Doctor Turns Personal Loss Into Hope For Gaza

Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor, cries after Israeli tanks killed three of his daughters i i

Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor, bursts into tears at a hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel, where he had been evacuated from the Gaza Strip, on Jan. 16. Two Israeli tank shells slammed into his house in Gaza during the Israeli offensive there in January, killing three of his daughters. Ranaan Cohen/AP/File hide caption

itoggle caption Ranaan Cohen/AP/File
Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor, cries after Israeli tanks killed three of his daughters

Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor, bursts into tears at a hospital in Tel Aviv, Israel, where he had been evacuated from the Gaza Strip, on Jan. 16. Two Israeli tank shells slammed into his house in Gaza during the Israeli offensive there in January, killing three of his daughters.

Ranaan Cohen/AP/File
Abuelaish poses for a picture with his children in his house in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip i i

Abuelaish poses for a picture with his children in his house in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, in May 2009. He says he plans to use compensation money from Israel to start a foundation to help Gazan women and girls. Despite his loss, Abuelaish preaches tolerance and understanding. Khalil Hamra/AP/File hide caption

itoggle caption Khalil Hamra/AP/File
Abuelaish poses for a picture with his children in his house in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip

Abuelaish poses for a picture with his children in his house in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, in May 2009. He says he plans to use compensation money from Israel to start a foundation to help Gazan women and girls. Despite his loss, Abuelaish preaches tolerance and understanding.

Khalil Hamra/AP/File

The Israeli army launched an offensive in the Gaza Strip late last year to stop rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Palestinian officials say at least 900 civilians lost their lives in the fighting; among them were three daughters of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a well-known Palestinian doctor.

But instead of calling for revenge, Abuelaish is preaching reconciliation. With the money Israel will pay in compensation, he plans to start a foundation to help Gazan women and girls in need.

Abuelaish straddles two worlds. A Harvard-educated doctor who specializes in fertility, he lives in Gaza. But he is frequently interviewed on Israeli television and treats patients in Israeli hospitals.

During the Gaza offensive that dragged into January, he stayed home with his family, providing updates to journalists by phone about what was happening in the territory. Fluent in English, Arabic and Hebrew, he appeared on Israeli radio and television to give updates during the siege.

"All of Israel, they knew that I am at my house. ... Just two days before the tragedy, the tank approached the house, 10 meters from the main gate. I felt secure," he recalls.

Faith During Time Of Loss

But instead of protecting him, the tank's crew fired at his home on Jan. 16. A shell crashed into a bedroom, killing his daughters, 14-year-old Aya, 15-year-old Mayar and 21-year-old Bissan, along with his niece Noor, 17.

Israeli tanks had been moving house to house, firing heavily and destroying homes they said were thought to serve as Hamas positions. But this case led critics in Israel to question the operation and ask if Israeli troops were using excessive force.

Abuelaish says his faith helped him through the next terrible few weeks.

"As a believer, as a Muslim, with deep and strong faith, everything which comes from God is good. Why I was selected? Why my daughters were selected? For a purpose, for something good," he says.

"Because what happened in Gaza, it was craziness, practiced against Gazan civilians. And no one knows. I was selected to disclose the secret, to open the eyes about the size of the tragedy the Gazans were facing. And something good will come from this tragedy," he says.

Shortly after his daughters died, a cease-fire was put in place and Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza. But Abuelaish felt that he needed to do more.

"It's not only terrible, it's unbelievable what happened. I lost three precious, beautiful daughters, but I can't return them back. I have five more, and I have the future. I have many good things that I can do for others," he says.

From Tragedy, Something Good

And Abuelaish is trying to do just that.

He is now planning to open a foundation that will give scholarships and support to needy Palestinian women and girls in Gaza to honor his children.

"They were special — how modest and helpful and lovely, willing to help others, thinking of others. And they were killed full of dreams, of hopes. That's why immediately after, I started to think to establish a foundation in memory of my three lost daughters for only girls and women in education and health," Abuelaish says.

He says the initial funds will come from an unlikely source — the Israeli government, which he says has accepted responsibility for his children's deaths.

"The blood of my daughters will be the seeds of that money. Any compensation that comes from the Israeli government, the majority of it will go for this foundation," he says.

Despite his loss, Abuelaish preaches tolerance and understanding. He says he could be consumed with bitterness and anger at what happened, but he sees those emotions as harmful.

"I am a physician who treats patients, and I don't want to feel diseased. I want to help others. So I should be healthy, physically and mentally," he says.

A Call For Mutual Respect, Cooperation

Abuelaish says the conflict in the Middle East will never be resolved when there is so much hatred on both sides.

"Military ways are futile, for both [sides]. Words are stronger than bullets. We have to understand each other. We have to respect each other as a human, as equal, and that the dignity of both is equal," he says.

These days, he says, his philosophy is simple: "Love each other, help each other, respect each other."

He says Palestinians and Israelis must work together.

"We need to act, whatever the size of action, not to sit in our place waiting for change. Gazans are dying. They are human beings like others," he says.

Ties To Gaza Strong

Part of Abuelaish's summer will be spent in North America, but after that, he will come home.

"I am a Harvard graduate, I lived in the States. I got many chances to leave. But when I traveled, all of the times I was counting the days, day by day, for the day to be with my children, with my people, here in Gaza," he says.

Abuelaish still lives in the building where his daughters were killed. Living there brings back painful memories, he says. In his mind's eye, he still sees his dead children walking around the house. Nonetheless, he says, "I will never be away from Gaza. I will never."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.