Izzeldin Abuelaish was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. He received his elementary, preparatory and secondary education in the refugee camp schools. He then received a scholarship to study medicine in Cairo which led to many other educational opportunities. He was the first Palestinian doctor to receive a staff position at an Israeli hospital where he treated both Israeli and Palestinian patients. He and his wife had 8 children.
But tragically his wife died from acute leukemia in November 2008. That December he was able to take a day off work and travel to the beach with his 8 children. It was the first time they had some relief since the death of their mother. He wondered about the children’s future in that narrow strip of land called the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Egypt governed by the Hamas radicals. He took many pictures that day but this one of 3 of his daughters became especially memorable.
On the left sits Mayar who was 15. Mayar was a smart and bright girl. she was number one in math in the Gaza Strip. She was open-minded. She was the chairman of the students’ parliament. In the middle is Aya who was 13 and planned to be a journalist. She wanted to be the voice of the voiceless, to defend others, and to work for them. On the right is Bessam. She was 21 and had taken over the role of mother since her own mother’s passing. She was supposed to get her BA a few months later. Abuelaish said, “She was the mother, the sister, the friend, the good person to everyone after I lost my wife”.
A couple of weeks after the top picture was taken, there was a major flare up between Hamas and Israel. Rockets flew back and forth. Then the Israeli army entered into the Gaza Strip in an attempt to root out Hamas militants.
The civilian population was caught in the middle of an all-out war. For over 2 weeks they hunkered down in their homes, apartments and tents trying to survive. Dr. Abuelaish had no connections with Hamas. He was an advocate for peace and had many Israeli friends. But on January 16, 2009 an Israeli tank positioned itself outside his family’s building. For reasons still unknown it fired a rocket that hit his daughter’s bedroom. Mayar and Aya were instantly killed, along with their 17 year old cousin Noor. Another daughter was gravely wounded. The doctor helped his wounded surviving daughter out of the bedroom in an attempt to save her life. He asked Bessam to see if she could help the others. Just then a second shell hit the room. It killed Bessam and sent the rest of the family sprawling on the floor.
The doctor called an Israeli friend in the Israeli media. This friend was just about to go on the air at the time of the call. He took the call and sat at his news desk with the cellphone on speaker. He played it live for the Israeli public. He would not hang up on the doctor. The Israeli newscaster appealed to the Israeli army to withdraw from the area. Israelis all across the region responded and started calling their friends in the army. The shelling stopped. Then an ambulance arrived to take him and his wounded children to hospital in Israel where the staff at the hospital saved her life. The doctor was unable to get back into the Gaza Strip for the funeral of his daughters because the border was closed. Now the doctor was left to deal with his grief and tend to his 5 surviving children. How would he respond?