Book Review: Hatim Kanaaneh's A Doctor in Galilee

One of Israel’s best-kept secrets is the existence of its hidden Palestinian Arab community that now accounts for roughly 20% of Israeli citizens. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the 150,000 Palestinians who managed to stay found themselves marooned in the new state; an unwanted, alienated and marginalized minority. Without leadership, internally displaced and dispossessed of their land, they experienced 18 years of a harsh military administration. It was lifted in 1966, but they continued to face oppression, discrimination and the open hostility and suspicion of the state towards them. 

In the preface to his book Hatim Kanaaneh explains that his purpose in writing this intimate memoir of his struggle to improve the health of his people in the Galilee is to introduce readers too this "little-known and often misunderstood population that is nonetheless key to understanding the Arab-Israeli conflict." 

A personal biography describes how in 1960 his father sold a plot of land to buy a ticket for him to go to the US to study. In 1970 he returned to the Galilee with his Hawaiian wife and qualifications in medicine and public health. In his role as the only physician in his area, poverty, malnutrition, lack of proper water supplies, rubbish collection and sewage systems militated against his attempts to care for his patients. In his job in the Ministry of Health, state systems openly hostile to the Arab community constantly frustrated his attempts to introduce sensible public health measures to improve the general health of the community. 

In 1981, "with three other disgruntled local physicians" he founded the Galilee Society as a way of circumventing the discriminatory and antagonistic governmental system. It was dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the Palestinian minority in Israel. This actively challenged the system he was part of and eventually he was ousted from his Ministry of Health job. For four more years he used the Galilee Society as a means of consciousness raising, reaching out to international circles, and creating alliances with other marginalized minority groups and activists. Local primary care needs were served with mobile clinics to unrecognized Bedouin villages. But as some of his dreams were about to be realized, a confrontation over the proposed site of an Israeli military industrial complex with adverse environmental implications for the Galilee, together with internal intrigues resulted in his departure from the Galilee Society. After a brief sojourn as consultant to UNICEF’s mission to the Palestine National Authority, he left in 1997 to establish a centre for child rehabilitation in his home village of Arrabeh. 

The historical and political background to the situation is provided in an excellent foreword by Jonathan Cook. He explains that the philosophy behind the Israeli government’s discriminatory policies towards its Arab community derives from Zionism’s central tenet: that a pure Jewish state should serve as a sanctuary for Jews all over the world. This accounts for Israel’s strategy of separating Palestinian citizens from Jewish communities, and a "divide and rule" policy between Palestinian religious communities Druze, Bedouin, Christian and Muslim forcing them to compete for the support of the authorities; the starving of towns and villages of the funding available to Jewish villages and the rewarding of compliant Palestinian community leaders. Jonathan Cook notes Ian Lustick’s comment that by the 1970s, when the doctor returned to the Galilee, the minority’s leadership were now hoping, not for Palestine’s liberation, but for a "liberal, secular democratic state with full equality of Arabs and Jews." This was Dr Kanaaneh’s hope also, but as the narrative unfolds the disappointment and frustration is palpable. 

However, this is not a depressing book; rather, a delightfully readable and absorbing memoir. In journal form, the narrative is chronological, the subject matter is the politics of dispossession, and interspersed throughout are Dr Kanaaneh “contemplative pauses, flashbacks, village scenes and foibles from rural Palestine and from my childhood days.” Working with the dominant Jewish majority and living with the disadvantaged minority gives him opportunity for particular insights, upon which he muses throughout the narrative. He recounts numerous conversations with colleagues about how liberal and kindly Jews, working within the system, can reconcile their knowledge that the state has dispossessed an entire people of their lands and rights, with their own continuing acquiescence in that situation. After a day out with a colleague and his family he relates a conversation in which the colleague acknowledges the lies of the state and the Jewish agency about the illegal theft of Palestinian land. However, he continues:

“That said, as a Zionist, I consider it my duty to contribute to the success and progress of the settlements that have been already established. I suppose you can explain that by my commitment to the Zionist ideal of ‘redeeming the land’ and by my upbringing and training in the Zionist youth movement.” The colleague’s subsequent remarks about fostering coexistence and friendship with the Galilee’s Arabs in general and Dr Kanaaneh’s family in particular met with characteristic sarcasm. The doctor retorted that it was “nice of him to consider putting up with natives, but having taken that gracious decision he should realize that I was unlikely to commit wholeheartedly to his lofty Zionist ideals.”

Throughout his time working as an employee of the state himself he constantly examines his own conscience and behavior in working for a system devoted to discriminating against his own people. He reflects sadly that instead of being able to initiate projects to help improve the health and welfare of the Palestinians in Israel, his remit was very often restricted to vetoing.

