Page last updated at 18:15 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Gaza doctor's loss grips Israelis

Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish
Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish shared his grief at losing his daughters

By Lucy Ash
BBC World Service

I first met Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish eight years ago when I made a radio documentary about his extraordinary life and work.

A Palestinian obstetrician who specialises in treating infertility, he lives in Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip, but used to work part-time in Israel helping Jewish women to have babies.

He also had a clinic in Gaza, taught medical school students there and arranged for seriously ill Palestinian patients to be treated in Israel.

He put up with the tedious and sometimes humiliating border checks with dignity and patience.

He stayed calm when one of his own Palestinian medical students told him she was "very, very angry" that he was helping Israelis to have children.

"What if these babies grow up to become soldiers who kill our people?" asked the young woman.

My daughters and I were armed with nothing but love and hope

Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish

Despite all the suspicion, the hatred and the barriers Dr Abuelaish continued his work.

In 2001, Dr Gad Potashnik was in charge of the IVF clinic at the Soroka University Hospital in Beersheba.

He described Dr Abuelaish as a "magical, secret bridge between Israelis and Palestinians".

But that "magical, secret bridge" is now close to breaking point.

I have stayed in touch with Dr Abuelaish over the years.

Since we met he has had a number of jobs and research posts abroad.

In September 2008 he was about to start working for the European Union in Africa but had to return home after his wife, Nadia, fell ill with leukaemia.

Israeli patients

She died soon after his return, leaving him a widower with eight children aged three to 20.

In the middle of the recent conflict, I interviewed Dr Abuelaish for the BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

He told me all the glass had been blown out of the windows of his house, he could hear firing and explosions all around and he was desperately worried for the safety of his children.

Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish's children photographed in 2001
Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish's children in 2001

Then on Friday afternoon, just a day before the ceasefire was announced, his worst nightmare came true.

"My daughters were just sitting quietly talking in their bedroom at home," Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish told me on the phone between sobs.

"I had just left the room, carrying my youngest son on my shoulders. Then a shell came through the wall.

"I rushed back to find their dead bodies - or rather parts of their bodies - strewn all over the room. One was still sitting in a chair but she had no legs.

"Tell me why did they have to die? Who gave the order to fire on my house?"

In a voice cracked with emotion, he added: "You know me, Lucy. You have been to my house, my hospital; you have seen my Israeli patients.

"I have tried so hard to bring people on both sides together and just look what I get in return."

Demolished building in Jabaliya Camp, Gaza
Jabaliya Camp was hit repeatedly by Israeli strikes

The victims were Bisan, aged 20, Mayar, 15, Aya aged 13 and the physician's 17-year-old niece Nur Abuelaish.

"My eldest daughter was five months away from finishing her degree in business and financial management. She was looking forward to the future and I was so proud of her."

I remember talking to Dr Abuelaish in his house as his children scurried around him asking questions and singing songs.

Bisan was a cheeky, bright-eyed girl, keen to show off her English and read aloud from her school text book.

Audience response

During the recent military campaign, Dr Abuelaish, who speaks fluent Hebrew, had been acting as an unofficial correspondent for a Tel Aviv-based TV station, giving daily updates by phone.

It feels to me as if some of our audience is seeing and hearing about the high price ordinary Palestinians are paying in this conflict for the first time
Shlomi Eldar
Israeli TV journalist

He was determined to let Israelis know as much as possible about the suffering of Palestinian civilians under Israel's bombardment.

Minutes after the shell hit his house, Dr Abuelaish phoned the station's presenter, Shlomi Eldar, to describe what had happened.

The Israeli journalist looked awkward and visibly distressed as the doctor's disembodied voice is broadcast crying: "My daughters, they killed them, Oh Lord. God, God, God."

Mr Eldar mobilised his contacts in the Israel military to open the border and fly the injured girls by helicopter to the Tel Hashomer Medical Centre, the largest hospital in Israel.

He said thousands of viewers had called the station following the harrowing interview with Dr Abuelaish.

"I think this broadcast will change public opinion in Israel," said Mr Eldar speaking by phone from Tel Aviv.

"It feels to me as if some of our audience is seeing and hearing about the high price ordinary Palestinians are paying in this conflict for the first time".

Dr Abuelaish's 17-year-old daughter Shadha is recovering there from an operation which may save her right eye, injured in the blast.

Her 12-year-old cousin Daida is in a critical condition from shrapnel wounds.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli military said the incident is now under investigation.

"For the time being, all that I can tell you is that our troops fired on the house because they had come under attack from somewhere in the vicinity of the house. Possibly a sniper but I can't confirm that," the spokeswoman said.

Speaking from the hospital, Dr Abuelaish denied that any militants had been hiding in or firing from his house.

"Violence is never the right way. My daughters and I were armed with nothing but love and hope."

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