One of the best-known tragedies of the Gaza conflict two years ago was the mistaken Israeli shelling of an apartment that killed the three daughters and a niece of Palestinian gynecologist Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.
What made the tragedy all the more painful was that Abuelaish called a television reporter friend who was on the air when the shells struck and screamed into the phone, “My girls, oh God, they’ve killed my girls.” The reporter put his cell phone next to the microphone so the audience could hear Abuelaish’s anguished cries.
In interviews after the attack, Abuelaish said the deaths had only stiffened his resolve to strive for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Some people think the voice of peace has been assassinated, but they have made a mistake,” he told The Jewish Week at the time. “It is stronger.”
So Abuelaish, who is about to embark on a national tour promoting his book, “I Shall Not Hate,” surprised many last week by filing suit in Jerusalem against the State of Israel, seeking an unspecified amount of monetary compensation and a formal apology for the deaths.
Israeli government officials have declined to offer an apology, saying the mishap was an “operation of war.”
The Israel Defense Forces conceded that it had fired the fatal shells on Jan. 16, 2009 after coming under fire from a house adjacent to that of the doctor. It said soldiers shot at Abuelaish’s building after spotting figures on an upper level who were thought to be directing the Hamas fire.
After the war and Abuelaish’s repeated calls for reconciliation, he was offered honorary citizenship by Belgium and nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. He moved to Toronto to accept a fellowship and a chair at the University of Toronto.
Abuelaish told the Toronto Star that he had quietly sought an apology and compensation for the past two years and that because the statute of limitations runs out Jan. 16, the second anniversary of the shelling, he was “forced” to act. “A human life has no ‘statute of limitations,’” he was quoted as saying.
Several of Abuelaish’s supporters were unaware of the suit and were privately distressed to learn of it.
“My wife and I have known Dr. Abuelaish for over a decade and we are disappointed by this action,” said Isidore Rosmarin, the producer/director of the 2007 documentary “Blood and Tears: The Arab-Israeli Conflict” that featured Abuelaish.
“What happened to him and his family was a terrible tragedy, and unfortunately it occurred during a war,” Rosmarin said. “Although I do not believe he is morally justified in suing the Israeli government, he has a legal right to do so. But I wonder why he is not suing Hamas, which precipitated the war by firing 7,000-odd missiles into Sderot [in Israel].”
A legal adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Ahaz Ben-Ari, was quoted by the Israeli media as saying: “Despite the severe outcome, from a legal standpoint our stance is that the operation during which Dr. Abulaish’s family members were hurt was an operation of war. Therefore, the State of Israel does not carry the responsibility for the damage it caused.”
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, spiritual leader of Temple Israel Center of White Plains, said he had met Abuelaish when the doctor spoke at his synagogue about a decade ago and that he had not heard about the suit. But he added: “In general, apologies are extremely important.”
“Unfortunately, things that should happen don’t because of legal complications,” he added. “Sometimes there are things you would like to say, but the lawyer says you can’t. That sounds as if this may be the situation here.”
Other observers pointed out that if the government of Israel apologized and paid compensation for the deaths, it would be opening itself up to suits from other Palestinians who suffered losses or injuries in the Gaza conflict. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed, at least 300 of whom were believed to be civilians.