- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Full of rage and anguish after losing three daughters to Israeli tank shells in January, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish suddenly stopped himself. He had to arrange treatment for his niece, who was in danger of losing an eye and several fingers from the attack, and the only hospital that could help her was across the border in Israel.

“While I was screaming, I started to think and used my mind as a doctor,” Dr. Abuelaish told editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Monday.

Another survivor, his 12-year-old son, Mohammed, looked at him and asked, “‘Why are you screaming? My sisters are with their mother now,’” the doctor recalled as his eyes reddened and welled with tears. Dr. Abuelaish’s wife had died of leukemia only a few months before the Israeli offensive.

Despite his trauma, the Palestinian doctor, who for 15 years has delivered babies and helped infertile couples in Israel and his native Gaza Strip, did something all too rare in the history of a conflict in which the three-week Israeli offensive was merely the latest chapter. He vowed to try to unite Israelis and Palestinians instead of seeking revenge.

His tragedy received wide attention in Israel, where Dr. Abuelaish put a sympathetic face on an assault that, according to the United Nations, killed more than 1,200 Palestinians — most of them civilians — as Israel sought to stop rockets fired by Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza.

This month, Dr. Abuelaish met with American Jewish groups and others as a guest of Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. branch of the Israeli peace movement.

The doctor, who grew up in a refugee camp and spent summers feeding chickens in Israel before attending medical school, hopes to create a foundation to educate gifted women and girls in the Middle East. The foundation will be based in Gaza and created in honor of his three daughters: Bisan, 20; Mayar, 15; and Aya, 13. Already, he said, he has been promised two scholarships from the Harvard School of Public Health. He hopes that first lady Michelle Obama will take on the foundation as one of her causes, and he is meeting this week with officials at the White House National Security Council and the State Department.

“My daughters are lost, but what can we do for their memory?” he said. “I want to see the dreams of my daughters achieved by other girls.”

At the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, the Tel Aviv hospital where Dr. Abuelaish works four days a week, authorities plan to dedicate an auditorium and a medical teleconference center to his daughters.

The doctor’s story breaks the chain of what often seems to be an unyielding cycle of violence in a conflict that goes back more than a century and has continued with few interruptions since Israeli independence in May 1948. Civilian deaths in the conflict between Arabs and Jews have most often served as emotional justification for escalation, not as a catalyst for peace.

“This is an extraordinary story,” said Aaron Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who has served six secretaries of state as an adviser on the conflict. “It can only be explained by an X-factor of how individual humans are able to rise above their circumstances. Instead of seeking revenge and retribution, certain people can overcome these tragedies.”

Mr. Miller added, however, “You can’t produce this in the kinds of quantities you need.”

Dr. Abuelaish, who speaks fluent Hebrew and mixes his English with Jewish expressions such as “schlep” (meaning to travel with difficulty or carry something heavy), does not dwell on his sadness and loss.

“I am not a victim,” he said. “I am in a position to lead others and to teach them. The first moment I was laughing when they suggested psychotherapy. Please. I am a believer, and I believe this authority [selected] Izzeldin and his daughters for something positive and it needs someone who is able to carry this responsibility.”

He said he had left the room that was shelled only seconds before his daughters were killed.

“Two seconds later, I would be dead. Why?” he asked.

Two days after his daughters died, Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire.

“The second day, they opened their eyes and opened their houses,” he said of the Israelis.

He said his niece, Shada, 17, did not lose her eye or her fingers thanks to Israeli treatment.

Dr. Abuelaish deflected questions about politics — whether Israelis and Palestinians should live in one state or two or why Israelis recently elected a right-wing government.

“I am Palestinian, but I see with both eyes the Palestinian side and the Israeli side,” he said. “When I got calls from members of the Knesset and members of the Palestinian Authority, I said, ‘I am not politicized. What I care about is the human beings.’”

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