Posted on Sun, Jan. 18, 2009
last updated: January 19, 2009 01:00:36 AM
TEL HASHOMER, Israel - For many Israeli television viewers, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was the disembodied Palestinian voice on their nightly news that brought them first-hand telephone accounts of the fighting in Gaza.
Over the past 23-days, the Palestinian doctor had described a harrowing life in Gaza as Israeli air strikes, tanks and artillery repeatedly pounded the isolated Mediterranean strip.
On Friday night, when Israel's Channel 10 prepared to check in with Abuelaish as hopes for a cease-fire began to become reality, viewers were gripped as a personal tragedy played out live on their evening news.
Minutes before Channel 10 went on the air, an Israeli strike had hit the doctor's home in Gaza, killing three of his daughters. A niece also was killed. When an Israeli reporter reached Abuelaish during the newscast, the doctor was frantically trying to save their lives.
"My god, my girls," Abuelaish wailed on the telephone as he pleaded with Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar for help. "Shlomi, can't anybody help us?"
In what may be remembered as one of the most emotionally-charged events of the devastating 23-day-old Israeli military campaign in Gaza, the Palestinian doctor's family calamity touched a nerve.
The Israeli public has been grappling for days with the cloudy ethical questions raised by the strikes on Gaza. Abuelaish made real the abstract moral quandary about fighting adversaries hiding in the densely-populated cities.
Channel 10 quickly mobilized. Eldar and his colleagues tapped their Israeli military contacts and helped spirit Abuelaish, one of his surviving daughters, and other family members into Israel for emergency medical treatment.
The injured were taken to the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, where Abuelaish, one of the rare Gaza residents allowed to work in Israel, conducts research.
The story was jarring. The Israeli government actively sought to restrict coverage from Gaza as a way to prevent heart-wrenching tales like Abuelaish from overwhelming the reasons behind Israel's campaign to destabilize Hamas.
Israel barred reporters from freely entering Gaza during the entire military campaign, and Israeli government officials unapologetically backed the policy.
"There is an unequal war going on there between a power and a terror organization, and the only way to hurt us is to get those images to hurt us in the battlefield of public opinion," Danny Seaman, the head of Israel's Government Press Office, said last week before the strike on Abuelaish's home. "In that sense, the less pictures coming out helping them the better."
But Abuelaish's story unfolded live on Israel's evening news.
And emotions boiled over again on Saturday when Abuelaish spoke to reporters the hospital.
"Why did they kill them?" an inconsolable Abuelaish told journalists. "Give me a reason."
The doctor's appeals were too much for Levona Stern, a 55-year-old Israeli mother of three boys who had served in the military.
As Abuelaish wept, Stern began angrily shouting at the Palestinian doctor and the reporters gathered around to hear his tale.
Without knowing the story, Stern accused Abuelaish of storing weapons in his home, an accusation that has not been made by the Israeli military.
"What's wrong with you, have you all gone crazy?" Stern shouted as people tried to hold her back. "My son is in the paratroopers, who knows what you had inside your home, nobody is talking about that. Nobody is talking. Who knows what kind of weapons were in your house; so what if he's a doctor? The soldiers knew exactly. They had weapons inside the home, you should be ashamed."
The Israeli military said it is looking into the incident, one of many that has drawn condemnation from the international community and calls for Israel to be investigated for committing possible war crimes.
In a preliminary review, the Israeli military said that its forces were responding to fire from, or near, Abuelaish's five-story apartment building.
Abuelaish dismissed the story as fiction and appealed to the Israeli military to give him an honest reason why his daughters are dead.
"If they have morals, if they have courage, they should say the truth," he said Sunday while taking a break from looking after his 17-year-old daughter, Shata. "That they made a mistake. Because there is no other way: By mistake or intentionally. No other way. No excuses."
Abuelaish couldn't hold back tears every time a new person called to grieve with the Palestinian doctor who spent 15 years working a gynecologist in Israel.
"They were soldiers for peace," Abuelaish said of his daughters, who had taken part in co-existence programs with Israeli children over the years. "Why did they kill this hope?"
In a telephone interview Sunday from her Herzliya home, Stern said she felt sorry for Abuelaish, but could not accept the possibility that Israeli soldiers might have mistakenly killed the Palestinian doctor's children.
"I don't believe our soldiers would shoot for no reason," said Stern. "I know how sensitive we are to human life, but war is war - and civilians get killed."
Abuelaish, who speaks Hebrew, English and Arabic, said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from his Israeli friends.
"I will never change the way I believe," he said. "There is no other way but for us to live in peace, with justice and respect for human rights. The military way proved its failure years ago. And still we haven't learned the lessons."
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