: Gerard Alon/ courtesy: Habima)

Actor Ghassan Abbas, in an interview, said that the doctor’s story — poverty, labor at an early age and the tension between success abroad and maintaining roots at home — was his story, too. “For every Palestinian, wherever he is, his home is in his suitcase,” he said.

Pitowsky acknowledged the tension. The most quietly poignant scenes in the riveting, 70-minute play, which has no intermission and never lags, are the ones in which Abbas cradles the model home, showing with his beefy hands where the doctor ensconced his four brothers and their families, his mother and his own wife and eight children — a sort of fortress of sanity that is later violated.

Another gripping scene chronicles the trip Abuelaish is forced to make from Brussels to the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, where he worked and where Nadia was being treated for leukemia. Carrying the tattered suitcase in his hand, he stomps across the stage, trailing pellets that slip from within as he sketches out the route he must travel as she expires: from Belgium to Amman, Jordan, and from there to the Allenby Bridge, to a Shin Bet questioning, to a roadblock outside Jerusalem, where his papers are ripped up, to Jericho, and from there to Bethlehem, and finally, after a brief incarceration, to Tel Aviv and then to Nadia, who has already faded from consciousness.

Three months later, after Abuelaish had decided to move his family to Canada, Operation Cast Lead began.


Today Izzeldin Abuelaish lives in Toronto. He is an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. His two oldest surviving children, Dalal and Shatha, who was gravely wounded by the tank fire, are studying engineering at the university. The others, Muhammad, Raffah and Abdullah, are in high school and grade school. Their acclimation to the country has been smooth. On their first day in Toronto his daughter went to play at a neighbor’s house, Abuelaish said, and within hours he and the girl’s father had decided to take down the fence that divides their yards.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish (Photo credit: courtesy: Izzeldin Abuelaish)
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish (Photo credit: courtesy: Izzeldin Abuelaish)

In an interview, the doctor emphasized his repudiation of revenge and his desire for justice. He likened Palestinian behavior to that of a trapped cat — violent and lashing out — and attributed it to a fundamental lack of freedom. In order to fix that imbalance, he said, the patient, Israel, “has to accept that it is sick and needs treatment.”

This is why, he said, while visiting Gaza and Israel in 2011 he met with a veteran Habima producer, Rut Tonn, and agreed to sell the rights for the play.

At the time, he did not know that a reservist who had served elsewhere in the Cast Lead conflict that took the lives of his daughters would be adapting his life story for the stage. “I only learned about that later,” he said.

Pleased with the script and with the actor who plays him on stage, Abuelaish also praised Pitowsky’s integrity. He “did something and learned from it,” the doctor said.

He was referring to Pitowsky’s failure to report for combat this year.

Like the other members of his reserve unit, Pitowsky received another mechanized emergency call-up this November, as Israel marshaled its forces during Operation Pillar of Defense. He answered the phone and punched in his ID number, but did not pack a bag.

“I had asked to see a psychologist after the last operation,” he said. The army did not arrange a meeting with a mental health officer, but nor did his commander follow up, as is customary, after the mechanized summons.

This might sound strange to foreign ears. The army has a list of soldiers. It calls them in a time of need. If you are on the list, you must come, and if you do not, you stand trial. But at 36 years old, reserve duty is essentially voluntary. Anyone can produce a note from a doctor attesting to a bad back or sore knees.

After the 2009 operation, Pitowsky’s officer called and discussed the impact the fighting had on him. They spoke several times, Pitowsky said, discussing his decision to join Combatants for Peace and its implications for his service. The officer found the group online.

“He looked at the website,” Pitowsky said, “and understood the spirit of things.”

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