A Doctor in Galilee: A physician's struggle for community health and a people's survival

A rare glimpse into the dire health situation of Palestinians living in Israel, Hatim Kanaaneh's memoir - "A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel" - reveals the politics of health care and community development affecting the Arab minority in a Jewish-only state. MENASSAT's Tania Tabar interviewed the author earlier this week to discuss Kanaaneh's work.
The cover of Hatim Kanaaneh's memoir, "A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel," published by Pluto Press (2008).

BEIRUT, April 2, 2009 (MENASSAT) - In his memoir, “A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel," Hatim Kanaaneh tells the story – the hardship, the irony, the internal struggle - of being part of the Arab minority living in Israel.

Known as the ’48 Palestinians, or those “of the inside," Kanaaneh's narrative provides a rare glimpse into the history of Palestinians that remained in Israel (historic Palestine) after the state was formed.

He also produces a compelling record of his experience working for the Israeli Ministry of Health, establishing the NGO, The Galilee Society and eventually founding a child rehabilitation center in his village in the north of Israel, Arrabeh.

What connects the narrative threads is the Palestinian struggle for land.

Born in 1937 in Arrabeh, Palestine, Kanaaneh’s family were one of the 150,000 Palestinians – now numbering 1.3 million - who remained on their land when the state of Israel was created in May 1948. 

The first person in his village to study abroad, Kanaaneh obtained two Harvard degrees in medicine and public health, and decided to return with his Hawaiian wife Didi to his village near Galilee.  

In his attempt to provide much-needed services to the Palestinian minority in Israel (historic Palestine), Kanaaneh explains he worked “to bring the benefits of public health and community development to my people.”

And as he learned about Israel's “intentional neglect of the health and well being of its Arab citizens,” the reader is exposed to what Kanaaneh characterizes as medical apartheid - Israel's "politicization of health."

He quotes a “wise" senior medical co-worker: "Apartheid is unhealthy, full stop."

Kanaaneh’s book is honest in every sense of the word, and does not not shy away from self-criticism. The book in fact encompasses his personal journey and struggle - wrestling with the ethics of working as a medical doctor within the Israeli system - a position in which complicity out of necessity is implied.

“Such self-searching episodes are frequent in the book and led eventually to me facing up, not only to system but to my own role in it,” he told MENASSAT.

MENASSAT interviewed Kanaaneh to discuss his book, the recent Land Day commemoration, Israeli public opinion and what's next for the physician/writer.

MENASSAT: Can you tell me about how the idea to write a book came about? How has it been received?

Hatim Kanaaneh
: "Since high school I have written memoirs. Mainly when something disturbed or pleased me I would take time out to write about my feelings."

"Later in my professional life when I didn't have the time to sit down and write I started recording on audiotape."

"Over the years, I accumulated a lot of material and only when I retired some 5 years ago was i able to start listening to the tapes and reading what I had written."

"It occurred to me that there was a lot of material that would be of interest to western readers and that would tell them about the life of Palestinian people in Israel."

"That's when I started selecting pieces from what I had written or taped and the book came out of that."

MENASSAT: The book touches on so many issues Palestinians in Israel are faced with. What really fascinated me was how you discussed the relation of Palestinians to a state that is built with the goal of physically eliminating or displacing the native population. Was it difficult to write about internal Palestinian issues such as the local rivalries, collaborators, informers, and so on?

Hatim Kanaaneh:
"There was some of that especially in terms of the groups of people that were co-opted and not so much the individuals. For example, teachers and religious leaders were particularly targeted as potential collaborators and I addressed those issues clearly in the book."

"I didn't set out to write a book of memoirs.  What I wrote at the time...I wrote it, or recorded it, was not meant for others but a form of psychotherapy.  In that sense, I did not feel the urge to address issues that might be interesting to lots of people as long as they were not directly affecting me personally."

"I did mull it over in my mind, and in my memoirs, the deeper meaning of my own working within the system in as much as that implied being part of the system and thus being co-opted even when I was intent on serving my people."

"Such self-searching episodes are frequent in the book and led eventually to me facing up, not only to the system but to my own role in it."

"As soon as I made that clear to myself, I initiated a project - what eventually became the Galilee Society for Health Research and Services, a non-governmental organization that was independent of government influence and even confronted that governmental system about its shortcomings vis-a-vis the Palestinian citizens of Israel."

"So the issue you raise is addressed in my book only so far as it impacts on me personally and on my role as an 'Uncle Tom.'  I was quick to recognize that and managed to deal with it in mid-career."

Yes, that was a very interesting element to the book - your internal struggle...working in the system. Has this left you to believe that it is useless to work within the system in Israel to achieve self-determination and equality for Palestinians in Israel?

