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Palestinian doctor to pursue plan to bring injured children to Canada

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish says he won't give up his efforts to bring 100 gravely wounded children from Gaza to Canadian hospitals

Published: Updated:

A Toronto-based Palestinian doctor says he will not give up his efforts to bring 100 gravely wounded children from the Gaza Strip to Canadian hospitals, after the government nixed his initiative.

“I’ll write to every human being,” including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, associate professor of public health at the University of Toronto, told Al Arabiya News.

“I’ll write to everyone in the Arab countries, in Europe, everywhere, urging them to adopt this initiative,” he added.

The Heal 100 Kids initiative was first floated when Abuelaish published an appeal in the left-leaning Toronto Star on July 30.

“This initiative is a gift,” said the three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, “and I want to present it to honor my beloved daughters, who were killed the same way these children are being wounded. All of them were killed for no reason.”

A father of six daughters and two sons, Abuelaish lost three daughters: Besan, 20, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 14, as well as his niece Nour, 14, on Jan. 16, 2009, during an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

His proposal was shot down when a spokesperson for the Canadian foreign minister offered the government’s alternative on Aug. 7.

Canadian Palestinians blame the failure of Abuelaish’s initiative on the local Jewish lobby, which rejects the claim.

Israel and Hamas agreed on Tuesday to an open-ended ceasefire, halting a seven-week war that killed more than 2,140 Palestinians and wounded more than 11,000.

The United Nations says nearly a quarter of the dead and a third of the wounded are children.

In his public plea, Abuelaish wrote: “There are many severely wounded children in Gaza, and the hospitals and health-care personnel there are woefully ill-equipped to treat them all. I would like to see our world-class Toronto hospitals offer to take in 100 of the most seriously wounded.”

On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and five civilians were killed.

Liberals vs. Conservatives

At first, Abuelaish’s initiative received support from famous hospitals in Liberal-governed Ontario, including the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, and Kingston General Hospital.

On Aug. 5, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins approved the plan. The same day, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and the leader of the official opposition in the federal parliament, Thomas Mulcair, showed support.

Two days later, the Conservative federal government offered Canadian medical expertise and supplies to the children.

Adam Hodge, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, said it would be safer for the victims to remain in Gaza than be exposed to “medical risks” en route to Canada.

“Those who want their support to have the greatest impact must recognize the importance of ensuring innocent victims receive the medical support they need close to their families and loved ones, and that includes avoiding the medical risks of being transported overseas,” Hodge said in the Toronto Star.

Abuelaish said this approach would not work. “For more than six years, the Gaza Strip has been under siege. The health infrastructure is completely destroyed, and [Canadian medical teams] can’t deal with the overwhelming number of severely wounded children.”

Political, not medical

Palestinian activists in Toronto slammed the federal government.

“It’s political risks, rather than medical risks,” said Nazih Khatatba, a board member of Palestine House, the most influential Palestinian organization in the Greater Toronto Area.

Khatatba said he thought the Harper government wanted to thwart pro-Palestinian publicity that could be expected upon the arrival of the children.

The government “wanted to avoid the ‘risk’ of bringing in seriously injured children, who might speak to local media and unveil the truth about what’s going on on the ground,” he added.

“That was the real risk” to “the Canadian government, the Jewish lobby and the state of Israel.”

Khatatba, who is the editor of the Toronto-based, Arabic biweekly Meshwar, said the Jewish lobby in Canada managed to “distort facts,” describing the conflict as being between Israel and Hamas, not between Israel and all Palestinians.

All Palestinian factions participate in the “resistance against Israel,” he added.

Symbolic, not substantive

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the principal advocate for a number of Canadian Jewish organizations, say they have not intervened to stop Abuelaish’s initiative.

“I categorically reject the assertion that the Jewish community is in any way responsible for the government’s decision in this matter,” CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel said.

He said the notion of bringing children from Gaza to Canada for treatment appears to be “more symbolic than substantive,” and would pose significant logistical challenges.

“Israel regularly provides Gaza’s children with access to world-class medical treatment in Israeli hospitals a short drive from patients’ homes, rather than having them travel half-way around the world for the same care,” Fogel said.

Khatatba, who was a director at the Culture Ministry in Ramallah, said although Canadian Palestinians support Abuelaish’s initiative, he is not sad that the federal government stopped it.

“Let’s be frank: do we need Canada to treat 100 Palestinian children? No. Palestinian children can receive treatment in any country,” Khatatba said.

“I’m even happy for the rejection because I don’t want this government, which staunchly supports Israel, to endow charity to us.”

Palestine House sent $100,000 in medical donations to Gaza this month, he added.

Insistent

Abuelaish voiced hope that Ottawa would adopt his proposal as a humanitarian, not political move.
“I’m sure... Harper has a heart and has the nerve to say this is a Canadian humanitarian initiative. This is about Canada, about Canadian norms and values.”

Abuelaish arrived in Canada in July 2009, and is now a permanent resident. Born in 1955 in the poor Gaza refugee camp of Jabalia, he was the first Palestinian doctor to receive a staff position at an Israeli hospital. The infertility specialist has delivered both Palestinian and Israeli babies.

Abuelaish is the author of the book “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey,” where he outlines his personal story and approach to peace.

“If the initiative doesn’t happen I’d feel sad, but I think I can tell my daughters, ‘I tried, I did my best, but I’ll never give up or forget’.”