(photo credit: AP [file])
When the Israeli invasion of Gaza began a few weeks ago, our feelings of fear for the young soldiers going into that hostile hell hole were preoccupying our thoughts and actions. We prayed, "adopted a soldier," sent money, recited psalms. But another fear gripped our hearts as well.
Sitting in his home in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, a Hamas stronghold, surrounded by shelling and chaos, sat our Palestinian friend of over a decade, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Izzeldin was a featured character in the documentary film produced by my husband Isidore Rosmarin and me in 2007, Blood and Tears: The Arab-Israeli Conflict. Trained in Israeli hospitals, his work as an obstetrician/ gynecologist at Soroka Hospital has had him delivering the babies of Israeli settlers, as well as of Palestinians. He has been an outspoken advocate of peace, even while residing in a refugee camp rife with hostility and aggression against Israelis. He sent his daughters out of Gaza to "Peace Camp" in the United States, and in 2006 ran for political office against Hamas.
"Is Izzeldin going to be okay?" we asked ourselves, and emailed him just to check in. Immediately a response came back, "Call me." We phoned Izzeldin, and suddenly there we were, "virtually" right beside him as he huddled with his children in a corner of his home, shells falling all about his neighborhood. He asked us for help in getting him and the six youngest of his eight children out of Gaza. "The house next to me has been reduced to rubble! I could only send you a short email response because I am almost out of power here." His mobile phone battery was dying.
"I am stuck here with the children," he told us. His wife had died three months earlier of leukemia. "Please, can you help me get out?" Immediately my husband and I put our heads together and created lists of people in the media and in the Israeli government. Who should we approach?
HAVING RECENTLY completed the film, interviewing and dealing with many influential people in Israel and abroad, we felt that just maybe we could help Izzeldin and his kids get out. Time was of the essence as it seemed that his home could be the next to get hit.
We quickly created an email blast to anyone and everyone who might be able to help. International phone calls were made, and a chain of supporters was suddenly in place.
The cards seemed to fall into place. A phone call to a physician/philanthropist in Canada resulted in a job offer there with his full backing. Izzeldin's plight resonated with this generous and influential Jewish doctor, and he moved quickly to arrange exit visas for the family.
Meanwhile, Izzeldin struggled with the decision of leaving Gaza with all of his children, or going out alone, and then arranging for them to join him later. We encouraged him to quickly and discreetly arrange everybody's possessions, and we hoped that he and his family would soon be out of there.
Friday morning, January 16 - late afternoon in Gaza - my husband spoke with Izzeldin. He was happy and excited about the prospect of heading to Canada and starting a new life. "Thank you Isidore," he said over and over. "Thank you for all of your help and Shabbat Shalom."
AN HOUR later, while Izzeldin was giving a live phone interview for Israeli TV evening news about the situation in Gaza, an explosion rocked his home, instantly killing three of his daughters, ages 20, 15 and 13, as well as a niece, and injuring another daughter and son. It was the Israeli TV journalist, who, struggling to keep his composure, called for an ambulance.
A phone call came in to my husband with the horrific news. He frantically tried to reach Izzeldin hoping it was not true.
We could not believe it. He had been so close to getting out. And what's more, Israel knows and respects Izzeldin. In fact, the week before, Izzeldin had spotted a tank just outside his home. He phoned an Israeli journalist friend, who phoned the IDF, and the tank turned away. What happened?
Suddenly we were back on the phone with Izzeldin as he rode to the hospital with his injured daughter and son. "Israel you know me! You know that I was home with my daughters!" He cried in anguish. "Isidore, Isidore you tried so hard to help me, and look what has happened!"
Izzeldin and his family were picked up by an Israeli ambulance. They were brought to Tel Hashomer hospital for treatment. (Tel Hashomer hospital was where Izzeldin's wife was treated for leukemia, and where he was involved in a joint research project with Israeli doctors). There, surrounded by Jewish friends and colleagues comforting and crying along with him, he was descended upon by media from all over the world. Now hoarse with laryngitis he repeated his story for news people over and over. "I am a man of peace. Only peace and love came from my house," he said.
We know that Israel does not seek to target civilians. We know that the soldiers respond to hostilities and gun fire. It is also very well known that one of the most insidious things about this war is that Hamas often launches missiles and fires shots from within schools, hospitals, UN facilities, and any target that will garner the most animosity possible for Israel. The objective? Let Israel be seen by the world as a merciless aggressor. The result? So many of their "brethren" killed in the cross fire, including innocent children - set up by their own people.
IN 2000, Izzeldin completed his post-graduate diploma in fetal medicine at King's College Hospital, London. In 2004, with the backing of Soroka Hospital, he attended Harvard, earning his Masters Degree in Public Health. He returned to Gaza where he operates a clinic for the local Palestinian residents. Through his work both in Israel and Gaza, he has earned great respect and admiration from both peoples. Izzeldin has been critical of Hamas and of violence. He has been very outspoken about the need for understanding between the people of the region and has attempted to use medicine as a bridge to peace. He has always praised the wonderful care given to Palestinian patients by Soroka hospital, where he worked.
He was outraged and outspoken in an article published by The Jerusalem Post in 2005 when a Palestinian woman attempted to become a suicide bomber right there in the hospital: "I have nothing but praise for the doctors, nurses and other medical staff at Soroka Hospital. They show compassion, sympathy and kindness. I was therefore extremely shocked and upset to hear that Wafa Biss, from the Jabalya refugee camp, was wired with explosives to blow herself up at Soroka, a place where she had been treated with kindness and mercy... Soroka is a hospital that has opened its doors to treat Palestinians without discrimination, offering the best care available. I want to tell my friends and colleagues at Soroka that all the Gaza residents I have spoken to have expressed their condemnation of this evil and brainless act..."
FRESH FROM burying three daughters, Izzeldin expresses the hope that they will be the last sacrifice for peace. Even now, as the IDF investigates the circumstances of this tragic attack, Izzeldin does not seek retribution or blame, though he does want to understand what happened. A true man of peace, Dr. Abuelaish cannot accept the idea that his children died as a result of intentional actions by either side. He hopes and prays that the Israeli Army investigation will conclude this was all a horrible, tragic mistake. For who would want to intentionally harm the innocent?
As Izzeldin so eloquently put it in our 2007 film Blood and Tears, "This small holy land, it can accommodate the Palestinians and the Israelis, peacefully. Let this home accommodate both of them equally, peacefully, and to enjoy their life, if it is not for us, at least for our children and grandchildren."
Brenda Sassoon-Rosmarin has known Dr. Abuelaish for over a decade. She is a writer and co-producer of the documentary film Blood and Tears: The Arab-Israeli Conflict, co-produced and directed by her husband Isidore Rosmarin.