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Bowen diary: Hitting home

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen's diary of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

30 JANUARY

Why did it take a long time for Israelis to become aware of the fact that many hundreds of Palestinian civilians were being killed in Gaza by their troops?

Dr Izzeldeen and his son, Abdullah, on 21 Jan
Dr Izzeldeen holds on to his son, Abdullah, having lost three daughters

The al-Mazen centre for human rights has told the BBC that 1,268 people were killed, among them 288 children and 103 women. It is still investigating some unconfirmed cases.

Thirteen Israelis - 10 soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rockets - were killed before the two sides both announced ceasefires on 18 January.

It took the grief of Dr Izzeldeen Abuelaish, after the deaths of three of his daughters and a niece, to get through to the Israeli consciousness. I have written about the family in my last few diaries.

'Unique factors'

In Tel Aviv today I met the journalists who helped evacuate another Abuelaish daughter and another niece for medical treatment in Israel. They work for Israel's Channel 10 TV.

One of them, Shlomi Eldar, was telephoned by Dr Izzeldeen while he was in the studio. The doctor's anguish was broadcast live, in the fluent Hebrew that he uses with Jewish patients in the Israeli hospital where he works.

Shlomi covers the Palestinians for Channel 10. With his colleague Alon Ben-David, who is the defence correspondent, they started to ring all the influential people they could.

They say that within an hour and a half, the girls were being transferred into an Israeli ambulance at the Erez crossing into Gaza.

As far as they know, the only other Palestinian casualties taken into Israel during what was a very one-sided war, were people who had been picked up by the army.

Other civilians were evacuated via the Rafah crossing into Egypt and then sent to Cairo and other Arab capitals.

Shlomi and Alon say that in this case unique factors came together. The drama happened live on TV. The doctor spoke Hebrew. The channel had already interviewed him on conditions inside Gaza so he was known to the audience.

And that was why the deaths of four young girls in Gaza hit home in Israel's sitting rooms in a way that no others did, and then made some Israelis think about other Palestinian casualties too.

'Just war'

This morning I also paid a visit to Levana Stern, an Israeli mother of three sons, who made headlines here when she interrupted a news conference being held by Dr Izzeldeen in the Sheba hospital near Tel Aviv.

She had been visiting her father in the orthopaedic department, and had seen wounded soldiers and their crying mothers. So when she saw journalists paying a lot of attention to a Palestinian doctor she flipped.

She thought it was grotesque that the journalists were more concerned about Gazans than Israelis. For a few minutes that day, it got very noisy.

Afterwards she apologised for shouting, and told the doctor that she felt very sad about the dead girls, but she has not changed her view that Israel was fighting a just war of legitimate self defence.

Polls have shown that her view is shared by most Israelis. That is why they may feel sorry about dead civilians, but don't believe their country is at fault.

They say it happened because Hamas was firing rockets. There is a strong feeling still that something had to done about the rocket fire out of Gaza.

Levana said that an eight-year-old, in the areas within rocket range of Gaza, has never been able to get to school without having that sense of threat.

It all feeds into the generalised sense of insecurity that many Israelis say they feel. It is a product of their history, and the uncertain future.

It exists despite the fact that Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East, nuclear weapons, a high-tech economy and the closest possible strategic relationship with the United States, the most powerful country in the world.

But did the war make Israelis any safer? Levana and her husband don't think so. They believe that will only happen when there is peace with the Palestinians.

29 JANUARY

I left Gaza yesterday, and am back in Jerusalem.

Wrecked home of Dr Izzeldeen Abuelaish in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, on 21/1/09
Two of the girls were doing homework when the shell hit Dr Izzeldeen's home

In my last diary I wrote about Dr Izzeldeen Abuelaish and the deaths of three of his daughters and niece in an Israeli attack.

This morning I went to see Dr Izzeldeen and his daughter Shadha at the hospital where she is being treated near Tel Aviv. Another niece, Ghaidar, is in the same hospital.

The two girls were with the other four when they were killed.

Both were badly hurt, but seem to be on the mend. Their doctors are optimistic.

I didn't see Ghaidar, but Shadha, who is just 17 (she had her birthday in hospital last week), was standing up by her bed, wearing a pink tracksuit.

Her right hand was heavily bandaged and she had a plastic shield over her right eye. It looks as if the doctors have saved her eye and her injured fingers.

I asked her how she was feeling. She said her eye and her hand hurt, but they were giving her something for the pain.

But what about her heart? She said that she was trying not to look inside herself too much at the moment.

A friend of her father's, an Israeli doctor, came to visit. He talked about his shame when he heard what had happened to Dr Izzeldine's family.

But he said that the rocketing of Israel from Gaza was unacceptable, and the government had needed to take action. He said he would have preferred a shorter campaign.

My impression while I was in Israel during the fighting was that most people were much more concerned about Israeli casualties.

The view among many of the Israelis I spoke to was that the war was legitimate self defence and Hamas was responsible for the casualties because it fought from behind civilians.

In the next couple of days I am going to look more at Israeli views of what happened in Gaza.


27 JANUARY

I don't know how Dr Izzeldeen Abuelaish keeps going.

Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish
Despite the tragedy, Dr Izeldeen Abuelaish says he still believes in peace

Everything in his life changed at about 1605 on 16 January. In the space of not much more than a minute, two Israeli tank shells hit his home in Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip.

The shells killed three of his daughters and a niece. His story has been reported around the world, but I have just met him for the first time as he was back here in Gaza this morning.

Dr Izzeldeen's phones (he carries two) hardly stopped ringing. Neighbours and friends came to offer condolences. Reporters queued up for interviews.

He was taking a day away from the bedsides of his daughter and another niece who were evacuated, badly wounded, for medical treatment in Israel.

His family's tragedy got through to the Israeli public like no other in Gaza.

During the war, the deaths of Palestinian civilians at the hands of their soldiers did not much register with them. The attack on Gaza was seen as just, defensive and necessary.

Once ground troops were sent in, the biggest Israeli concern was the safety of their own soldiers.

Daughters' bedroom

Dr Izzeldeen grew up in Jabaliya refugee camp, the biggest in the Gaza Strip.

Look at what this family was armed with. Love and education
Dr Izzeldeen Abuelaish

Like many others, his route out was education. He became a doctor. He studied, among other places, at Harvard University.

For the last eight years he has worked in Israel, as a gynaecologist, returning to his family in Jabaliya at the weekends.

Gaza is a closed world. The vast majority of the 1.5 million people who live here are never allowed to leave. There is no way out by sea or air.

The border crossing with Egypt is restricted to travellers with special permission, and the crossings with Israel are virtually impenetrable for Palestinians.

But Dr Izzeldeen, because of his job, had permission to come in and out.

During the war, because of his fluent Hebrew, he was interviewed by Israeli journalists about Gaza. He has also campaigned for peace.

Dr Izzeldeen lives in a sturdy apartment block, five stories high. He shares it with his brothers and their wives and children. Living in an extended family is the norm for Palestinians.

This morning Dr Izzeldeen showed me around his flat. First, we went to what had been his daughters' bedroom.

He pointed to a bookcase, containing school textbooks covered in dust and bits of plaster.

"Look at what this family was armed with. Love and education," he said.

Then we went to the dining room. At the window he pointed to some deep tracks in the sand outside.

He said that a few days before his daughters and their cousin were killed, a tank had been stationed there.

Dr Izzeldeen phoned his friends in Israel and the tank was moved away.

So he thought they were as safe in their home as anywhere else, because important people in Israel knew that he was there with his children.

And then we went to the room where Bisan, Noor, Aya and Mayar were killed. It is a bright corner room, with windows on two sides. It is as it was on the day of the attack.

Sift through the debris on the floor and you can see that this was a playroom that grew into a study and sitting room for the girls as they grew up.

Mixed with the rubble and shrapnel on the floor is a shell collection, a pink hairbrush, belts, handbags, a fragment of cardboard printed with a Barbie and lots of school books, caked with dried blood.

Two blasts

Dr Izzeldeen is fiercely proud of his daughters. They were all good at school.

Bisan, the eldest, was about to graduate a year early from university. He showed me pictures of a peace camp she went to in New Mexico a few years ago, where she was able to mix with Israeli children.

He said that since the death of his wife from cancer last year, she had been a substitute mother for the younger children. The doctor said several times, through his tears, that she was worth 100 men.

When the first shell came in Bisan was in the kitchen making tea. The girls were doing their homework.

The doctor was sitting talking to his brother Shihab, Noor's father when the first shell hit. In the confusion, with the apartment full of smoke and dust, he thought a bottle of cooking gas had exploded.

Shihab told me that the blast knocked them down. He was hurt by shrapnel. As the men were picking themselves up, Bisan rushed into the girls' room. And then the second shell blasted through the room.

The two fathers rushed to their daughters. Mayar and Noor were sitting where they had been working, still in their chairs. Their heads had been blown off.

The ceiling and walls of the room are still splattered with their blood and brains. When they got in to the room, Aya was lying dead on the floor.

Bisan was still breathing. One of her feet had been severed. She died as they picked her up.

Another of Dr Izzeldeen's nieces, Ghaidar, looked as though she was dead. It was only when she groaned as she was being moved that they realised that she was not.

Dr Izzeldeen got to work on his daughter Shatha who was alive but badly wounded. One of her eyes was hanging out of its socket. In Israel, her father's colleagues are fighting to save her sight.

Doctor's answer

Some people in Israel have suggested that the shells came from Hamas.

I climbed onto to an adjoining roof with Marc Garlasco, who is a weapons expert for Human Rights Watch. He found pieces of a high explosive anti-tank round.

From behind the building you can see through the holes the shells made as they passed through the flat and beyond it to a hill where Israeli tanks were deployed. It was a straight shot.

As Dr Izzeldeen stood in the wreckage of his family's life, I asked him if he still believed in peace.

He said he did, and so did his Israeli friends, but their army and those who gave it orders did not. I put to him Israel's argument, that it was a defensive war provoked by Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

He answered like a doctor. Hamas and the rockets, he said, were the symptoms of a disease caused by a hundred years of conflict and the denial of freedom to Palestinians.

And his diagnosis? The correct treatment is not to kill innocent people in Gaza.


Other previous diary entries by Jeremy Bowen:



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