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Gaza doctor seeks apology from Israel for daughters’ 2009 deaths

Izzeldin Abuelaish to appear before Supreme Court on Monday to demand compensation for lethal strike

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish speaks with Israeli Minister of Agriculture Alon Shuster at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish speaks with Israeli Minister of Agriculture Alon Shuster at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

JERUSALEM — Izzeldin Abuelaish captured widespread sympathy in Israel when he lost three daughters and a niece in an Israeli strike during the 2009 war in the Gaza Strip. Now, the Palestinian doctor is seeking justice in Israel’s highest court.

Abuelaish is scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Monday in hopes of receiving an apology from Israel and compensation for his loss.

The Harvard-educated doctor, a widower who moved to Canada after the tragedy, says he is hopeful that he will prevail. But after a lower court rejected his case in 2018, he knows he might have traveled 9,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) only to lose again.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Abuelaish said that such an outcome would only shine a brighter light on the injustice of his family’s pain. Either way, he says, the retelling of the story is a step in itself on the path toward a legacy of peace for his daughters — of “creating life from death and killing.”

“If we have a positive answer from the court, this is a great success,” Abuelaish said. But whatever the legal result, “I am determined we are not the victims anymore.”

Abuelaish, 66, was an obstetrician and peace activist well known 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’s rocket fire on Israeli border towns, he often gave updates to Israeli media in fluent Hebrew.

But on January 16, 2009, live television broadcast a nightmarish, real-time report from Abuelaish to Israelis watching Channel 10 for news about the war.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish lobbying for support for a college to honor his daughters and niece at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“My daughters have been killed,” he sobbed into a phone. A journalist listened at the other end of the line as the audio aired live.

The blast from the Israeli strike took the lives of his daughters Aya, 14, Bessan, 21, and Mayar, 15, as well as his niece Noor, 17. Footage from the scene shows Abuelaish directing the evacuation of another daughter, Shatha, 17, who was severely wounded but survived.

For 13 years, Abuelaish has battled in Israeli courts and the public arena to deliver justice to his family for what he says was a terrible mistake by the Israeli army.

The government says the law shields the military from liability for wartime actions. In 2018, a lower court sided with the army. Abuelaish’s appeal to that ruling had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, until Monday.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish lobbying for support for a college to honor his daughters and niece at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

There have been bright spots, Abuelaish said. Two weeks ago, he learned that an expectant Israeli mother had read of his journey and decided to name her baby Aya — after his own daughter. Abuelaish says he’ll meet the girl, now 8 years old, and her family over the weekend.

“I am so moved,” he said, reading from 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 widower and father of five surviving children, who has spoken around the world about the need for facts, truth and equality — and the cost of hate and war. He’s been clear about what he wants to make of his daughters’ legacy. His book is titled in part, “I Shall Not Hate.”

Abuelaish’s presence in Israel is an accomplishment in itself. Few Gazans are allowed to enter the country and the success of his cooperation with friends and colleagues in Israel is even rarer.

He has established the Daughters For Life Foundation to give out scholarships, as it did on Thursday to two young women at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He also wants to establish a college for Middle Eastern women, perhaps in Cyprus, named for the foundation and dedicated to his daughters. On Wednesday in Jerusalem, he lobbied members of the Knesset to support that project.

A large smokey fire burns out of control inside the Gaza Strip during IDF Operation Cast Lead, 15 January 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“My daughters’ names now are written on their graves, in the stone,” Abuelaish told reporters outside Israel’s parliament. “I want to see their names written on an institution that spreads light and hope and wisdom to young women.”

He hopes for the validation of 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 finding was correct under Israel’s tort law.

The court “won’t even get to the question of whether the military acted properly,” said Yuval Shany, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a law professor at Hebrew University.

In a statement to the AP on Wednesday, the Israeli Defense Ministry pointed to the lower court ruling that the strike on the Abuelaish home occurred during a war.

It also reiterated expert testimony that shrapnel retrieved from two bodies was traced to equipment used by Palestinian terrorists. That, the ministry said, supports the contention that the five-story home was thought to have served as a Hamas position.

Abuelaish vociferously denies that. He is adamant that there were no fighters and no warning until the shells struck.

Illustrative: Palestinian ambulances in Gaza waiting at the Rafah border crossing on January 10, 2008. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash
90/File)

The 2009 conflict was the first of four wars between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007. The bitter enemies fought their fourth war in May.

In Israel, a new diverse coalition of eight parties took office in June, with Arabs part of the government for the first time. Dovish Jewish-led parties are part of the government, as are hard-right factions.

Abuelaish says he got an empathetic reception this week from lawmakers in Knesset, an improvement from his last visit to Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gave him a hug.

“Maybe,” said Shany, “this government will be more open than the previous one to making such a statement” of apology, “just because the composition is more diverse.”

Win or lose in court, Abuelaish has plans afterward — in Gaza.

“I want to go to my daughters grave, to say to them: ‘I am here. I didn’t give up, I didn’t forget you’,” he told reporters in Jerusalem. “Until then … I am educating for your justice.”

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