“There’s too much to admit here,”: Yelling at Bereaved Parents in an Israeli Hospital

Veteran journalist Orly Halpern writing an excellent piece in the Globe and Mail, deepens the story on the Gazan peacemaker/doctor whose three daughters were killed. The shocking reactions of some Israelis to his agony is an important clue to understanding the deterioration of the political/psychological atmosphere in Israel, and why the country, and its dwindling supporters, may be headed for a clash with the rest of the world.

“I prefer to believe the Israeli army, that a sniper shot from his house, and not [to believe] the doctor,” one Israeli posted on an Israeli news website.

“Is there such a thing as an Arab who is not Hamas?” asked another.

“How can anyone not believe this man?” a third wondered.

Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish grieves at a Tel Aviv hospital this month. The doctor, whose Gaza home was shelled, worked in Israeli hospitals for more than 20 years.

Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish had worked in Israeli hospitals for more than 20 years and became a familiar and trustworthy voice during the war as he gave phone interviews to Israeli TV and radio about the situation in Gaza. It was the night before the war ended, and Dr. Abu al-Aish was about to give another phone interview when two Israeli tank shells tore into his apartment. For 3½ minutes, the heart-ripping, bloodcurdling wails of Dr. Abu al-Aish filled the TV studio and living rooms across Israel.

“My daughters, my daughters, oh God, oh God,” cried the doctor, his voice gushing with pain. “I want to save them, to save them. But they are dead. They were hit in the head. They died on the spot.”

The Israeli campaign in Gaza raged for 22 days and claimed the lives of more than 1,300 Palestinians, hundreds of them children. Thirteen Israelis were also killed. But despite the high number of civilian casualties, few Israelis protested. Many expressed indifference or claimed it was “unavoidable.” An overwhelming 94 per cent supported the war, according to a Tel Aviv University poll taken in its second week, after the ground invasion began.

The media coverage of Dr. Abu al-Aish’s anguish forced Israelis to confront the notion that their government was responsible for killing the family of a man of peace, someone who had publicly condemned Hamas, someone who had treated Israeli patients. He’d been considering a move out of Gaza to take a job offer in Canada.

For the first time since the war began, the personal tragedy of a Palestinian civilian in Gaza grabbed Israeli headlines. Since then, Dr. Abu al-Aish’s story has been endlessly debated on Israeli television and radio, discussed online and in print and argued on video on Facebook and YouTube.

Some Israelis expressed remorse, but many reacted by blaming the doctor or Hamas.

One of the most discussed reactions came from Levana Stern, whose three sons were soldiers in Gaza.

She pushed past the reporters interviewing the doctor a day after the shelling, and yelled: “Who knows what weapons you had in your house. … If there hadn’t been fire coming from the house they wouldn’t have fired on it.” She lashed at the reporters, calling them “crazy” for listening to his “propaganda.”

The doctor dropped his head in hands and cried: “They don’t want to know the truth; they don’t want to know the truth.”

Larry Derfner, an American-Israeli columnist at the Jerusalem Post, said that the truth is too painful for Israelis to accept, so some just refuse to believe that innocent civilians were killed.

“The worse it gets, the harder you have to defend it,” he said. “There’s too much to admit, there’s too much guilt to take on.”

We call this ‘cognitive dissonance’ in our field of conflict resolution, borrowing it from social psychology. It means that people cannot cope with the reality of this doctor and his slaughtered family. His identity as a peace loving Palestinian strips away all of their rationalizations for the killing of his children, for the actions of their sons and husbands in the war. It is unbearable, and so they must demonize him or dismiss him in some way.

Often in our field people will say that such cognitive dissonance leads to destructive reactions, like those of the people in the story. I don’t think so. I think, on the contrary, that this is precisely what anyone goes through when they start to strip away falsehoods that prevent average people from exercising their conscience. That is why Orly has done such an important job of not just exposing the doctor’s story but also telling the tale of what Israelis need to face about their future if their sole approach to their neighbors is one of conquest and punishments. They cannot continue to exist with the fantasies of their youth. They must face the consequences of victory, the consequences of all these dead Palestinian children. They have to decide whether the price for their self-image, for their souls, is worth it.

Finally I add these letters from Bryan Hamlin and Yehezkel Landau who report on the doctor who they both know. Yehezkel was given his phone number by my old peace partner, Bryan Hamlin of Boston, who worked closely with the doctor at one time. And so, this becomes more and more real for me. These are all my friends of twenty five years who have been swimming upstream, always hoping that people will see a better way than violence. Our hearts are broken but we persist. Here are the two letters:

Dear various friends,

I write to tell a very tragic story and to ask your advice. Soon after the Israeli bombing of Gaza began I phoned a friend of mine Dr. Izzeldin Abulaish who lives in Gaza. Anne and I had got to know him when he did a year’s postdoctoral program at the Harvard School of Public Health. Izzeldin is a gynaecologist and used to work in the Israeli town of Beersheva where, as he would say with a smile, he had delivered many Israelis.

This past September his wife was suddenly taken ill and before any real diagnosis could be had she died leaving him with 8 children. When I phoned some days ago it was ten at night for him and he was huddled in his apartment with his 8 children, cold, with no power (his cellphone still worked), and little food. He was amazingly upbeat and talked of his faith his and gratitude for Israeli friends phoning him to ask after him.

Yesterday, while Anne was driving home she heard on National Public Radio an account from Quil Lawrence who he had talked with ..and the name sounded to Anne very similar to our friend. A tank shell had hit this home and three childred were killed. This morning I phoned the Izzeldin’s cellphone hoping that it would be someone else it had happened to. As soon as Izzeldin answered I knew something was seriously amiss – gone was his usual cheery voice. “Is it true ?” I said. Then I heard the story – two tank shells destroying their home, killing four children – three of his daughters and a niece, and injuring four others, one, another daughter, seriously. “It’s a crime”. he said. “You must get people to know the truth”. He still expressed gratitude for Israeli friends that had kept in touch by phone. Amazingly, although angry, there still seemed to be no hatred.

I am devastated for my friend. I thought I should tell you, my friends and acquaintances. How can we end this madness?

Bryan Hamlin

Letter from Yehezkel Landau:

Dear friends, I phoned Dr. Abuleish today (thank you, Bryan, for his number) and spoke with him for about ten minutes, offering whatever solace and support I could. His spirit was strong and his faith unbroken. I am in awe of him. The most heartbreaking moment was when I offered condolences over the prior death of his wife, and he said that, as he was trying to support his 12-year-old son in the wake of his sisters’ tragic deaths, the son said, “Daddy, you should be happy. Mommy wanted her daughters close to her and so they are now all together.” So both son and father are supporting each other through this terrible ordeal.

Shalom, Yehezkel

Dr. Abu Al-Aish and one of his surviving children
Dr. Abu Al-Aish and one of his surviving children
© Marc Gopin