Izzeldin Abuelaish, a 63-year-old father originally from Gaza, has experienced pain and terror beyond comprehension. But his message remains: “I refuse to hate Israel”.
Before the Gaza War of late 2008 and early 2009, Dr Abuelaish was best known as the first Palestinian doctor to work in an Israeli hospital.
An infertility specialist, he said that treating both Israeli and Palestinian patients, and his work to bring life into the world, filled him with pride.
These days, though, he is known for a different reason. Two days before the end of Operation Cast Lead, which the IDF launched as a response to rocket fire from Gaza, Dr Abuelaish’s home was shelled.
Three of his daughters — Bassan, 20, Mayar, 15 and Aya, 13 — as well as his 14-year-old niece, Nour, were killed as a missile hit their bedroom. The Israeli military initially claimed that Dr Abuelaish’s house was targeted because it was the source of sniper fire but this was immediately disputed.
Dr Abuelaish describes witnessing a scene of carnage after entering the room. Another daughter, Shatha, who survived, was bleeding profusely from her hand and one of her eyes was hanging from its socket.
Already known for his public advocacy for peace, Dr Abuelaish had been in regular contact with Shlomi Eldar, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 10, and a friend of his. Since Israeli journalists had been prohibited from reporting from within Gaza, he had provided Mr Eldar’s station with regular updates.
Now with his home obliterated and his family injured, he picked up the phone and called Mr Eldar, who was live on air. With the camera on him, the news anchor held his phone up to his microphone as a distraught Dr Abuelaish cried to the heavens for his daughters.
“My God, my God. What have we done? What have we done? I wanted to save them. But they died, Shlomi.”
The sequence was broadcast live to homes across Israel, and has since been watched more than a million times on YouTube. Dr Abuelaish’s story struck a chord with people on both sides of the conflict. But it is his rhetoric of peace and advocacy of peaceful co-existence which has won him international plaudits.
“It is human nature, when something like this happens, to react either in a negative way or a positive way,” he said. “What helps me to react in a positive way is, first, my faith. I believe in God and I believe that everything is for a good reason. Bad things that are happening in this world are manmade.
“And my life experience has helped me a lot. It wasn’t the first tragedy. My life, as a Palestinian born in a refugee camp, I was fighting to survive. It has strengthened my will to survive.
“We have to move on. Things I cannot change are a waste of time. My daughters were killed for nothing they did and there was no reason to justify the killing of a human being.
“A human life is the most sacred, precious thing. That is why I do this. I lost faith in humanity but not in God.”
In the aftermath of the attack he and his surviving children moved to Canada, where he is currently the Associate Professor of Global Health at the University of Toronto. He was in London last week as the keynote speaker at Yachad UK’s gala dinner.
While he is critical of the current Israeli leadership — and disappointed there is not more international condemnation — he maintains a peace agreement between the two sides is possible.
He has advocated this view in public lectures in North America, Asia and Europe. A book, I Shall Not Hate, was published in 2011, and he later established a charity in the memory of his daughters. The Daughters for Life Foundation, which provides scholarship awards to encourage young women to pursue their studies at universities in the Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
He is still seeking an apology and compensation from the state of Israel, and his case is moving slowly through the country’s court system. He hopes to one day return to Gaza, where his children are buried, as are his mother and his wife, Nadia, who died of leukaemia three months before the attack.
“I have the hope now. We need to value human life and human freedom. I feel angry when some innocent people anywhere are lost. The bullet and the bombing are the weapons of the coward. But there is another way.”