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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Horrors of war hit home for Gaza doctor

Jweekly.com

April 30, 2009

By Alexandra J. Wall

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish’s life was forever changed Jan. 16, when three of his daughters and a niece were killed by Israeli shells hitting the family’s apartment.

The Gaza physician is well known to Israelis — he was the first Palestinian doctor to get permission to work in an Israeli hospital. He still works at Beersheva’s Soroka Hospital, affiliated with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, as an ob-gyn.

Because Israel prevented journalists from entering Gaza during the most recent conflict, Abuelaish — who is fluent in Hebrew — often called into an Israeli television program to give eyewitness accounts of what was happening there. That night, he pleaded with the newscaster to help send assistance for the wounded. According to news reports, it brought the immediacy of the war into Israel as few things had before.

On April 26, Abuelaish brought the horror he experienced to a Piedmont audience in a similar way. Showing slides of his shelled apartment building, of body bags, and a blood-spattered ceiling, he described in extremely graphic terms how he found his daughters.

“Mayar’s body was disconnected from her head,” he told an almost full house at Kehilla Community Synagogue. “There was brain material on the ceiling. I don’t want anyone to see what I’ve seen.”

Abuelaish, who was born and still lives in the Jabalya refugee camp, was brought to Piedmont by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and Americans for Peace Now, Jewish groups that support the Israeli peace movement, and Kehilla. He also spoke at the Torah Study at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on April 25.

But Abuelaish was not just in town to talk about the horrors of war — he was also there to introduce his new Three Daughters Foundation, that will seek to support the education and health of girls.

“In my life, I am in debt to my mother, wife and daughters,” he said. “It’s time for women and girls to be the decision-makers. I believe in the potential of women.”

Abuelaish mostly steered clear of politics in his talk, preferring to tell his personal story: How he grew up a poor refugee in Gaza, and always dreamed of becoming a doctor. How he attended medical school at the University of Cairo, and then studied in London, eventually obtaining a master’s degree in public health at Harvard University. And how, tragically, his wife died of cancer, three months before the deaths of his daughters.

He has always believed in peace, he said, but does not use that term because “it’s overused and has lost its meaning.”

Palestinians must have their dignity, he added, as Israelis do, and then both can live in “partnership and collaboration.”

The Israeli army has asserted that its soldiers were being fired upon from near the Abuelaish apartment. The doctor said he does not blame the soldier who was responsible, nor his commanding officer: “I blame the system. I’m sure he is suffering. I don’t want to add to his suffering, it’s useless, and it won’t bring my daughters back.”

Because Abuelaish works in Beersheva during the week, he stays in Israel from Sunday to Thursday night to avoid having to cross the border. But once a week, he has to go through the Erez checkpoint from Gaza into Israel, a routine he described to the Piedmont audience.

First, he must call ahead to let them know he is coming, and then go through at least 20 gates, he said. He often has to put his hands up, lift his pant legs, and talk to a soldier who is issuing him commands through a loudspeaker; Abuelaish cannot see who is giving the commands, the doors just open “like Ali Baba,” he said.

Abuelaish spoke lovingly of his late daughters: Bisan, 20, who attended a peace camp “because I wanted her to know the other”; 15-year-old Mayar; and Aya, 13, who wanted to be a journalist. His 17-year-old daughter, Shada, made it to an Israeli hospital that night with the help of the Israeli journalist.

The doctor also read a letter one of Bisan’s Jewish friends from peace camp sent to him after her death. Addressing Bisan as if she were still alive, the Israeli wrote, “I spoke with you three days before you died. I prayed for your safety, but my prayers went unanswered.

“I feel betrayed by God and my country. Forgive me for not being able to save you from my own people.”

Watch an interview with Dr. Abuelaish on YouTube.

 

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