JERUSALEM — He has the powerful, tireless voice of a man who would not stop knocking on a door until someone eventually opens up. And yet, for the past eight years, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish has been met with the silence of indifference from the other side.
What he's asking for is both a lot and not much at all: an apology. He wants a formal apology from the Israeli government for the death of three of his daughters — Aya, Mayar and Bissan — and of his niece Noor in the bombing of his family home, in Gaza, in January 2009.
He is not motivated by hatred, nor by a lust for revenge but by the unrelenting will to seek honor and justice for his beloved children. "We will never be numbers," he said at a press conference in Jerusalem a few days ago. "We are human beings, with dreams, with a future, with projects. The guilty party knows who it is. It must have the courage to admit its responsibility, as we've had the courage to refuse to be victims."
Dr. Abuelaish has become a noted figure amid the tragedy of Gaza. For many years, he worked at the Tel Hashomer Hospital near Tel Aviv. A Hebrew and English speaker, he's successfully sought to draw the attention of both Israeli society and the international media to his family's fate during the 2009 war.
Now, to obtain the acknowledgment of the immense damage he's endured, Dr. Abuelaish has decided to sue the Israeli government. The lawsuit, filed at the end of December 2010, finally saw its first court hearing on March 15. The next one will take place at the end of the month and would include testimonies of witnesses, among them two of the victims' sisters, provided the Israel authorities allow them to leave Gaza.
Three days before the first hearing came a dramatic turn of events. The army added a ballistics study to the case's dossier that noted that a shell fragment found on one of the victims wasn't Israeli made. This, according to the IDF, would imply that the family home contained a cache of weapons.
"The army is lying time and time again," said the Palestinian doctor's lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein, with a sigh. "At first, they said that the house hadn't been targeted. Then they said that there were snipers on the roof. And now, years later, they invent Palestinian munitions."
The grieving father, now 62, has another way of putting it. "They're blind and deaf. But a patient will never be cured if he doesn't acknowledge that he's a patient and that he needs treatment."
Close to 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in Operation Cast Lead, between Dec. 27, 2008, and Jan. 18, 2009. When the war started, the army didn't authorize journalists to enter Gaza. Shlomi Eldar, a reporter for Israeli network Channel 10, would call Dr. Abuelaish every day to hear the latest news on the ground. On live television, Dr. Abuelaish would tell the host about the war, watching from his living room.
A patient will never be cured if he doesn't acknowledge that he's a patient.
On Jan. 16, a tank passed near the family home, where close to 25 people were living. When he got this information, a worried Eldar immediately alerted the military chief of staff to avoid any potential confusion. On Jan. 16, the carnage took place nonetheless.
A shell hit the house. Three of the doctor's daughters, aged 13, 15, and 21, were killed instantly. The doctor called the Israeli journalist live on television. "I wanted to try and save them, Shlomi, but they're dead!" the doctor cried in a sequence of overwhelming despair.
A few weeks before the war, Dr. Abuelaish had lost his wife, who died of leukemia. After the bombing tragedy, he emigrated with the surviving members of his family to Toronto, Canada. But he never strayed from his existential mission: to keep his daughters' memory alive.
"I want their names to be etched in stone and in metal, on the pediments of buildings." He has created the Daughters for Life Foundation, which aims to promote the emancipation and potential of young Palestinian girls who want to study abroad. Any damages awarded by the court would be donated to this charity. Born in a refugee camp in Gaza, Dr. Abuelaish won a scholarship that led to his medical training in the U.S. and UK before becoming the first Palestinian doctor to obtain a staff position at an Israeli hospital.
Dr. Abuelaish has received unexpected support from the Israeli side. Yehuda Glick, a member of the hard-line Knesset branch of the right-wing Likud party, wrote on Facebook that the Palestinian doctor is an "amazing man." Glick is an Orthodox rabbi who fights for Jewish worship rites in Jerusalem and he is firmly opposed to the two-state solution for a Palestinian homeland. But he also believes the Israeli government should apologize to a father for the death of his three daughters.