Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish came to the world’s attention during the recent offensive in the Gaza Strip, when the respected obstetrician, holed up with his family in their home, gave daily interviews from the battle zone on Israeli television and radio.
Then, on Jan. 16, the last day of the offensive, Israeli fire killed three of his daughters. “My God, my girls,” Abuelaish wailed that night on Israeli television, decrying the loss of Bessan, 20, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 14, as well as his niece, Nur Abuelaish, 17. Now he is trying to use his fluent Hebrew and English -- and his pain -- to appeal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. What follows is an edited transcript of an interview he did with The Times’ Marjorie Miller.
I had returned home on Dec. 25 from Tel Hashomer, the hospital where I work in Israel. That day, they had opened the border for humanitarian aid for the first time in more than a month, which made me realize something bad would happen. At 10 a.m. on the 26th, the airstrikes started.
I gave radio and television interviews throughout the operation. We all slept in the salon in the middle of the house, but the night before the shelling began, we couldn’t sleep. We were up at 1 a.m. and at 2:30 a.m. I gave a speech by phone to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. Our neighbors had left, but we stayed in our home. Tell me a secure place in Gaza where I could have fled to protect my children. There was no place. And why flee? Am I militant? Are my children fighters? I would have left my home if there had been a place that was protected. But schools, public places, mosques -- there was no secure place.
During the war, we ate whatever food was available. On the last day, my brother, who had ducks, said we could have them. He and Bessan cleaned them. They cooked duck with rice, and we all ate together. They were happy. Afterward, I sat with the girls in their room and we talked. I had two job offers to discuss with them, one from Toronto University and one from Haifa University. “What would you like?” I asked. Aya said, “I want to fly.” I said, “OK, you want Toronto.”
It was January and very cold, so I left the girls’ room and my sons, Abdullah and Mohammed, and I began to prepare the charcoal so we could have some fire. The girls were sitting in their room, Mayar and Aya in their seats. And the first shell came. I ran back to find Mayar and Nur; their bodies were disconnected from their heads. Their brains and the blood stained the ceiling; they were drowning in pools of blood. I saw my daughter Shadah, her eye coming out and fingers torn. Then the second shell, and I saw Aya lying on the ground, Bessan lying on the ground.
This was at the end of the ground operation on Jan. 16. On the 17th of January, there was a cease-fire. It was supposed to have been a day earlier. My daughters were killed in the dead time of playing at a cease-fire. It was a game, to play with human life. The leaders were playing with that. In war, we don’t know who will defeat the other, but we know they will defeat the civilians on both sides.
There were no rockets launched from the area surrounding my house. There was no firing. It was an open area, and anyone who tried firing from there would have been seen immediately by the Israelis. So why was my house targeted?
They tried to make excuses. First, they said there had been a sniper. Then that there had been militants firing from the surrounding area. They took shrapnel from my niece and claimed it was from Palestinian rockets. After a month, the truth came out. They admitted responsibility for shelling the house with two shells from tanks. But this will never bring back my daughters. They are gone.
Now we have to learn to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. Both sides should focus on saving lives. If we make mistakes, we should learn from our mistakes and not repeat them, not continue all our lives, Israelis and Palestinians, making mistakes. It’s not mistakes, it’s craziness.
I have never hated anyone in my life. I hate some acts. I hate and blame the circumstances that brought both sides to this situation. This is the target we have to focus on, rather than simply blaming. I am not a victim. I can say my daughters paid the price of the craziness that brought Palestinians and Israelis to that point.
Saving human lives is the main purpose of my work. There is a Palestinian nation and an Israeli nation, and I care about both sides. Words are stronger than thousands of bullets. I want others here to feel the Palestinian suffering and to open their eyes to the Palestinian suffering. I fully believe our humanity brings Jews and Arabs together.
I will never lose hope. Those players who oppose peace are not permanent players. The situation can be changed at any time for good. When the U.S. campaign started two years ago, did anyone think [Barack] Obama would be the president? But he was determined and confident. So nothing is impossible. It is not written in the Koran or in the Torah that they will control us forever.
This tragedy opened the eyes of both sides. For Israelis, it entered their rooms, their kitchens, their minds, and it made a difference. The next day, there was a cease-fire. And many other good things will come from this tragedy, I am sure. We need to shake hands and to look at each other in the eye. We have to face each other.