Haifa, Israel — Just after 5 p.m. on January 16, Israeli Channel 10 News correspondent Shlomi Eldar answered his cell phone during a live broadcast — a phone ringing so incessantly, he suspected the call was urgent.
It was Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza physician well known throughout Israel’s medical community. Abuelaish had been providing many journalists with updates, in fluent Hebrew, on Israel’s operation in Gaza against Hamas.
The army had attacked the home of Abuelaish, 53, who researches and practices medicine part time in Israel.
Live on the air, viewers heard what Aboul Aish had to say: “They died on the spot — on the spot, Shlomi!” he cried. “Oh Lord, God, God, God!”
Abuelaish was referring to his three young daughters.
Viewers then watched as Eldar left the studio saying, “I cannot hang up this phone call.” From a dressing room, he used his contacts to persuade Israeli authorities to open the borders and transport Abuelaish’s injured family members to Israel for treatment.
The arriving medics found three of Abuelaish’s young daughters and a niece of his dead after the Israeli army launched a shell into the physician’s home. Another daughter, another niece and two brothers were wounded and were, with one exception, flown for treatment at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv.
Israelis are mostly inured to Palestinian suffering. But the image, broadcast just before a cease-fire took hold in Gaza, of this physician who is known as a dedicated fighter for peace, racked with grief at the killing of three of his eight children at their army’s hands, was searing.
“This picture — a bereaved and brokenhearted Palestinian father, three dead girls, a little girl fighting for her eyesight and an entire life dedicated to building a bridge of coexistence that exploded into dust: For me, this was the picture of defeat of this war,” wrote Boaz Gaon, a popular columnist for the daily newspaper Ma’ariv.
Based on a “preliminary investigation,” an Israeli army representative claimed on January 17 that troops fired on Aboul Aish’s house because “they had come under attack from somewhere in the vicinity of the house; possibly [from] a sniper, but I can’t confirm that.”
The investigators have thus far not interviewed Aboul Aish or any of his surviving family members about what happened. But the physician claims adamantly that the military’s account is untrue. At a press conference the day after the fatal attack, he implored Israel to be honest about what happened.
“They should just admit they made a mistake,” he told journalists. “There is no shame in making a mistake, but don’t deceive the nation.”
The family members killed were his three daughters — 20-year-old Bisan, 15-year-old Mayar and 13-year-old Aya — and his niece, 17-year-old Nur Aboul Aish.
As it happened, Aboul Aish’s wife had died of leukemia just four months earlier.
Queens College Jewish Studies Program director Mark Rosenblum, a regular visitor to the Aboul Aish home, told the Forward that it is “just impossible” for him “to imagine that [Aboul Aish] was harboring anything except for the three circles of life that he lives 24/7.” He was referring to Aboul Aish’s commitment to family, to his Palestinian community and to making connections with Israelis.
Rosenblum, a founder of the group Americans for Peace Now, spoke of being in Aboul Aish’s home in the Jabaliya refugee camp during discussions the physician had with members of organizations involved in terrorism. Aboul Aish, he recalled, vehemently protested such acts, and other acts of violence, even in tense situations with fellow Palestinians, “when silence might have been the better part of valor.”
People who know the Aboul Aishes paint a picture of a most unusual Gaza family. The physician had sent three of his daughters to a peace camp in New Mexico for Israeli and Palestinian girls, run by an Israeli woman named Anael Harpaz. From his Gaza clinic, he arranged for seriously ill Palestinians to be treated in Israel, where he is well respected and has many close friends in hospitals and at universities.
Even in the days leading up to Operation Cast Lead, as the Gaza operation is known, Aboul Aish traveled to Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv from Gaza. At the center, he works part time on fertility research and treatment projects with Israeli colleagues, as he is one of a small number of Palestinians with an Israeli travel permit allowing this.
Among Gaza Palestinians, Aboul Aish gets some criticism for his moderate political outlook and his practical cooperation with Israelis – especially in giving fertility treatments to Jewish women. This touches a raw nerve among some Palestinians, who see the treatments as strengthening the Jewish population. But such criticism is largely muted, as Gazans of all outlooks rely on Aboul Aish’s medical expertise. According to Miri Weingarten of Physicians for Human Rights, who works with Aboul Aish, the doctor’s house was always full of people seeking his medical expertise or appealing for him to use his contacts in the Palestinian or Israeli health system.
“He believes that medicine can be used to build bridges between people,” Sheba director general Zeev Rostein said.
But at the press conference after the attack, Aboul Aish’s idealism also gave way to anger. “I raised my children to work and to be soldiers of peace,” the doctor said. “I believed medicine could be a bridge for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This is what I raised my children to believe. Why did they destroy my hopes, my children? I want a reason. Give me a reason.”
Aboul Aish, who also holds a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University, has received a job offer in Canada and assistance in organizing visas for him and his family. It is unclear whether he plans to accept the offer.
Yet another issue was raised by Eldar’s success in using his contacts to get helicopters and ambulances to transport Aboul Aish’s wounded family members so that they could receive treatment in Israel. Before the doctor’s family members were killed, repeated pleas from humanitarian groups on behalf of others who were gravely wounded fell almost invariably on deaf ears.
Throughout Operation Cast Lead, Physicians for Human Rights urged Israel to take in wounded civilians needing care available only in Israeli hospitals, even though the Palestinian Ministry of Health was set on sending them to Egypt.
“When something happened live on air, after three weeks of us begging for people to be evacuated to Israel, people were,” Miri Weingarten the Forward. “Israel was acting here out of image concerns, and could have clearly evacuated wounded all the way through.”
The story of the Aboul Aishes spurred the Israeli public — before the attack on the family, the focus was mainly on Hamas rockets in Southern Israel, and on the worries and successes of the military campaign — to confront Palestinian suffering, at least for a moment.
Jérôme Bourdon, professor of communication studies at Tel Aviv University, told the Forward that the story “made Palestinian suffering more real — but for a very short time.”
The very fast turnaround of news in the Israeli media will lead to a quick fading of sentiment, Bourdon predicted. Israelis have, over the years, developed some immunity to Palestinian suffering, he explained.
Bourdon characterized the popular Israeli attitude toward harm to Palestinian civilians as “shoot and cry,” saying, “People see it as a pity, but ask, ‘What can we do about it?’”
“Sentimental” sympathy for the Aboul Aish family will not translate into “political opposition” to operations like Cast Lead, he said.