One chapter is called "Suffering the Lashes," a reference to a local saying, “counting lashes is not like suffering them.” Kanaaneh acknowledges that he has not experienced the actual pain and deprivation of the people of a particular unrecognized village and for that reason feels that he has failed them. But in this book, through his sharing of his thoughts and observations in "real time," the reader is intimately drawn into the events and memories he describes. This is what gives it a raw edge. Anxieties about the quality of teaching at his son’s nursery school leads to musings about the involvement of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, in the recruitment and monitoring of teachers. Personal experience confirms that promotion of teachers - and other professionals - depends on their service as collaborators with the Shin Bet, not their understanding of child psychology or ability to do their job well. A former teaching colleague who informed on the political views of his fellow teachers was promoted while his informed-upon peers lost their jobs; the doctor’s nephew was sacked from Arrabeh’s high school because he said publicly on television that he thought Arabs did not enjoy equal rights. He muses on how the Shin Bet tried to recruit him as an informer on his own family’s traditional leaders and friends shortly after his return from the US.

Recollections about his family’s diwan (guest house and meeting place) lead to fascinating memories about the traditional peacemaking process between feuding families, legendary family stories about power struggles between clan heads, marriage and traditional customs. All are told with affection and gentle humor. And if he is merciless in his condemnation of the state’s Zionist attitudes and structures, he is not blind to the imperfections in his own society. He pokes gentle fun at the village’s popular but rather opinionated religious leader who broadcasts his views in his Ramadan sermons:

"The other day he got mixed up between the missionary high school that our children attend, the Galilee Christian Gymnasium, and the Galilee Society. He attacked the 'Christian Galilee Society' for poisoning the minds of our youth and declared that there was no need for such a foreign institution. He added that, as a Muslim society, we should develop our own Islamic civic institutions, including a Young Men’s Muslim Association instead of the imported YMCA. The trigger for his outburst was the attempt by a group of young professionals to establish a Rotary Club, which, in the sheik’s view, is the same as the Masonic movement whose central mission, he says, is to spread the Jewish faith and hence should not be allowed to function in Arrabeh. And somehow the Galilee Society was mixed in with this hodge-podge of foreign institutions."

Dr Kanaaneh delves deep into the subject of land, which is a recurring theme. He shares his shock at seeing the tanks in his village in March 1976 when the army suppressed legitimate demonstrations at the continuing confiscation of Palestinian land and killed six unarmed protesters. When Area 9, the land designated by the military a closed zone, was eventually reopened, he remembers moving conversations with villagers on their way to clear and plant their land with olive seedlings. There is the proud father describing how his son sold his beloved car to rent a bulldozer to clear the land, the poor peasant who was going to clear his land with his bare hands and the hilarious story of old man Abu-Hussain who went to court to establish title to his family’s land. The law invoked by the state to deprive the family of its land was one of many passed after 1948. This one stated that if land had lain fallow for over three years (because the land had been declared a closed military zone) it reverted to state ownership. Aerial photographs showed untended land. When it looked as if the judgment was going against him he shaved his beard.


“Your honor, I am afraid for my own beard” (the Arabic equivalent of being afraid for one’s own neck or one’s own soul). “It has dawned on me that anything with natural growth on it is likely to be confiscated by this court. I have decided at least to escape with my own head on my shoulders.” He went on to win the case.

This happy outcome has not been the experience of any of the many internally-displaced Israeli Palestinians who have gone to court to try to win back their land and property from the state. Through the determination of his mother who refused to leave her house when others left to escape the fighting in 1948, Dr Kanaaneh’s cousin-in-law, Abu-'Atif still lives in his house in Sha’ab.

"But as far as the Israeli authorities are concerned, Abu-'Atif and his family are 'present absentees,' refugees who have abandoned their home, and thereby forfeited their right to it. So Abu-'Atif no longer owns any land in Sh’ab – or rather, the state holds it in trust while he seeks justice in a judicial system designed to legitimize the theft of his property. But while the infinitely slow wheels of Israeli justice turn, he continues to live in his family’s home, a house which officially he does not own. In short, Abu-'Atif is a squatter in his own home, which now belongs instead to a state bureaucrat, the Custodian of Absentee Property. This proud 'landless landowner' is unable even to fix the roof over his head without a permit from the state, and the state always refuses to grant him a permit because it does not recognize him as the house’s rightful owner."

Dr Kanaaneh’s very personal story is told with affection, humor and a wicked acerbic wit that exposes the Kafkaesque machinations and contradictions of the Israeli state. The penultimate chapter is a poignant update on the current situation, which despite the life’s work of the author and his colleagues continues to be a catalog of discrimination and injustice. But in the concluding chapter he again takes up the theme of the land with an engrossing account of how he fulfilled his ambition of transplanting a 3,000-year old olive tree in his garden. Despite the personal and collective frustrations and humiliations of the past 60 years, and state attempts to silence Palestinian history, this ancient tree stands as a witness to the Palestinians’ deep connection to their land.


"My tree knows and attests to all of that; that is how it all started. This gnarled behemoth, with its two-meter wide, beautifully sculpted trunk and over ten square meters of exposed root system saw it all. I can prove my belonging to this piece of the earth’s crust through it; its roots are my surrogate roots. And they are taking hold in my land that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father, who…………"



* Janet Walker is currently writing a dissertation about Christian Palestinians in Israel for an MA in Pastoral Theology. She is a member of the Cambridge Palestine Solidarity Campaign.