He responds: You and I are two masked authors and two masked witnesses
I say: How is this my concern? I’m a spectator
He says: No spectators at chasm’s door … and no
one is neutral here. And you must choose
your part in the end
In Palestine, neutrality is impossible. Not for individuals, not for doctors, and, perhaps, not even for medicine. As authors of memoirs, Dr. Izzaldin Abuelaish and Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh struggle with this impossibility and testify to their experiences as Palestinians under Israeli rule. They bear a collective act of witnessing for their people. Both authors present their memoirs as doctors’ stories, drawing on their medical profession to gain credibility and visibility. Their testimonies are medical voices that at once recount the suffering and loss endured by Palestinian people, and struggle, each in its own way, to negotiate the values associated with being a reliable witness. They speak the language of medicine, and in doing so evoke both the pain of loss and the fraught relationship of medicine to politics. Both write with and against the perception that the hospital is a neutral, apolitical space: they simultaneously refuse and embrace the idea that the doctor eschews politics. By doing this, they reveal the tenuous nature of the doctor’s position, the implicit requirements of public witnessing, and the speed with which our own ethics come into question in crises of politics and faith.
Dr. Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician from the Gaza Strip describes his experience as a father and a doctor in moments of immense loss:
I was trying to sort out who else was injured. Shehab had shrapnel in his head and back. I was trying to check his wounds as I held Shatha in my arms, when I looked up to see Mohammed, and was stricken by the thought that he’d just lost his mother and now his sisters were gone. I did not realize that tears were streaming down my face, all I know is that my thirteen-year-old son saw the state I was in and made me a precious gift. He told me not to be sad, that his sisters were happy and with their mother. He meant this; it came from the depths of his faith.
Dr. Abuelaish was trained in Cairo, completed residency, and worked as a senior researcher in Israel. During the 2008-2009 Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, his house suffered two direct hits from Israeli tanks and three of his eight children and his niece were killed. In his memoir I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on The Road to Peace and Human Dignity, Abuelaish tells his story of growing up in a Gazan refugee camp and of becoming a doctor against all odds. He describes his experiences practicing medicine as a Palestinian physician in the Israeli health system and narrates the tragic loss of his beloved girls.
If Abuelaish’s medical sphere is emblematic of life and humanity, Kanaaneh’s health field is a space of oppression, degradation, and even death.
While insisting that the hospital is “a place where humanity can be discovered, where people are treated without racism and as equals,” in two cases, Abuelaish describes encounters that polluted the purity of the hospital’s political hygiene. In one case, a patient’s husband blamed Abuelaish for killing his baby: “he blamed me for his wife’s condition because he saw me first and foremost as an Arab.” In another case, a Palestinian suicide bomber targeted the hospital in which he worked. In both cases, Abuelaish depicts the two intruders as irrational: the Jewish father is disturbed by the death of his child and the Palestinian suicide bomber is characterized as “brainwashed.” Stemming from ignorance and irrationality, these breaches of the neutrality of the medical practice were to be treated—cured—by doctors, by educating the irresponsible polluters. In an open letter to an Israeli newspaper after the attack, Abuelaish hurried to assert the benevolent nature of the hospital and the Palestinian children being treated in it. He stressed that “to plan an operation of this kind against a hospital is an act of evil.” As for the raging Jewish father, he was taken to the office of the head of the hospital who then “pointed at the shelves full of medical textbooks and said, ‘What Dr. Abuelaish did came from these textbooks.’” Through the values of science and humanism, medicine’s neutrality could be safely restored.
Dr. Kanaaneh, a citizen of Israel, was trained at Harvard University and practiced medicine in his home village of Arrabeh in the Galilee and as a Public Health Doctor in the Israeli Ministry of Health. His memoir A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel is a collection of thirty years of diary entries in which he describes his interactions with Palestinian citizens with whom he lived and Jewish Israeli state officials amongst whom he worked. If Abuelaish’s medical sphere is emblematic of life and humanity, Kanaaneh’s health field is a space of oppression, degradation, and even death:
Israel’s intentional neglect of the health and well-being of its Arab citizens amounts to the intentional liquidation of many people, especially children … To put it bluntly, the intention to exclude a group strictly on racial grounds from the state’s development plans and willfully neglect its health needs amounts to another form of genocide. I realize how serious that allegation is. But, as I said, the facts are there and I am in an ugly mood.
