One of the most dramatic and tragic stories to emerge from the 22 days of fighting in January 2009 between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip occurred on January 16 when three daughters and a niece of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish died as a result of Israeli shelling. The tragedy resonated deeply in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities because Dr. Ezzeldeen, a gynaecologist who lives in Gaza and works in a hospital there, was previously at Beersheba's Soroka University Medical Center where his specialty was in vitro fertilization.
The Media Line (TML): When your home was struck, your reaction was to phone a leading Israeli journalist and plead for help. All of Israel heard that frantic call. What happened next?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: When I was called, I was “spaced-out.” I thought of my daughters and my niece and the other casualties, and wondered how I could save their lives. I would like to thank everyone, including the Beersheba Medical Center, who helped in transferring the casualties and were part of saving their lives. At that moment (of the bombing), I was just in front of the building and couldn’t get to the main street. My son said to me, “Don’t go to the road, otherwise you will be killed. Dad, stay for us.” But as a medical doctor, thinking of casualties and that time was vital, what else could I do? My heart was torn out. How will my 12-year-old son cope with the loss of his beloved three sisters, especially the eldest, Bessan, who was a mother, a sister, everything to him?
TML: How did your wife die?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: My wife died on the 16th of September, 2008 and my daughters were killed on the 16th of January, 2009. My wife died of acute leukemia. It was sudden; she died in two weeks.
TML: Where was she treated?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: At the Beersheba Medical Center hospital.
TML: The Israel Defense Forces said they warned you to leave the home. Did you get a notification? Did you get a call from the IDF asking you to leave because of what was happening in Gaza?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: It is painful to hear this lie. We should stop such fabrications. If we are serious about finding a solution (to the Israeli-Palestinian problem) we should be honest with each other, not find excuses. No one contacted me to tell me to leave. They sent pamphlets but not to our area. I think it's your responsibility to go to the area there and to ask if they or anyone else contacted me, or if anyone has the courage to face me and to say that we contacted you, Ezzeldeen.
TML: The Golani Brigade Force claimed that there were all kinds of shelling and firing coming from near your home and that they thought they saw people on your rooftop. How do you respond to that?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Good. Yes. That's what they said. But they didn't listen to me. If they saw snipers on the roof, why didn't they shoot at the roof?
TML: The picture of the building of your home?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Is it clear? Did they see snipers, armed people?
TML: Were there any other people living in the other apartments?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Only my brothers. It’s a private building.
TML: Were any other apartments attacked?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Only one room was attacked. What I want to stress again: if there were snipers and they saw the snipers, why they did not shoot at the snipers on the roof?
TML: And there were no other apartments that were shot at?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: No other place was shot at. No one was killed other than my girls. And no armed people were in the area. I can confirm that and repeat it thousands of times. There were snipers and there were armed people? I have snipers. My daughters were expert snipers in achieving their goals, in achieving their dreams. That's how I trained them: to be snipers, to achieve their dreams. And to be focused.
TML: There was overwhelming response to help you when you frantically made that call as soon as the shelling erupted and your daughters were killed, and it seems that the Israeli population listened and the IDF helped to evacuate you for treatment.
Dr. Abu al-Aish: It was not the IDF who evacuated me.
TML: How did you get to the hospital?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: By walking. I walked until I arrived at the hospital and it was the Palestinian boys who took risks to get the casualties to the hospital, and who walked about a kilometer until the Palestinian ambulances came to the hospital. We moved the Palestinian ambulances to the Israeli side where we met the Israeli MADA ambulances, which were ready and evacuated the casualties.
TML: Was there any resistance from the Israeli side in bringing you to the hospital? Did they check to see who they were bringing?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: No. They made everything feasible and easy for the movement and transfer of the patients. And I fully appreciate that and am thankful to everyone who helped in saving lives.
TML: Are there many patients who were able to be treated on the Israeli side?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: You can ask them (the Israeli authorities). I can’t. I'm not in a position to because I was not the one who was coordinating these issues. But on the other issue, concerning what you mentioned earlier: in the past eight years of this intifada, no rockets were fired from my neighborhood. After eight years why choose this time to shell us? I think it's your responsibility as the media to defend the truth, if you are doing a holy job, not just to catch words, to be serious about it, to investigate it and go deep, and to face reality. And if someone says something different, it's a lie. It's false.
'Respect, equality and dignity'
TML: Dr. Abu al-Aish, why do you think this war took place, and would you call it a war?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: It was not a war, first of all. That's what you said in your introduction, about the fighting between Hamas and Israel. It's not Hamas. It's the Palestinian people who are living here, and they were the fuel of this invasion, not Hamas. The civilians, the innocent civilians, that's all.
TML: What should Israel do if rockets continue as they have for many years, from Gaza, hurting and killing people in areas like Sderot?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Hamas, and this is what we're discussing – Hamas is part of the Palestinian people and Hamas is a result of a long-term process. If you want to study this result, we should go back and investigate this long-term process, why it came about and why it became like that. There is a real problem. Failure in achieving real progress in the peace process is the main reason. We are not dealing with Hamas. We are dealing with the Palestinian people, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not Sderot and Gaza, Palestine and Israel. If we want to find a long-lasting solution, go to the roots of the problem. And this can be achieved through real progress in the peace process. To be serious, open, challenging, and (with) leaders of courage. Go forward.
