Posted by Rawan Elbaba on March 03, 2017 in Blog

“I was talking to my children and they bombed us,” said a crying and distraught Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish on the night his daughters were killed. The “Gaza Doctor” was on the phone with an Israeli journalist when the Israeli Army struck his family home. 

On January 16, 2009, Bessan (21), Mayar (15), Aya (13), and their cousin Noor (17) were killed during an Israeli attack on their home in Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. Their father, Dr. Abuelaish, had already been well known to Palestinians and Israelis alike for devoting his life to medicine and supporting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. As a fertility expert, he worked with both Palestinian and Israeli patients to help them grow their families. He had also been giving eye-witness accounts of the Gaza War to journalists who had been barred from entering the region. As such, he was in regular contact with several Israeli journalists, calling into their television programs and updating their viewers on the situation in Gaza.

A unilateral ceasefire was announced shortly after Bessan, Mayar, Aya, and Noor’s deaths. Months later, the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict found that Israel had committed “widespread human rights abuses, including potential war crimes, and of using ‘disproportionate force’ to harm Palestinian civilians.” In Abuelaish’s case, the Israeli army said that they were returning fire to an area that had fired on them. The Israeli forces later said they thought they saw Hamas “spotters” near the Abuelaish family home. 

Abuelaish demanded an apology from the Israeli Army, who’s legal adviser Ahaz Ben-Ari claimed that “the operation during which Dr. Abuelaish’s family members were hurt was an operation of war and therefore the state of Israel does not carry the responsibility for the damage it caused.” Dismissing civilian deaths as an “operation of war” seeks to portray Palestinian loss of life as just collateral damage. 

After his family’s tragedy, Abuelaish vowed to pursue his case with the Israeli government and make them take responsibility for the senseless killing of his daughters and niece. The Israeli government’s continued refusal to acknowledge accountability for the deaths only strengthened Abuelaish’s resolve to continue seeking justice for his daughters and niece. 

In December 2010, Abuelaish filed a civil lawsuit demanding an official apology from the Israeli government. After years of waiting and more than $21,000 spent on bond, the hearings will take place March 15 and 19 in Beer Sheva, Israel.

Linda Mansour, an Arab American immigration attorney from Ohio, and a friend of the Abuelaish family hopes this case will break new legal ground. She notes that one of the only other civil suits filed against the Israeli state was the Rachel Corrie case.

“It is unique in that he had spoken out and said ‘Look, we’re not collateral damage anymore. You need to take accountability. You need take responsibility, to be accountable for this,’” Mansour said.

Manour’s main concern is the lack of media coverage of the Abuelaish case. She shares the family’s story in hopes of sending a message that “Palestinian lives are human, they’re not collateral.” 

Abuelaish has vowed to donate all damages and compensation from the lawsuit to his foundation, the Daughters for Life Foundation, which he established in memory of his daughters. The foundation seeks to empower young women through education to seek justice and the overall betterment of life. It also awards scholarships to young Middle Eastern women seeking success in whatever field they choose. 

Abuelaish has since moved to Canada where he works as an associate professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Toronto. He continues sharing his story to show that Palestinians are determined and motivated to seek peace and justice, not vengeance through aggression.

“This anger, [I want it] to be used as a fuel to do more - not to be defeated, not to be broken, not to give up or forget my beloved daughters, because I am accountable and will remain until the last breath in my life, accountable to them,” Abuelaish said.