Too many children have died

Too many children have died

Imagine the thing that terrifies you most as a parent. The thing we won’t allow ourselves to think about in any concrete way, much less say aloud. Then multiply that horror three times.

I watched a YouTube video last week while researching a story, and was riveted -- and horrified -- both as a journalist and a parent. It dates back two years, to Jan. 16, 2009, the night four young Palestinian women were killed in Gaza.

Israeli television anchorman Shlomi Eldar is shown talking live with a Palestinian fertility expert, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who’d been reporting daily about deteriorating conditions in Gaza during a three-week war between Israel and Hamas.

An Israeli tank has fired two shells at Abuelaish’s home -- into his daughters’ bedroom -- killing three of them and a cousin. Eldar puts his cell phone on speaker, and you hear a father’s cries of anguish:

“My daughters, Oh God, Allah, oh God, Allah,” he cries. “I want to save them, to save them, but they are dead.”

Eldar, overcome, listens for a few minutes, then rushes backstage to use his connections to help Abuelaish get the wounded to hospitals in Israel.

The story, detailed in Abuelaish’s moving new memoir, “I Shall Not Hate,” shocked viewers in Israel and around the world. It personalized the violence that has, sadly, become all too common in the region.

Abuelaish, who visited Champaign-Urbana last week, has spent his career working with Israelis, believing that only one-to-one human connections can overcome decades of hate and mistrust.

He instilled the same belief in his children. He sent three of his daughters to a Creativity for Peace camp in Santa Fe, N.M., run by Israeli and Palestinian coordinators. He wanted them to spend time with Israeli girls in a neutral setting “to discover the ties that may bind and heal our mutual wounds,” he writes in the book.

The oldest girl, Bessan, attended twice, and had traveled across America in 2005 with a small group of young women from both sides of the conflict. The trip was intended to promote dialogue and break down cultural barriers.

There were no easy answers, but their conversations were filmed for a documentary, and some of Bessan’s comments are recounted in the book. “To meet terrorism with terrorism or violence with violence doesn’t solve anything,” she said. And this: “We think as enemies; we live on opposite sides and never meet. But I feel we are all the same. We are all human beings.”

The firstborn of eight children, she was “a remarkable girl,” her father writes, on track to graduate from the Islamic University in Gaza with a business degree.

She also had assumed the role of surrogate mother for the other children. Their mother, Nadia, died suddenly in September 2008, just two weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia.

“She seemed to be able to handle everything: mothering the children, taking care of the house, and getting high marks at school,” Abuelaish writes, but adds, “It was a lot for a 21-year-old to bear.”

She had two brothers and five sisters, including Mayar and Aya, then 15 and 14.

Mayar looked the most like her mother, and was the top math student in her school. She also wanted to be a doctor, like her father. The quietest of the six, she wasn’t shy about describing the impact of strife in Gaza.

“She once said, ‘When I grow up and become a mother, I want my kids to live in a reality where the word rocket is just another name for a space shuttle,’” he writes.

Aya was never far from Mayar, an “active, beautiful child who smiled easily and laughed a lot when she was with her sisters. She wanted to be a journalist and was very determined in her own quiet way,” he writes. “Aya loved language, excelled in Arabic literature. She was the poet in the family.”

The cover of the book shows the three girls relaxing on a beach a few miles from their home in Gaza, their names written in the sand. The photo was taken in December 2008, just a month before they died.

Abuelaish had taken the family to the beach to regroup after his wife’s death. He told them about a possible job opportunity in Toronto, and the children seemed happy about the prospect of a new start.

On the drive home, as Abuelaish listened to them chattering happily in the back, he thought, “We are getting there -- they will be okay.”

Their lives were shattered again 35 days later. The first shell hit as three of the girls studied in their bedroom, amid books, clothes, lip gloss and stuffed animals. Mayar and Aya lay dead, their sister Shatha severely wounded. Bessan rushed to their aid and was killed by the second blast, along with her cousin Noor.

It would have been natural for Abuelaish to seek revenge, as some his friends urged. Abuelaish, who was nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, has no room for hate. He calls it “a cancer,” and says he will not be its victim, and neither will his children.

Instead, he set up a foundation to honor his daughters, called Daughters for Life, dedicated to improving the role and status of women in the Middle East. He wants to fund high school and college scholarships, research and advocacy work to ensure women in Israel, Palestine and other countries have a voice, and can help lead change.

There are tragic stories on both sides of the border, of course, parents who’ve lost children to sniper fire, car bombs and rocket attacks. And that is his point.

Too many people -- too many children -- have died already.

He believes ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are fed up with war and bloodshed, and just want to live in peace and keep their children safe.

“Let my daughters,” he writes, “be the last to die.”

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Leave your comments below, or contact Julie Wurth at 351-5226, jwurthnews-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

Photos: Bessan (top), Mayar and Aya Abuelaish (courtesy Walker & Co. publishing)

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