As opposed to Abuelaish’s view of medicine as a sanctuary from everyday discrimination, Kanaaneh’s account is focused on the injustice and inequality in the “supposedly neutral field of health care.” Kanaaneh testifies to the prejudice imbued in patient-physician interactions, and he describes his Jewish colleagues’ predisposition to take most of their “oriental” patients (Arabs or Sephardic Jews) to be imposters faking their illnesses. Health professionals do not operate according to scientific knowledge stored on “shelves full of medical textbooks” or act only with good intentions; for Kanaaneh they “willfully neglect” those who rely on them for help, caring, and curing. They do not “see the patient,” as Abuelaish claims, but see only nationality and ethnicity. The Hippocratic primum non nocere is replaced by a hypocritical “intentional liquidation” and genocide.
Abuelaish’s assertion that “disease doesn’t know borders” seems almost offensive to Kanaaneh, who angrily questions and criticizes such assumptions: “The polio virus is unlikely to be racially prejudiced, despite its seeming forty-fold predilection for Arab children.” Challenging healthcare’s supposedly neutral status, he is amazed that “no one ever argues with a doctor.” At the same time, he remains fully aware of the advantages such a neutrality presents, and at times he strategically uses these assumptions to protect himself against Israeli suspicions. Kanaaneh’s insistence that “the facts are there” implies that his critique is grounded in the values of medical neutrality and that the perversion of these values remains confined to the context in question: “you would think epidemiology and genetics are neutral sciences. Yet in this country, they are tainted by racial politics.” Kanaaneh, much like Abuelaish, constantly negotiates, questions, and restores the neutrality of medicine. Neither testimony presents the medical field as a fully objective and scientific source of authority that can then be invoked by an “objective” witness. At the same time, both authors refuse to present healthcare as totally immersed in power relations. They draw on their medical authority to negotiate a detached, educated, rational, and well-founded point of view while showing concern and comradeship with their struggling fellow-nationals.
While Abuelaish’s account has received widespread and sustained attention in Israel, Kanaaneh’s testimony has gone relatively unnoticed.
Both doctors witness a tragedy, a searing conflict with medical, racial, and religious implications. Likewise, both work with the language of medical neutrality to express their frustration and sorrow. Yet such a vocabulary does not guarantee an audience. Abuelaish’s testimony draws on his belonging to a community of medical professionals and the profession’s collective ethos of political neutrality. Kanaaneh, however, undermines these very assumptions when it comes to the oppressive and discriminatory practice of medicine in Israel. While his story is a doctor’s story, he sees doctors and public health officials as very much enmeshed in their social and political context. He details the neglect of Palestinians’ health in Israel and attacks medicine’s pretense of universal humanitarianism directly. He, however, sees his life as “dedicated to saving humanity through serving my people.”
This position, which questions medical neutrality while emphasizing a specific identity, plays a role in the Jewish-Israeli disregard of his bearing witness: while Abuelaish’s account has received widespread and sustained attention in Israel, Kanaaneh’s testimony has gone relatively unnoticed. Abuelaish’s explicit denunciations of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and the state’s murderous attacks on his family and people gain visibility as they are told from the supposedly politically neutral position of the doctor. Kanaaneh’s critique, on the other hand, gets “turned off,” as he said in our conversation, as he questions the neutrality of the ground from which he gives testimony. For Abuelaish’s Jewish-Israeli audience, his “inside” position as a Palestinian bearing witness to personal and collective suffering is in discordance with his “outside” position as a disinterested professional. This tension between his Palestinian-ness and his doctor-ness remains present through the different phases of his account’s circulation. It challenges his audience, amplifies his voice, and ensures the acceptance of his story.
Medicine—and science as a whole—presents itself as bias-free, neutral space. Yet in wartime, the weakness of this view becomes clear. As Abuelaish and Kanaaneh both insist, the medical field hosts its own array of crimes and prejudices, whether one considers them a reflection of proper science or not. The perception of objectivity, however, remains a critical tool (and target) in the two doctors retelling of their experiences. They discuss it because it is a central aspect of medical practice. But also because it carries a more disquieting power: it forms a key part of the testimony of the “reliable witness,” without which, one cannot be heard.
Guy Shalev is a Ph.D. student in medical and cultural anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation is about Palestinian physicians in the Israeli health system.
Mahmoud Darwish, “I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theater,” in The Butterfly’s Burden, trans. Fady Joudah (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2006).
Izzeldin Abuelaish, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity (New York: Walker and Company, 2011), 178.
Hatim Kanaaneh, A Doctor in Galilee: The Story and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel (Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2008), 121-122.
Hatim Kanaaneh, interviewed by author, Galilee, 11 June 2013.
Image of Gaza from Flickr via Joe Catron