TML: You have worked for years, particularly before 2000, not only in Israel at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba but also bringing Israeli doctors into Gaza and vice versa. Jump to now, to your personal experience. Has it hardened you? Has it changed you?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Never. It is a strange thing. I still believe that this is the only way and what I did to prove it was the right thing, as a medical doctor, to save lives. And what is practiced within the borders of the hospital, treating patients without any discrimination, ethnicity, religion, name, is the right thing. With all of our skills as doctors, with all of our care, we wish for the successful recovery of our patients, equally and that's what should be practiced and implemented outside in other fields of human life between Palestinians and Israelis. Respect, equality and dignity. And what I wish for myself, I wish it for others.
TML: Do you ever feel there was a point that there could have been an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: I think there were many times. Even now there is some light, as when the IDF announced its responsibility for shelling my house. Full credit goes to those who had the courage and honesty to tell the truth, to themselves and to the public. This means there are some people who are serious about speaking the truth and that's what we need, speaking about it honestly, openly with each other. This will help us find the solution.
'We should fight for our unity'
TML: You brought up the issue of respect. And the issue of turf is key to that: Palestinians defining a Palestinian state and Israelis feeling secure within their borders. How do the two meet? I realize you are a physician, but you are a physician who has seen a lot and has been involved with both sides.
Dr. Abu al-Aish: What I think is important for both sides, is not to be focused on one side. We should look beyond the frame. I fully believe this is reality, this is nature. We were created with two eyes, two ears, and two hands, to use them, not to close one eye or one ear. So we should use both if we want to judge things.
TML: Hamas says it does not recognize Israel. Do you recognize Israel?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: You are speaking about Hamas. Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. For me, Israel is a fact, Israel is a reality; it is there. And Palestinians are there. No one can deny the other. We are here. We were created to live together. No one can turn his back to the other.
TML: Who is representative of the people, particularly in Gaza? When Americans, the world, look at Gaza, they see Hamas. You speak English fluently; you’ve had experience on both sides; you’ve been trained in London and at Harvard: so, are you the exception?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: No, the majority. If you look for other exceptions you will find a lot. We have to search for those people. This is the issue. And still, the international community and the media, and you with your question, are all looking with one eye. You are judging things by Hamas only, as if the Gaza Strip is only Hamas.
TML: I’m not judging, I’m only asking the questions.
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Yes, that’s what I think. Hamas is a movement, and it has its supporters. It came (to power) through democratic election. I ran for that election as an independent, and luckily I didn’t succeed. Hamas represents (the Palestinian people) maybe for this term because it succeeded in the election. But we can’t make a collective judgment about the Palestinian people by Hamas alone.
TML: Do you feel that (Palestinian Authority Chairman) Mahmoud Abbas is strong enough to take over Gaza? Will that make a difference?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: What do you mean, to take over Gaza? We need unity, Palestinian unity, which is highly important. The internal Palestinian conflict is painful for me: the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Fatah and Hamas, Fatah and Fatah. So it is very important to reconstruct the internal Palestinian issue, to rebuild it and strengthen it. This is the only weapon that we have.
TML: Can you say this in Gaza?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Of course. All of the people are saying that. The majority of the people say, “We should fight for our unity, for our main goal,” as Palestinians. However, the party’s goal is enlarging, and the party interest is enlarging, and the national goal is decreasing. What we need is the national interest, for all of the parties to be dissolved for the national goal, not just for their limited interests.
TML: Do you feel the Palestinians and Israelis suffer from the same political problems in terms of leadership, where the people can emerge and make a difference in terms of the future of this conflict?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: That’s what I think. All of our suffering is because of our leaders who are not serious about serious negotiations and changing words into actions. Meetings, negotiations, this, that – and what comes of it? So, I hope a time will come soon when people themselves will lead the leaders.
TML: In 2005, Wafah Samir Ibrahim Al-Bas tried to blow herself up in Soroka Hospital. You were quite vocal about that incident. Tell us about it.
Dr. Abu al-Aish: I remember when I was in Shifa Hospital, a Palestinian patient from our neighborhood was injured and she was in the intensive care unit and needed to be transferred to a medical center in Israel. So I called Soroka Hospital and they said, “We cannot accept her now.” I was upset, and wondered why that had happened. The next morning I read in the news that they hadn’t accepted her because of what you just mentioned. Immediately, I realized who had sent that girl to a holy place like a hospital, which serves patients, and that they (the medical staff) are messengers of peace. Doctors are angels who are treating patients. I felt as if I was bursting. I immediately wrote to The Jerusalem Post about it. The Palestinians of the Gaza Strip said to me, “Dr. Abu al-Aish, you said what we wanted to say, but we can’t say that.” So it’s important if you believe in something, to say it. And I think it made a difference, (for the hospital) to accept other Palestinian patients.
