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Doctor's anguish stirs ugly debate among Israelis Add to ...

Israelis are arguing over whether they should pity or blame a Palestinian doctor for the Israeli tank shells that hit his Gaza apartment and killed his three daughters and a niece.

"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 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.

"Oh Shlomi, oh God, oh God," wept the doctor, 55, who is a known promoter of peace.

"Who was hurt, Abu al-Aish?" asked the choked-up reporter, Shlomi Eldar.

"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."

As it has in other such controversial incidents, the Israeli military insists that Hamas was shooting from or near the building where the Abu al-Aish family lived, which it says made it a legitimate target. Ms. Stern and many Israelis accept that.

"It's a war," explained Oren Ben-Tamookan, the co-owner of a Jerusalem deli. "I'd rather their civilians die than our soldiers."

That sentiment was also held by the Israeli military and political echelons, which is why they favoured air strikes, mortar shells and tank fire over close-range raids, protecting soldiers at the price of civilian deaths and great damage to civilian infrastructure, the Israeli media reported later.

Thousands of Palestinian rocket attacks over almost eight years on Israeli communities made Israelis numb to Palestinian civilian casualties, said art student Navit Keren, 28.

"I think people knew very well what the army was doing inside, they knew civilians were killed, they read the numbers," Ms. Keren said. "But they don't care. They think there's no other way. That after eight years ... we're sick of living this way and this is what needs to happen."

Ms. Keren instinctively opposed the war, but could not argue the justifications of all her friends who supported it. "I don't have answers," she said. "But this just never seemed like a solution. Hamas will never go away; they can always shoot at us again. In the end, you have to talk with your enemies."

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