A little more than eight years ago, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s three daughters and his niece were killed when their home in Gaza took a direct hit from Israeli tank fire. It happened two days before a cease-fire was declared in the three-week war known in Israel as Operation Cast Lead.
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On March 15, the Palestinian gynecologist, who currently resides in Canada, will finally get his day in court when his long-awaited trial against the Israeli government opens in the Be’er Sheva District Court. Abuelaish will be the first key witness to testify. He is demanding a formal apology from the state for killing his daughters and niece, and compensation.
It’s a long shot, and he and his lawyer know that. The longstanding position of the Israeli government has been that it cannot be held accountable for casualties of war on the other side, innocent or not. The Israeli courts have almost always taken its side when asked to rule in such cases.
But Abuelaish will not be dissuaded. “My daughters had names, they had faces, they had plans, they had hopes,” he told Haaretz in a Skype conversation ahead of his upcoming trip to Israel. “It is a disgrace to call human beings collateral damage.”
Abuelaish filed suit in December 2010, after his demands for an apology and compensation were rejected. Representing him is Hussein Abu-Hussein, a lawyer from the Israeli Arab town of Umm Al Fahm, who also advocated for the family of Rachel Corrie in their unsuccessful lawsuit against the Israeli government. Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist from the United States, was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer while volunteering in Gaza.
Abuelaish takes heart from Israel’s agreement last year to pay $20 million in compensation to the families of Turkish nationals killed during the army raid on the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010 and hopes it can serve as a precedent.
Before tragedy struck him and his family, Abuelaish belonged to a rare breed of Gaza Palestinians who, despite escalating tensions with Israel, continued to work in Israel, had many Israeli friends and acquaintances, sent his children to peace camps with Israeli Jews and devoted much of his free time to promoting reconciliation.
When the tank shell hit his home on the night of January 16, 2009, Abuelaish turned to the one person he thought could help him: His friend Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli television journalist, who happened to be sitting in the studio just when the phone call came through. The sounds of Abuelaish agonized cries, as he described the horrendous sights in his home while begging for help, were broadcast live to hundreds of thousands of Israelis through Eldar’s cellphone. A video of that television report has since gone viral and circulated around the world.
“I swore to God at that moment and to my daughters that I would never give up and never rest,” he says, “until they are acknowledged and justice is served.”
These were the daughters, he says, that he had raised to be “fighters for peace and for the human cause.” His eldest, Bassam, 21 when she was killed, was about to complete her bachelor’s degree and had planned to study for her master’s at the London School of Economics. “She was my right hand, my adviser and my manager,” recalls Abuelaish. “She’s the one I would run to whenever I felt stressed.”
Four months before Israeli tank fire killed his three daughters, Abuelaish had lost his wife to leukemia. It was his daughter Bassam, he says, who helped get him through that crisis and encouraged him to get back to work.
His daughter Mayar, 15 when she was killed and an outstanding math student, was planning to become a doctor. “I was happy that at least one of my daughters would follow my path,” Abuelaish reflects. Aya, who was then 13, had dreams of becoming a lawyer, or as her father says, “a voice for the voiceless.” His niece Nour, who was 17, had hoped to become a schoolteacher.
Another daughter, Shatha, who was then 16, lost her eye in the shelling and spent the next few months in rehabilitation at Tel Hashomer, the Tel Aviv hospital where her father had worked. After she recuperated, Abuelaish packed his bags and moved with his five remaining children to Canada, where he was hired as a professor of global health at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he became a Canadian citizen.
His children have flourished in their new homeland and he speaks proudly of their accomplishments. Last June, Shatha graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in computer engineering, and several months ago, she was the recipient of a prestigious innovation award at her company. One of his sons has already earned an engineering degree and another is studying business.
Despite his personal tragedies, the 61-year-old doctor says he has not lost faith. Two years after he lost his three daughters, he published a book, “I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity,” which has helped him launch a side career as a sought-after inspirational speaker.
As he prepared this week for his upcoming court appearance, Abuelaish was also getting ready to address a crowd of 16,000 in a stadium in Chicago. The subject of his talk: finding hope during times of despair. “It is especially relevant these days for many in the United States and the Middle East,” he says. During his trip to Israel, he plans to attend a conference at the Knesset on the role of healthcare in promoting shared society.
Abuelaish visits the region often. Last year, he participated in a high-ranking delegation led by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. During that trip, he recounts, he experienced a moment that strengthened his resolve to keep fighting for peace. “We had just presented some awards to outstanding Palestinian and Israeli students, when the father of one of the Israeli students approached me and very movingly pointed out that I was the doctor who had delivered his daughter. Those are the kind of things that make me hopeful.”
Abuelaish reacts with surprise when asked whether he will ever move back. “But I never left Palestine,” he says. “It is always inside me. The graves of my beloved daughters are here. So how can I leave them?”
Although he is demanding financial compensation for their deaths, Abuelaish’s lawsuit doesn’t specify a particular sum. “It would not be ethical or moral to put a price on human life,” he says, “but I would urge those in the position of making such a decision to think about how much value they would attach to the life of a loved one. As a doctor, I know all too well how much we invest to save one single life.”
If he is awarded compensation, Abuelaish promises that all the money will go toward a new foundation he has created, Daughters for Life International Schools, which supports educating disadvantaged girls and young women in the Middle East and Canada.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been in stagnation for years with little hope for any breakthrough on the horizon, Abuelaish says he is still not ready to give up. “As a medical doctor, I never lose hope as long as the patient is still alive,” he says.
At the same time, he has this recommendation for leaders on both sides: “When we treat a patient whose situation is not improving and even deteriorating, it’s a sign that we have been using the wrong treatment and we should try something else.”
Update: As of Thursday, Abuelaish has still not received permission from the Israeli authorities to enter the country for the purpose of attending his trial.