TML: Where you born?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: In Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.
TML: There’s word that you are leaving Gaza; that the media is claiming you are on your way to Toronto.
'I raised them to love others'
Dr. Abu al-Aish: First of all, I want you to know that I have been everywhere. Even when I was abroad, I was counting the days to come back to Gaza to be with my children, my family and my people. I truly believe that there is nothing like home, and I will continue to devote my life to my needy, poor people in the Gaza Strip. What is happening? I got two offers: to work at the University of Toronto or at the University of Haifa. I discussed it with my children and my youngest daughter, Aya, who was 13 and was killed, said, “I want to fly.” So I said okay. It was planned to be for a short time, to work there for two or three years. If the situation settled in Gaza before that I planned to return immediately. So this is one thing. Some rumors said I was asking for asylum. I would never, never think of seeking asylum in any country. I have the ability to go everywhere without asking. I have a Swedish visa, so I can go to all the Scandinavian countries. (But) I am not of that kind, I am not looking for any other citizenship. I have my citizenship, my nationality, my loyalty to my nationality and I will continue to fight for my Palestinian identity. They know Dr. Ezzeldeen (in Gaza). I am not against Hamas as a people. I am against its agenda; against its mentality.
TML: But its mentality is so dominant. Do you have to therefore be careful?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: No. Why? I tell them, “This is not the right way.” If you want to be accepted by the international community, you should speak internationally.
TML: But they are not going to suppress you for saying that?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: No; I’ll tell you something. One of my relatives, who was a policeman with Hamas, was injured, and some Hamas people came by to congratulate him on his recovery. At his house, senior Hamas officials asked: “Would Dr. Ezzeldeen accept us if we were to consult with him?” If they come as people, I will accept them. But if they come as Hamas… I do not to speak with Hamas. Not with their mentality. Let them change before coming to me.
TML: Do you think it was a bad move that the United States was pushing for Hamas?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: Of course. They thought they would absorb Hamas.
TML: Do you think that America should not have forced elections with Hamas in 2006?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: I think that if they were serious, the Americans should have pushed forward the peace process, not pushed Hamas. This was one thing. And the other issue is they should have been able to predict the future, and not have pushed them to elections without knowing the end result. And this is what happened, this is the end result.
TML: Do you think they don’t read the streets of Gaza just as they don’t read the streets of Jerusalem?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: A hundred percent they don’t read it. They judge with one eye. And they should open their eyes about the real tragedy of the Gazan people. I am talking about innocent Gazan civilians; there are people living in Gaza, not only Hamas. And I think if they have any conscience, any human sense, they should defend their rights and work to take away this prejudice that is being practiced against them.
TML: Tell me about your daughters. And this must be hard. As a mother I can’t imagine – (children of) 13, 15, 20, in one shot.
Dr. Abu al-Aish: You know I have eight children – six daughters and two sons. My six daughters were the most beautiful, and I loved them so much. All of them, they were successful at school, they never succeeded less than 97 percent. All of their teachers asked for Dr. Ezzeldeen’s daughters to be in their class. The people were jealous of my daughters – how I raised them to love others, to heal, to take care, to be open. My eldest daughter, Bessan, was the first Palestinian that I sent to participate in a peace camp as a girl, when she was 15 years old, because I fully believed in it.
TML: Where was this camp located?
Dr. Abu al-Aish: In New Mexico, in Santa Fe. So, about Bessan, I could write storybooks about her. As a daughter, as a friend, as a manager, as a student, as a mother, as a sister, in everything she was 1000 percent. She was to graduate in business and financial management this June. After I lost my wife, she said, “Don’t worry, go to your work, I will take care of my brothers and sisters.” She used to go to university, then come back to cook, clean, teach, help her brothers and sisters with their homework. This was Bessan. She was looking to go with me to Canada to do her MA. My Ayah, who was 15 years old when she was killed, I was happy when she said she wanted to be a doctor. I thought at least one of my daughters would be a doctor. My second daughter, who was studying second year architectural engineering, we celebrated her 17th birthday in the hospital after the tragedy. She worked hard and studied very hard because she was determined to succeed. Her sister Maya wants to be a journalist. I was very proud of my daughters and I invested my life in them and will continue to invest my life in the remaining children and help them to achieve the goals and dreams of their lost sisters. And I am very proud that the blood of my daughters and my niece wasn’t futile, and made a difference among the Israeli public, and I hope among the international community, for positive understanding, for more understanding of the other side. And (I am proud) that it was part of the cease-fire and of saving lives.
TML: Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, thank you for your time. I wish you success in the future. I hope that you represent so many more people like yourself because you’re an inspiration.
Dr. Abu al-Aish: I am determined, for the sake of my daughters to continue to fight and to establish every good thing that will help brilliant, needy girls among the Gazans because I fully believe in the benefits that come from education. I hope that friends of mine will establish a foundation in their names and everything will be invested to give such girls the chance and the skills to be equipped for decision making and to help build the future generations. This is what I appeal for, anyone who is willing to help and promote more understanding, and to give more understanding to girls and women.
Interview reprinted by permission of The Media Line