Hatim Kanaaneh:
"The moment I realized that I was working within a system that is based on an ideology, the Zionist ideology, of building up a state and a culture designed to disenfranchise me and my people, it became clear that it was useless to try to render service to my people even in such presumably apolitical field as health and community development."

"I deemed it unwise to break away completely from the system because then I would have lost touch with the bigger picture and what was happening within the system."

"That's why I and a few fellow Arab health professionals built an alternative mechanism to serve the Arab community in which we lived. At the same time, we had to keep in touch with the system and even maintain some influence within it, limited as it was."

"The alternative mechanism as I mentioned was the Galilee Society, which has since become a leading organization for the civil society structures of the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel."

"It has served as a hot house for the establishment in the early years of functioning of such prominent NGOs as Ittijah, the Arab Union of Community-Based Organizations, and Adalah, the Organization for Arab Minority Rights."

MENASSAT: In my opinion, one of the most bold and powerful statements your book is: ''It now occurs to me that there is a different form of genocide practiced against us, a chronic and hidden genocide. …Israel’s intentional neglect of the health and well-being of its Arab citizens amounts to the intentional liquidation of many people, especially children. Infant mortality rates among Arabs in Israel have been twice the levels of Jews in Israel since the establishment of the state.'' Can you comment on this?

Hatim Kanaaneh:
"I think the statement speaks for itself."

"It is factually correct.  At its core is the willful neglect by the state of parts of its citizenry set aside strictly based on its ethnicity."

"As I have said repeatedly in my book, groups of Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel with health conditions worse than our own have been targeted by the state for preferential treatment and sophisticated socio-economic programs that brought them to a health-care level much better than our own."

"The statement you quote puts the emphasis strictly on infants because of the starkness of the comparison that the Infant Mortality Rate allows."

MENASSAT: I think you did a great job of portraying the feeling of Palestinians in Israel vis-a-vis Jews living in Israel. You even referred to it as, ''the emotional schizophrenia of our daily lives.'' Why was it important to discuss this? Do you think it will help people understand the position of Palestinians in Israel?

Hatim Kanaaneh:
"Yes, indeed it does in my opinion.  Once again what you are reading in the book reflects my own internal struggle in my effort to seek some psychological internal balance."

"It would be strange and highly improbable if we were to work and be in daily contact with the Jewish majority in Israel and not admit to any positive feelings towards those individuals."

"Yet, the collective that makes up the Zionist political majority of Israel embodies all the comparative disadvantages and inequities that befall us."

"So, in reflecting on my own mixed feelings, I do to a great extent illustrate the bind in which my entire community finds itself. And it is good for the world to realize the daily tension of our lives."

MENASSAT: What about the situation now? Israel has turned more openly to the right. The idea of transfer is even more normalized in public opinion than ever before.   Where does this leave Palestinians? Do you still have hope?

Hatim Kanaaneh:
"The Israeli Jewish public opinion has never been this racist before."

"True, the danger of transfer or wars is ever present and it causes me, personally, to fear for my life and that of my community.  Yet, there are signs that the world is waking up to fascist threat of such people as Lieberman and Netanyahu."

"That provides a glimpse of hope for us."

"We should not forget that there are Israeli peace activist who oppose this. Even if they are small in number, their voices probably reach a larger audience in the world than mine and yours do.  Again, that has an element of reassurance in it."

MENASSAT: Also, Monday was Land Day. What does the day mean to Palestinians?  It has been over 30 years since the 1976 incident that saw thousands of Palestinian protest government appropriation of Arab-Israeli land, and Israel is still trying to confiscate their lands.

Hatim Kanaaneh:
"It is 33 years to be exact!"

"What Land Day signifies is the ability of our community to act in unison when it comes to the issue of land.  No other occasion has elicited such a unified response from Arab-Israelis."

"True, land confiscation still happens, though to a lesser degree than before, and with a greater degree of resistance than before."

"Let's remember that I am speaking of the Palestinians within the Green Line, the 1948 community and not of Gaza and the West Bank.  Especially in the West Bank the confiscation of land is rampant under the heavy hand of the occupying armed forces and the rightist settlers."

Last question. What are you working on now? What's next for you?

Hatim Kanaaneh:
"I am busy with promoting my book to the widest possible readership in the West.  It was entered in the competition for the 2009 George Orwell Prize for Political Writing and placed on the long list of 18 out of 180 competitors."

"I will be traveling for book events in the U.S.  I maintain an active blog in which I write in the same spirit of my memoirs of old.  Perhaps something will come out of that as well.  I do gardening and I hunt for fossils.  That keeps me busy."

MENASSAT: Thank you so much for the interview. Is there anything else you would like to add, that I may have missed?

Hatim Kanaaneh: 
"I should have mentioned that this interview is the first of its kind in an Arabic country.  It is my hope that one day A Doctor in Galilee will be made available in Arabic."