Book Review: A Doctor in Galilee

By Jim Miles – Canada

A Doctor in Galilee – The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel. Hatim Kanaaneh. Pluto Press, London/Ann Arbor, 2008.

“A Doctor in Galilee” is a wonderfully descriptive narrative of life and times in Palestine/Israel. Clearly written, with a mix of personal anecdotes, historical tales, and much in the way of a reality based philosophy of a people living under an occupying force that treats them distinctly as a lesser ‘other’. The emotional impact is powerful as Hatim Kanaaneh uses basic descriptors to transport the reader into a world consisting of family, friends, hope and persistence on one side, and racism, prejudice, discrimination, manipulation, and apartheid on the other.

Hatim Kanaaneh is now a retired Doctor, a profession that through his work liaisons with the Israeli Health Ministry provides a deeper and more personal look at the more subtle manipulations and racism that underlie the overt acts of land confiscation, road blocks, and military occupation that the usual narratives concentrate on.  It is hard to put the book into one theme, one word, as the author best defines his own theme:

The major theme of the book revolves around the politics of dispossession and the nature of Israel’s majority-minority ‘coexistence’ as it plays out in the life of Arrabeh and similar communities and as experienced and recorded by me in real time.

More specifically, he defines the work as a struggle over land, which underlies all aspects of the conflict between the two groups that people my two realities.

Kanaaneh does not dwell on the physical atrocities of war, of the intifadas, of the nakba although they are by necessity part of the narrative. He remains true to his thematic description in defining the social ‘norms’ that regulate the ‘coexistence’ of unequal partners. But more so than with other narratives I have read is the ‘after-the-read’ sense of family, of life, of belonging, of the love for both land and family, beautifully expressed in his metaphorical yet realistic description of his transplanting of an ancient olive tree to his own yard.

Even without the tales of war there is ample misery spread among the Palestinian population that struggles to survive the rules and regulations of the Israeli system, a system that at its base simply wants the Palestinians to be gone.  From that arises stories of neglect, double standards, bureaucracy, and personal intimidation and humiliation that is daily fare along with the more overt physical atrocities.

Indirectly, those bureaucratic rules and double standards are expressed physically.  Throughout his story, and especially from his medical background, is the underlying idea of the lack of health facilities for the Palestinian people, from the simple lack of piped clean water causing mulitple medical problems, lack of food leading to starvation and stunted growth, to the problems of access to hospitals and medicines for those in need.  These issues culminate in his most strongly worded chapter “Genocide, here and there.”

The interactions with his Israeli medical colleagues reveals “the emotional schizophrenia of our daily lives”, dissociating “the individuals we work with from the collective action of the state”, yet ultimately realizing that they too are guilty of the state’s actions.  Throughout the work are descriptions of medical happenings clearly demonstrating the Israeli intent to punish or diminish the lives and livelihood of the Palestinian people.  More dramatically, his brother Sharif defines Israel’s bottom line as “the physical elimination of Palestine, period.” Kanaaneh’s “most awful realization” is that he is living “in a country where my government, the system I am employed by, initiates, sponsors and promotes genocide against my people.” This idea is repeated during the first Iraq war when movement was severely restricted resulting in “mass starvation amounting to genocide in the Palestinian occupied territories.”

Along with health, the other major socially disruptive factor is the education system, poorly funded, lacking basic necessities of teaching (by my standards anyway), and with teachers that are more than likely both poorly qualified and under the manipulative control of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security system.  The use of the Shin Bet is validated as “security considerations” by Education Minister Limor Livnar. In spite of all this, many Palestinians have succeeded in achieving much more than the Israelis ever allowed for them, or ever believed in their own brainwashed way that the Palestinians were capable of achieving.  On the other hand, the ‘education’ system is slowly destroying the culture, the remembered villages and lands of the elders being lost to the memories of the younger generation, with the result for the author that “it saddens me and leaves a vague bitter taste of defeat and guilt.”

Racism is encountered throughout the tales, as one would expect from a system of apartheid that desires the elimination in one way or another of the ‘other’. Kanaaneh’s stories remind me of similar events recorded from the American history of racism against African-Americans:  the “fake humanitarianism” of those in control, the “assumption that Arab labor is worthless and intrinsically defective”, a position sarcastically adopted by the Palestinian workers themselves; the many laws that create a Byzantine labyrinth of rules, regulations, and agencies making an opaque wall to Palestinian endeavours; and the strange ‘pat-downs’ by Israeli security that “under normal circumstances…would be grounds for bringing charges…of sexual molestation, because the touching was quite uninhibited and the stroking extensive and repetitive.” The latter serves as a reminder of conditions at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, centres of American interrogation and torture.

Jonathon Cook’s introduction to all these tales of misery provides a strong clear précis of political-military events summarizing the Israeli position on land and population.  Himself the author of an excellent work on Palestine (“Blood and Religion – the Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State.” Pluto Books, 2006), Cook discusses the nature of the “democratic” part of the Israeli declaration of a “Jewish and democratic state.”  The various anecdotes and stories within “A Doctor in Galilee” overwhelmingly indicate that Israel is anything but democratic, and tends in the opposite direction, as a racist, genocidal, and apartheid state. 

This is an excellent story for everyone, citizen or politician, a great start for those beginning to examine the problems within Palestine, and for those who consider themselves experts in the field.  Kanaaneh strengthens and explores the dimension of family, friends, village and genealogy that are as much a part of the story of Palestine as the wars and political rhetoric. His final note is of hope, of the roots of the ancient olive tree that “can prove my belonging to this piece of the earth’s crust…that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father, who….”

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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