Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza infertility specialist, is a familiar figure to Israelis — a Palestinian who crossed the lines of enmity years ago to work in Israeli hospitals and become a frequent guest on Israeli TV and radio.
But the interview he did on Jan. 16, as Israeli forces waged war on Gaza's Hamas rulers, was horrifyingly different: Israeli tank shells had just killed three of his daughters, and he was phoning an Israeli journalist-friend, live on the air, to plead for help in evacuating the wounded, including another daughter and a niece.
Four months later, far from voicing bitterness over his loss, Abuelaish is trying to turn his tragedy into hope, raising money for a scholarship fund for Gaza girls and an Israeli hospital, and preaching reconciliation.
"We need to open our eyes, our minds and to have big hearts, to smash the mental and physical barriers and borders, to build the broken trust," said the Harvard-trained son of a Gaza laborer, sitting in the apartment where 14-year-old Aya, 15-year-old Mayar and 21-year-old Bissan were killed two days before the war ended.
A rare example of shared empathy
At a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has begun a round of meetings with Middle East leaders on how to end the Middle East conflict, Abuelaish's story illuminates the reality at ground level. With Israelis and Palestinians increasingly separated by fences and fear, it has offered a rare example of suffering on one side drawing empathy from the other.
Born in Gaza's largest refugee camp, the eldest of nine children, the 54-year-old doctor navigates easily between worlds. One day, he's bowing in Muslim prayer in Gaza. The next, he's chatting with fellow physicians at Tel Hashomer, a leading Tel Aviv-area hospital.
During the Gaza war, launched to end Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns, Israeli journalists often turned to him for a Gaza perspective, delivered in his fluent Hebrew.
Abuelaish, a widower, and his children, ages 6 to 21, spent the war in their apartment on the second floor of the five-story family building he shares with his brothers and their families in the town of Jebaliya, close to the border with Israel.
On Jan. 3, after a week of air attacks, Israeli tanks and ground forces moved into the Gaza Strip, including the doctor's neighborhood, and over the next two weeks would fire heavily, demolishing homes they said were thought to serve as Hamas positions.
On Jan. 16, Abuelaish was due to be interviewed by phone by Channel 10, a commercial Israeli TV station.
Four of his older daughters — Aya, Mayar, Bissan and 17-year-old Shada — were in their room that day, along with his niece Noor, 17. Shortly after 4:30 p.m., the first shell crashed into the home.
Abuelaish ran to the girls' room. Aya, Mayar, Bissan and Noor were dead, their bodies torn, pools of blood on the floor, he said. Shada was badly wounded in the right eye and hand.
"I don't want anyone to witness what I witnessed," Abuelaish said quietly.
Second shell wounded niece
He scooped up Shada. A second shell struck, critically wounding 12-year-old niece Ghaida and two of the doctor's brothers.
The doctor quickly took charge.
Fearing that Ghaida would die and Shada go blind, he called his friend, Shlomi Eldar, Palestinian affairs reporter for Israel's Channel 10 TV.
Eldar aired their conversation live. Viewers heard the doctor's pleas to evacuate the wounded to Israel, interrupted by his cries of grief.
Eldar also fought back tears as he urged anyone from the Israeli military who was watching the program to help the doctor. Then he worked the phones to get someone to rescue the family, said Ofer Shelah, a Channel 10 anchorman.
"Everybody was flabbergasted," he recalled. "It was a very shocking, human moment for everyone involved."
Ambulances couldn't reach the house
Palestinian ambulances couldn't reach the house for fear of coming under Israeli fire, so the family left on foot for the nearest Palestinian hospital, with teenagers carrying the wounded on makeshift stretchers. After many phone calls, Gaza ambulances drove the wounded to the border for a transfer to Tel Hashomer that was covered live by Channel 10 during evening prime time.
Shelah said he believes the doctor's tragedy changed attitudes. Israeli public support for the offensive remained strong, as a justified response to years of rocket fire, but Abuelaish made them empathize for the first time with Gaza civilians, he said. "He is such a winning person and his response was so noble that you couldn't sweep it under the rug as Palestinian propaganda," Shelah said.
The army says its investigation shows that its soldiers were shot at from a building next to Abuelaish's, and that the tanks fired at suspicious figures on the upper level of the doctor's house. It says it had repeatedly urged the doctor and others in the building to leave for their own safety.
Abuelaish denies getting warnings and insists there were no militants in his building or any shooting in the area until the tank shells struck.
Dueling narratives over events
Four months later, Palestinians and Israelis cling to their dueling narratives — that Israel used excessive force in a densely crowded area and killed more than 900 civilians, that Hamas provoked the war by its eight years of rocket fire on Israeli civilians and then used its own civilians as human shields against the Israeli invaders.
But Abuelaish says time is too precious to be wasted on arguments. "Hate and revenge is a disease," he says, "and I don't want to be diseased or sick."
He is now walking a path others have traveled before him, among them several hundred bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents who come together in what they call The Parents' Circle.
"In both societies, people are willing to listen to the bereaved," said an Israeli leader of the group, Roni Hirshenson, who has lost two sons to the conflict, one of them in a Palestinian suicide bombing.
The message is that if the families of victims on both sides speak out together, "we can overcome the hatred and act with reason," said Hirshenson, 67, who visited Abuelaish at Tel Hashomer after the war to try to comfort him.
Inundated by sympathetic e-mails
Abuelaish said he has been inundated by sympathetic e-mails from Israelis.
The doctor is taking up a teaching position at the University of Toronto in the fall and will probably leave with his surviving children, Abdullah, 6; Ghafa, 9, Mohammed, 13; Dalal, 20; and Shada. Shada's eyesight was saved, and last week she was at home sitting in front of a pile of books, cramming for her high school finals.
Abuelaish will also spend part of each year teaching at Haifa University in Israel, and plans to return to Gaza in five years.
He plans to write a book about his life to make the case for coexistence. In partnership with Tel Hashomer, he is helping to raise money for a conference center there, to be named after his daughters.
"I lost three precious daughters, but I have another five (children)," he said. "I have a future, I have my people, and hatred and revenge can be driven out by love and wisdom."