In January 2009, during a lull in the bombing of Israel’s "Cast Lead" operation against Gaza, I spoke by telephone with an old family friend, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, from his home on Gaza’s Salah al-Din Street. In a voice etched with panic, he told me about his family’s dwindling water supply, his children’s terror, his dream of escaping. He asked if I could help find a way for him and his family to leave the Gaza Strip. I made some genuine efforts to solicit help from friends with more connections than I, people who might actually be able to do something, but it pains me to this day that I did not do more. The next time we spoke, it was about the death of his three daughters.
On January 16, 2009, three of Dr. Abuelaish’s eight children—Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 14—were killed when Israeli soldiers trained the nozzle of their tank on the Abuelaish house and fired. Twice. The blasts killed all three girls immediately, as well as their cousin Noor, and it wounded their sister, Shatha, another cousin and an uncle. Dr. Abuelaish himself was unharmed, but in a harrowing turn of events that is now well and painfully known, he phoned Israeli newscaster Shlomi Eldar and, in a frantic tangle of Hebrew and Arabic, begged for help on Israel’s nightly news. "Oh God, oh my God, my daughters have been killed. They’ve killed my children," he cried. "Could somebody please come to us?" The phone call, which was broadcast live throughout Israel, sounds like a shriek out of hell. It is almost impossible to listen to.
In the wake of this tragedy, Dr. Abuelaish, a well-known peace activist, remained resolutely, even stubbornly, committed to reconciliation and understanding. He did not want revenge. He just wanted accountability. "They were my beloved girls, very beautiful, very kind. Why were they killed?" he asked in a phone conversation shortly after his daughters’ deaths. "I don’t ask for anything, just [for the Israeli military] to admit and say sorry."
"Take responsibility," he begged.
Now, two years have passed, and Dr. Abuelaish is suing the state of Israel. He is asking for the apology he never got and for damages, which, he said, would go to the foundation he started in memory of his daughters. He did not want to sue. He still believes in peace and rapprochement. But he wrote in an e-mail, "I was forced to go to the court as I did not find any open minds, ears, or hearts from the Israeli government. I did my best for about two years to settle it peacefully. Unfortunately [I] did not succeed."
That Dr. Abuelaish did not succeed should distress anyone with the slightest bit of empathy. And it should disturb anyone who cares seriously about human rights, peace and basic justice. Because if Dr. Abuelaish can’t find open minds, ears or hearts in the Israeli government—Dr. Abuelaish, who has continued to look for the best in Israel even after his daughters’ deaths, who has both prominent connections and international stature, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize—then who can? What about all the other victims whose stories are not as famous but are no less harrowing?
Certainly there are plenty of them: parents like Khaled and Kawthar Abed Rabbo, who watched a soldier gun down their daughters, Souad and Amal, ages 7 and 2, as they left their house, white flags waving; or women like Abir Mohammed Hajji, who lost her husband, young daughter and unborn baby during a days’ long odyssey to find refuge during the invasion. More than 300 Palestinian children died during those twenty-two days, and hundreds of adult civilians lost their lives. Another 5,300 Palestinians were seriously wounded.
In the wake of Cast Lead, there have been efforts to bring some kind of justice to bear for these victims. The Goldstone Report, the convulsive United Nations document that found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes during the Gaza conflict, provided mechanisms for aiding and acknowledging the many civilians who lost lives, relatives, limbs and livelihoods in the war. These mechanisms included prosecution of perpetrators and compensation for victims—and helped earn the report the unmitigated condemnation of the Israeli government. And yet, while the Goldstone Report has been vehemently denounced by the likes of Alan Dershowitz and Benjamin Netanyahu as an attack on Israel’s legitimacy, its mission is far more simple and nowhere as sinister: it is to induce Israel, as well as Hamas, to take accountability, claim responsibility, for the many, many people who lost their lives in a torrent of disproportionate force—all in the hopes of preventing that disproportionate force in the future. Call it a roadmap to end impunity.
Dr. Abuelaish himself has often dreamed aloud that his daughters’ deaths would help bring an end to the blood-letting. "If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss," he writes in his powerful, just-released book, I Shall Not Hate. But if the prospect of peace is measured in a government’s willingness to take responsibility, even apologize, the odds do not look promising.
A statement issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry’s legal adviser in response to Dr. Abuelaish’s lawsuit suggests just how far the government is from acknowledging responsibility. "Despite the severe outcome, from a legal standpoint our stance is that the operation during which Dr. Abuelaish’s family members were hurt was an operation of war," the legal adviser, Ahaz Ben-Ari, told the press. "The State of Israel does not carry the responsibility for the damage it caused."
And yet this "damage" that Ben-Ari refers to so casually wasn’t a car or a house or a television set. It was Bessan, Mayar and Aya, three young girls who were killed in an attack that has become famous as a symbol of the brutal excesses of Israeli military might. And, sadly, they have not been the last. Earlier this month, a 36-year-old woman, Jawaher Abu Rahma, died after soldiers doused her and others with excessive quantities of tear gas at a nonviolent protest in the West Bank town of Bil’in. She is but one of the most recent.
As I write this, I can’t help but think of the happy-heartbreaking day in February 2000 when I first visited Gaza with Dr. Abuelaish. He and my mother had become friendly several years earlier and would often meet when they were on each other’s side of the globe. He would visit when he was in the United States, as he did when he joined us in sitting shiva for my grandmother in 2004; and she would cross into Gaza when she was in Israel, as she and I both did on that crystalline day in 2000. On this particular visit, we had made our way down from Jerusalem to Be’er Sheva, where Dr. Abuelaish was practicing medicine at the time, and he then escorted us through the corrugated fortress of the Erez checkpoint and on to his home in the Jabalya refugee camp. Dr. Abuelaish was born and raised in the camp (his parents had originally lived in a town called Huj, later a kibbutz in Israel, until they were expelled in 1948), and he made a voluble guide as he drove us into that walled-off world of Gaza. This world was one that many Jews don’t go to see, but that, if they did, would (or should) shatter their hearts. It’s a place where open sewers run in the dusty streets, where concrete homes stand half-open to the elements, where electricity flickers feebly and where the tourniquet of the occupation chokes almost everything but poverty.
And yet, it is also a place where, ten years ago, doe-eyed children played cheerfully in the courtyard of a United Nations school, where generous hosts presented feasts of chicken and hummus to almost-strangers, and where a doctor’s young daughters proudly showed off their artwork. At the end of the day, in a scene that somehow conjured Chagall in its beauty and absurdity, Dr. Abuelaish treated my mother and me to a trip to a strawberry patch where we munched lush strawberries pulled straight from the impossible, brown dirt.
Now, of course, much of that world is gone. The strawberry patches. The schools. The Abuelaish girls.
So, two years later, I echo Dr. Abuelaish’s plea: admit and say sorry.