Hell revisited: Surviving Israel’s bombs to get married

For Palestinians like Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, planning a wedding is about hazard, hope and painful memories of loss.

Palestinian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish gives a press conference at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem on November 15, 2021. - Abuelaish is a Palestinian doctor from Gaza who worked at the Tel Hashomer hospital in Israel until his 2009 when his house was hit by an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip in a 2009 operation, killing three of this daughters and his niece. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Palestinian-Canadian doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish holds photos of his daughters and niece, killed by Israeli shells that hit his Gaza home in 2009, while addressing a press conference at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem on November 15, 2021. He returned to Gaza in August 2022 for a surviving daughter's marriage [Ahmad Gharabli/AFP]

This is a story that needs to be told. It needs to be told because it conveys – better than any human rights report – the capricious cruelties and indignities Palestinians endure in Gaza and what is possible when humanity trumps hate.

It is also, at times, the stuff that nightmares and some movies are made of.

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish told me the story of hazard and hope when we spoke by phone shortly after he returned to his adopted home in Toronto, Canada, earlier this month.

The dogged, universally acclaimed Palestinian-Canadian doctor and teacher has devoted his life to harmony and healing. He is a man of peace who knows the indelible costs of war.

On January 16, 2009, two Israeli tank shells obliterated his home in Gaza. His daughters, Bessan, 21, Mayar, 15, and Aya, 13, and a niece, Noor, 17, were killed. Dr Abuelaish discovered their dismembered bodies.

The 67-year-old makes his way to Gaza and the West Bank often to tend to and provide for other Palestinians – especially children. It is, he says, a duty.

In late July, Dr Abuelaish arrived in Gaza with three of his surviving children, Dalal, Abdallah and, the bride-to-be, 29-year-old Shatha, to share with family and friends the joy of her upcoming wedding to Mohammed, a 32-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian.

Their long-distance courtship – spanning the United States, Canada and Saudi Arabia – was a year in the making. It began with exchanged notes, then more fulsome conservations. Although their families had known each other for years, Shatha and Mohammed – both computer engineers – met in Buffalo, New York for the first time in April. By May, they were engaged. The nuptials, set for August 9, would be held in Amman, Jordan.

Excited and brimming with anticipation, Shatha welcomed her extended family in Gaza – 80 people in all – at the traditional henna party on July 30 to celebrate. She didn’t know then that she might be barred from traveling to attend her own wedding, for one reason alone: She is Palestinian.

Israel invades every aspect of Palestinian life – even their love lives. Early in September, the ministry of defence issued a “directive” ordering foreigners to report if they had become smitten with a Palestinian. Israel’s war on who, when, and where Palestinians can marry is an old, grotesque bureaucratic affront to decency.

Dr Abuelaish had planned to depart Gaza on August 4 joined by Shatha, Dalal and Abdallah, for Ramallah in the West Bank. From there, they would enter Jordan via the Allenby Bridge.

But those plans became casualties of this fact: Gaza is a prison and Israel is the prison’s warden. Israel decides who and what can come and go, who lives or dies, and when, of course, it chooses to raid, bomb or invade the narrow strip of Palestinian soil.

On August 2, Israel stopped rail traffic and closed roads along the Gaza border after it arrested an Islamic Jihad commander in the Jenin refugee camp, during a raid in which a Palestinian child was also shot dead. The brewing prospect that military tensions would escalate turned Shatha’s excitement and anticipation into fear and foreboding.

For Dr Abuelaish, it was hell revisited. “We couldn’t get out,” he said.

A father who had already lost three daughters and a niece during an Israeli invasion was confronting the unimaginable horror that Shatha, Dalal and Abdallah were at similar, lethal risk in Gaza. “War does not discriminate,” Dr Abuelaish said. “In Gaza, you wait and ask: Who will be next?”

So, rather than wait, he acted to protect his children and to keep his promise to Shatha: She would be married in Amman on the date and time of their choosing, not Israel’s.

Their improbable odyssey out of Gaza would be dangerous and the outcome uncertain.

On August 3, Dr Abuelaish enlisted the help of influential contacts and friends on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, made over decades attempting to mend that intransigent divide. Despite enjoying Canadian citizenship, Dr Abuelaish elected not to approach the country’s diplomats in Tel Aviv or Ramallah. He was convinced they would have just blamed him for putting his family in jeopardy by bringing them to Gaza.

On August 4, Dr Abuelaish was told by a Palestinian source that he and his family would be able to get out later that evening through Erez, the only crossing for people between Gaza and Israel. Accompanied by Palestinian drivers and guides, two golf carts carrying the family and their luggage made the short, treacherous journey towards the checkpoint.

Meanwhile, Israel appeared poised to launch what it would soon describe as a “pre-emptive” assault on Gaza designed, once more, to pummel and terrorise Palestinians into submission. Given the looming danger, Dr Abuelaish was urged to turn back. He refused.

They arrived at the checkpoint at 10pm. Private Israeli security contractors spent 90 minutes checking the Abuelaishs’ credentials and luggage and ordered the family to leave for Bethlehem without their belongings since the Israeli military was anxious to close the crossing. Again, Dr Abuelaish refused.

The Israelis relented.

A documentary crew – making a film on Dr Abuelaish’s life and work – arranged to meet him and his family on the Israeli side of the border and ferry them by van to Bethlehem using a maze of sandy, unfamiliar back roads. They were escorted briefly by Israeli security.

Relieved and thankful, Dr Abuelaish credits the co-operation of Israelis and Palestinians for his family’s safe passage out of Gaza. “They made the impossible possible,” Dr Abuelaish said. “I will never forget.” And yet, his happiness was tinged with regret and worry for the Palestinians left behind in Israel’s crosshairs.

Early on August 5, Dr Abuelaish’s family finally made the 2km (1.2 mile) crossing into Jordan.

That afternoon, Israel began to bombard Gaza. Most of the 49 Palestinians killed were civilians. Seventeen were children.

Among the dead was 30-year-old Ismail Dweik. Since June, he had been engaged to Abeer Harb. The couple had spent months preparing for their wedding. On August 6, Harb waited six hours for her fiancé’s body to be removed from under the rubble of the shattered remnants of his home.

Three days later, Shatha married Mohammed at a hotel in Amman in front of 150 guests. Their wedding was, Dr Abuelaish said, “a miracle” fashioned by “good people who believe in hope, rather than hatred, in fulfilling dreams, rather than crushing them, in being human, rather than inhuman”.

Still, Dr Abuelaish admits that sadness and guilt are his constant companions. “I feel the pain and suffering of my brothers and sisters in Palestine,” he said. “I live it, too. Every moment of every day. There must be another way.”

More than anything, Dr Abuelaish misses his late wife, Nadia, who had died in 2008 of leukemia, and his lost daughters who ought to have been by their sister’s side in Amman. “They were missing,” he said. “The happiness I felt was incomplete because we were supposed to be together. Alive and together.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.