It was a dreary evening on 16 January 2009 as Operation Cast Lead – which rocked the Gaza Strip for almost three weeks – was nearing its end, when an Israeli tank rolled up outside Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish’s home. The next thing he knew, three of his daughters and his niece were in pieces – dead.
Now, almost a decade after tank fire took the lives of his daughters – Bessan, 13, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 20 – as well as his 14-year-old niece Noor, an Israeli court has heard Abuelaish’s testimony. Abuelaish felt compelled to file a lawsuit against the State of Israel six years ago, after the Israelis refused to admit its liability and offered a formal apology.
“I tried for two years, through connections, to get the Israeli government to take responsibility,” Dr Abuelaish told MEMO, “but it fell on deaf ears so I was obliged to pursue this through the courts.”
“I want justice to prevail, and my message to the court was that the Israeli government must take responsibility for the murder of my daughters,” he continued. “There was no reason to justify the killing and my house was known to them.”
At the time of the shelling, Abuelaish worked as an infertility specialist at Tel Hashomer hospital, one of Israel’s main hospitals. As a gynaecologist who worked in several Israeli hospitals, he knew many Israelis, including a reporter working for Israel’s Channel 10.
The reporter, Shlomi Eldar, would phone Abuelaish regularly to describe the situation in Gaza from the ground, given that the Israeli government allowed no Israeli journalists to enter Gaza to report. Two days before the death of his daughters, an Israeli tank approached his home and directed its main gun towards it. A frenzied Abuelaish called Eldar who then phoned the Israeli army to notify them that the house belonged to the doctor.
“They didn’t find any fighting or militants near my house, and they moved on,” Abuelaish said. This did not stop them from firing at the house two days later. Abuelaish’s heart-wrenching reaction in the aftermath of the shelling gained worldwide attention as it was broadcast live on Israeli TV through Eldar’s phone.
During Israel’s 2008-2009 Cast Lead offensive in Gaza, 1,268 people were killed in the besieged territory, among them 288 children and 103 women.
“I will never accept my daughters to be just numbers,” Abuelaish stressed with a voice filled with determination. “It is wrong to call them collateral damage.”
They are human beings. They have faces. They have names.
In order to launch his lawsuit, Abuelaish had to post a financial bond of 20,000 New Israeli Shekels (NIS) for each of his daughters and his niece. “I was obliged to post a bond of 80,000 NIS to pursue this,” he told MEMO, the equivalent of $22,000.
“They wanted to give me a hard time and to make it difficult for me in order to [force me to] give up,” he added, “but they will never break or defeat me. I am determined to get [my daughters and niece] justice.”
I am accountable to my daughters and I will never give up as long as I am breathing. They deserve justice.
Abuelaish is in a better position than other Palestinians in Gaza who have lost innocent loved ones to Israeli bombardment and shelling. Besides the access to contacts that he has after having worked in Israel, he is also financially more able to pursue a legal claim.
“85 per cent of those killed in Gaza during Cast Lead were civilians,” Abuelaish added, “but people in Gaza are hopeless and helpless. They lack the resources and also lack trust in the Israeli justice system.”
“People in Gaza are struggling to survive on a daily basis,” he explained. “They are constantly struggling and fighting for their freedom, survival and future of their children.”
Abuelaish says this is going to be a long legal battle, but he is patient and will not give up.
They have to understand that patience, resilience, tolerance and kindness are not signs of weakness. They are signs of courage, and we Palestinians have been patient for a long time.
“We will never lose our faith and determination in getting our rights,” he said, “because our cause is just and I am sure that at the end of the day justice has to prevail.”
Abuelaish’s wife was spared the pain of the tragic loss, having passed away from leukaemia a few months before the war kicked off. After the war, Abuelaish moved with the surviving members of his family, three daughters and two sons, to Canada after having been offered a job as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, a post he still holds.
There, he established a charitable foundation, Daughters for Life, which supports the education of girls from the Middle East. Whatever damages the courts may afford him – provided he wins the case – will go towards furthering the charity’s goals and supporting young women across the Middle East.
I would love to go to Gaza and visit my daughters’ graves and tell them you are alive and you are with me. You didn’t die. You will never die as long as I am breathing and I didn’t give up. I am not broken. I am not defeated.