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?