Izzeldin Abuelaish captured widespread sympathy in Israel when she lost three daughters and a niece in an Israeli attack during the 2009 war on the Gaza Strip. Now, the Palestinian doctor seeks justice in Israel’s highest court.
Abuelaish is scheduled to appear before the Jerusalem Supreme Court on Monday in hopes of receiving an apology from Israel and compensation for her loss.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Abuelaish said such an outcome would only shed a brighter light on the injustice of her family’s grief. Either way, he says, retelling the story is a step in itself on the road to a legacy of peace for his daughters, of “creating life out of death and slaughter.”
“If we have a positive response from the court, this is a great success,” said Abuelaish. But whatever the legal outcome, “I am determined that we are no longer the victims.”
Abuelaish, 66, was a well-known obstetrician and peace activist in Israel even before the tragedy. He had worked in an Israeli hospital while living in Gaza. And during the war, launched to end Hamas rocket fire in Israeli border towns, it often provided updates to the Israeli media in fluent Hebrew.
But on January 16, 2009, live television broadcast a real-time nightmare report from Abuelaish to Israelis watching Channel 10 for news about the war.
“My daughters have been murdered,” she sobbed into a phone. A reporter listened on the other end of the line as the audio was broadcast live.
The blast from the Israeli attack claimed the lives of her daughters Aya, 14, Bessan, 21, and Mayar, 15, as well as her niece Noor, 17. Footage from the scene shows Abuelaish leading the evacuation of another daughter, Shatha, 17., who was seriously injured but survived.
For 13 years, Abuelaish has fought in Israeli courts and in the public arena to bring justice to his family for what he says was a terrible mistake by the Israeli army.
There have been bright spots, said Abuelaish. Two weeks ago, she learned that an Israeli future mother had read about her trip and decided to name her baby Aya ת in honor of her own daughter. Abuelaish says she will meet the girl, who is now 8 years old, and her family over the weekend.
“I am so moved,” he said, reading the letter a few days before leaving his home in Toronto for Israel this week. “I didn’t know what to do, what to say.”
That’s rare for the surviving widower and father of five, who has spoken around the world about the need for facts, truth and equality and the cost of hatred and war. He has made clear what he wants to do with his daughters’ legacy. His book is titled in part “I will not hate.”
Abuelaish’s presence in Israel is an achievement in itself. Few Gazans are allowed into the country and the success of their cooperation with friends and colleagues in Israel is even rarer.
It has established the Daughters For Life Foundation to award scholarships, as it did Thursday to two young women at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She also wants to establish a college for Middle Eastern women, perhaps in Cyprus, named for the foundation and dedicated to her daughters. On Wednesday in Jerusalem, he pressured members of the Knesset to support that project.
“The names of my daughters are now written on their graves, on the stone,” Abuelaish told reporters outside Israel’s parliament.
“I want to see their names written in an institution that spreads light, hope and wisdom to young women.”
He expects validation from Israel’s high court on Monday, but the legal outlook is difficult, one expert said. The Supreme Court will consider whether the lower court’s conclusion was correct under Israel’s civil liability law.
The court “will not even get to the question of whether the military acted correctly,” said Yuval Shany, a senior fellow at the Israel Institute of Democracy and a law professor at the Hebrew University.
In a statement to the AP on Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Ministry pointed to the lower court’s ruling that the attack on Abuelaish’s home occurred during a war.
He also reiterated expert testimony that shrapnel recovered from two bodies was traced back to equipment used by Palestinian militants. That, the ministry said, supports the claim that the five-story house was thought to have served as a Hamas outpost.
Abuelaish vociferously denies it. He is adamant that there were no militants or warning until the shells hit.
Still, there are signs of change in the region. A new diverse coalition of eight parties took power in Israel in June, with Arabs part of the government for the first time. The moderate Jewish-led parties are also part of the government.
Abuelaish says she received an empathetic reception this week from lawmakers in the Knesset, an improvement over her last visit to Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gave him a hug.
“Perhaps,” Shany said, “this government will be more open than the previous one to make such a statement” of apology, “just because the composition is more diverse.”
Win or lose in court, Abuelaish has plans for later, in Gaza.
“I want to go to my daughters’ grave, to tell them, ‘I’m here. I didn’t give up, I didn’t forget you,'” he told reporters in Jerusalem. “Until then … I’m educating for your justice.”