The voice of Dr. Izzeldin Abueleish crying on Israeli Channel 10 news immediately after his daughters were killed was the first crack in the euphoria and indifference to Palestinian life that characterized Israeli media in the first 18 days of the war. For me, his voice will forever be associated with better times.
In a scientific conference, 10 years ago, he responded to a question about how to improve health systems in Gaza by showing a slide of the flags of Israel and Palestine. He said: “Peace with our developed neighbor (Israel) will be the fastest to improve the health conditions in Gaza.”
We soon became friends and I heard him speak in meetings with American Jews, with Palestinian activists and with Israeli Jews in Tel-Aviv. In all cases he called for peace based on recognition of the rights of both sides to self-determination, safety, and freedom from oppression and discrimination. I heard him tell how he grew up in the refugee camp of Jabalia and how when his mother’s house was demolished by the Israeli military in the ’70s, he worked as a farm hand in Israel and earned the money to rebuild it. Against all odds he managed to get a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo and then train in London and Israel. Back then he wanted to open a medical center for Israelis and Palestinians between Gaza and Israel. He thought that it would serve to bring the hearts of Palestinians and Israelis together.
We stayed in touch when I lived in Israel and after I moved to Pittsburgh. During the current war we spoke frequently. When members of the Jewish and Israeli community organized an event presenting alternative voices from Israel and Gaza, Izzeldin was scheduled to speak after Eric Yellin, an inhabitant of Sderot that opposes the war. At first there was no answer. For the audience it appeared as an insignificant technical problem, but for me this was a moment of panic. I was praying that it was only the connection or the battery that died and not a human being. When he finally answered, he described the terrible situation in Gaza, he said that targeting of civilians and destruction of Gaza’s neighborhoods would only foster hatred and future violence, and called for peace. When the evening ended we felt that this was a breakthrough, the first Palestinian addressing members of the Jewish community during a war, speaking about peace.
The next time that I heard his voice was 16 hours later on the Israeli Channel 10 news. His daughters, Bisaan, 20, Myar, 15, and Aya, 14, were killed as was their niece, Nur. Another daughter, Shada, 17, a niece, Raida, 12, and his brothers, Shihab and Nasser were severely injured. Their house was destroyed. The general response in Israel to Izzeldin’s tragedy was of sympathy. Still, Izzeldin had to endure expressions of hatred and suspicion. To which he simply responds, “They do not want to hear the truth because they cannot accept what they did to all Palestinians, not only to me.” And indeed this is the case now, as human rights organizations and journalists return to Gaza, the testimonies and the magnitude of the damage to civilians are troubling. According to the Israeli Human Rights groups, 1,300 humans were killed in Gaza, including at least 300 children and 104 women. More than half of the casualties were civilians and the count of noncivilians includes 40 Palestinian police cadets attacked during a police academy graduation ceremony. The number of wounded is estimated at 5,000. In Israel, three civilians were killed and 84 injured. To demonstrate the magnitude of the number of Palestinian casualties — 1,300 Palestinian deaths in Gaza is equivalent to 260,000 deaths in the United States.
On Feb. 22, many in the Jewish community and Israel will be rooting for the Israeli film “Waltz with Bashir” to win an Oscar for best foreign film. The film, an animated documentary, deals with the director’s memories of the 1982 Lebanon War and being in Beirut during Sabra and Shatilla massacres. While not blaming Israelis for committing the massacres, the film deals with circles of responsibility and how one becomes an accomplice to a crime by not acting to stop it.
During the war my thoughts often wandered to the film. Every time I spoke with Izzeldin I felt that by being silent I become an accomplice to the killing of civilians. It was obvious that even if not directly aimed at civilians, Israeli heavy fire, the use of artillery, air strikes and tanks in a densely populated area would lead to a dramatic number of civilian casualties. The only way to stop this killing was to demand an immediate cease-fire. Unfortunately, the previous American administration continued its negligent policies from the 2006 Lebanon War, and opposed an early cease-fire. Sadly, many in Jewish communities did the same. Thus, when the Israeli government announced a unilateral cease-fire it was too late for Izzeldin’s daughters. Years of open peace activism, participation in Jewish-Palestinian dialogues and a father who knows the mobile phone numbers of Israel’s top journalists did not prevent their deaths in the last 24 hours of a war.
When I recently spoke with Izzeldin I asked him whether there was anything that I could do for him, “Tell them to spread the word that our people want and deserve peace.” he said and added, “I only pray that my daughters would be the last victims in this conflict.”
It is our obligation to Izzeldin, to all the other families of victims in Israel and the occupied territories, and most importantly to the future of Israel, to call on our representatives and the new administration to eliminate the Bush administration’s barriers to negotiation and to find a negotiated way out of this cycle of violence. If Izzeldin still believes that it is possible, how can we dare to believe otherwise?
(Naftali Kaminski, an associate professor of medicine and pathology at UPMC, organized a peace forum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Jan. 15, at which Izzeldin Abuleish spoke by phone.)