Column for Jewish News March 21 2017
We know that war is appalling and sometimes terrible mistakes are made, errors of judgment, whatever you want to call them. But equally, sometimes, there is a time to know when to acknowledge such human errors, and quit while you are ahead.
The trap into which apologists for such mistakes fall is to end up defending the indefensible, and it is never an edifying sight.
I thought about this last week, when reading about the tragedy of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gaza clinician.
This is a man who lost three of his daughters and a niece when an Israeli tank shell struck his home during the final days of Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
Dr Abuelaish was unusual in many ways: he lived in the Gaza town of Jebaliya but worked as a fertility specialist and gynaecologist in Tel Hashomer, one of Israel’s biggest hospitals.
He – like his Israeli colleagues – treated Jews and Arabs alike. He sent his children to Israeli peace camps, and was a rare proponent of dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. He spoke fluent Hebrew, had many friends in Israel, and was often contacted by journalists for updates during the first Gaza war, which was launched to end Hamas rocket fire on Israeli border towns.
On 16 January 2009, two days before Operation Cast Lead came to an end, the doctor phoned his journalist friend, Shlomo Eldar, live on air, and pleaded for help in evacuating the wounded, including a daughter and a niece.
He made the call moments after the Israeli shell had struck his home — and appalled Israeli viewers were brought face-to-face with the doctor’s agony.
But it was too late. Dr Abuelaish, whose wife had died from leukaemia four months before the shell attack, lost daughters Aya, Mayar and Bissan, and his niece, Noor.
The broken-hearted doctor moved from Gaza, and with his five surviving children began a new life in Canada.
Last week, Dr Abuelaish returned to Israel to seek an apology and compensation from the Israeli government. It is, of course, impossible to put a price on such deaths and ridiculous to suppose otherwise. But the doctor wants to give any compensation to a charity he has established in memory of the four girls, the Daughters for Life Foundation, which promotes education for women and girls of Middle Eastern background.
It seemed to me on a first – and even a second – reading, that this was an open and shut case.
Israel has few enough friends in Gaza as it is: why not bow to the inevitable, accept the responsibility and tell a grieving father how sorry the state is?
But then I read this charmless comment on social media: “His is a most tragic story, but with all due respect, the apology should be sought not from Israel, but Hamas who put them in harm’s way.”
And I realised that Israel was trying to defend the indefensible. And so it proved. Court papers were produced in which it was argued that while there is no denying that the IDF shelled the doctor’s Gaza building, “the presence of other explosives in the building means the deaths and injuries might have been caused by those other explosives”.
“Might”? That’s a hell of a possible, Israel. I am not arguing that Israel should apologise because Dr Abuelaish was a bit of a media star, but rather because there was a terrible error made, in the heat of war.
There’s a waiting path here, leading to the right thing to do. Please do it.