Palestinians honour Gaza psychiatric pioneer

Dr Eyad El-Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist and human rights defender, dies after long battle with cancer.

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj was a vocal human rights defender and pushed for Palestinian reconciliation [VIMEO]

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj was a dedicated medical professional and pioneer in the field of mental health.

But to those who knew him best, the respected Palestinian psychiatrist and human rights defender – who died on Tuesday evening after a long battle with cancer – was something even more powerful: a dreamer.

“He was some sort of romantic revolutionary because he dreamt about things that to others were not achievable,” said Jaber Wishah, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City, and one of his close friends.

El-Sarraj, 70, died on Tuesday in an Israeli hospital where he was receiving cancer treatment.

His body was being brought back to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday morning, and his funeral was expected to begin after midday prayer at al-Omari mosque in Gaza City that same day.

“In a conservative community like the Palestinian community, mental health and psycho-threapy [are] not in the eyes of the people,” Wishah told Al Jazeera.

“But with his courage and his commitment and his honesty and his personality, he gradually introduced this culture of [looking at] the impact of the occupation. He is the pioneer.”

Respected career

El-Sarraj was born in 1944 in Bir al-Saba’ (now known as Beersheba). His family fled to the Gaza Strip in 1948 after some 750,000 Palestinians were displaced following the creation of the state of Israel, a period known to Palestinians as the “Nakba”, or catastrophe.

After receiving degrees from Alexandria University in Egypt and the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, El-Sarraj founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) in 1990.

The Gaza Community Mental Health Programme has helped some 35,000 Palestinians dealing with trauma in Gaza [Reuters]

The GCMHP provided much-needed psychological support and rehabilitation for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, especially women and children.

Husam El-Nounou, who worked alongside him at the GCMHP for 22 years, said the organisation has helped some 35,000 Palestinians since its creation.

“Dr. Sarraj paved the way for a discipline that was not well-known, a discipline that was stigmatized not only for the patients, but also for the workers. He lit a candle and he founded an enlightened movement for Gaza and for Palestine,” El-Nounou told Al Jazeera.

“I have lost a father and a teacher, a person whom I love [and] respect. I learned a lot from him, and I feel all this sorrow now,” he said.

El-Sarraj was a staunch critic of both Israeli policies towards Palestinians, and the Palestinian leadership, and was arrested and allegedly tortured by Palestinian authorities in 1996 for condemning rights abuses.

He was imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority (PA) three times.

Despite this, he continued his work in Gaza and earned widespread international recognition.

He received the Physicians for Human Rights Award in 1997, the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders in 1998, and the Juan Lopez Ibor award in 2010.

El-Sarraj also received the Olof Palme Prize in 2010 for his “self-sacrificing and indefatigable struggle for common sense, reconciliation and peace between Palestine and Israel”.

“I am proud and happy to receive this prize, but I consider that the real heroes are the victims of violence, torture and war… This prize gives me hope and encourages me to continue to fight to defend those whose rights have been abused, and to work for justice and peace,” El-Sarraj said after receiving the award.

El-Sarraj’s son, Wassem, accepted the 2010 Olof Palme Prize on behalf of his father [EPA]

Mental health needs

“It’s a big loss,” said Shawan Jabarin, head of Al Haq, a Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights organisation, on hearing about El-Sarraj’s death.

“He was a well-known person and he used to speak loudly and critically and his voice was heard by all the people, not just here in Palestine, but also on the international level,” he said.

Jabarin told Al Jazeera that El-Sarraj’s work was invaluable for the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, many of whom suffer from psychological issues due to the tight Egyptian-Israeli siege, and recent destructive Israeli military operations, on the Palestinian territory.

The lastest Israeli offensive into Gaza, dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defence”, left over 100 Palestinian civilians dead in November 2012.

Two months after the operation, the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) found that the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Gaza rose by 100 percent, and that 42 percent of patients were under the age of nine.

A UNICEF report released immediately after the ceasefire reported that 91 percent of children surveyed in Gaza had trouble sleeping, 85 percent couldn’t concentrate, and 82 percent reported feelings of anger and symptoms of mental strain.

El-Sarraj also testified in June 2009 before the UN fact-finding mission investigating Israel’s 18-day assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-09, termed “Operation Cast Lead”, which killed some 1,400 Palestinians, including 352 children.

Widely known as the Goldstone report, after South African judge Richard Goldstone who headed the UN team, the report accused both Israel and armed Palestinian groups in Gaza of committing war crimes during the fighting.

El-Sarraj stated that more than 20 percent of Palestinian children in Gaza suffered from PTSD after the war, and that some 300 mental health specialists were needed to meet the health needs of the entire community.

I wish that the Israelis would start... to walk on the road of dealing with the consequences of their own victimization and to start dealing with the Palestinian as a human being.

by Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj

“I wish that the Israelis would start… to walk on the road of dealing with the consequences of their own victimization and to start dealing with the Palestinian as a human being, a full human being who’s equal in rights with the Israeli,” El-Sarraj said in his testimony.

“And also the other way around, the Palestinian must deal with himself, must respect himself and respect his own differences in order to be able to stand before the Israeli also as a full human being with equal rights and obligations. This is the real road for justice and for peace.”

Political work

El-Sarraj was an outspoken critic of the ongoing siege of Gaza.

In an October 2011 opinion piece, co-authored with PCHR director Raji Souhani, El Sarraj wrote: “As many as 1.8 million Gazans remain locked inside the world’s largest open-air prison. The international community cannot allow this crime to continue.”

He also pushed strongly for an end to the ongoing division between the two major Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas.

According to friend Jaber Wishah, El-Sarraj would organise meetings at his Gaza home in efforts to bring the two sides to reconcile.

“We will hear long speeches commemmorating the passing of Dr. Eyad, but a real commemoration is to bring this ugly political split to an end. This is the deal that Dr. Eyad was dreaming to be fulfilled in his life,” Wishah told Al Jazeera.

“If we are sincere, we should bring this dream to reality.”

Source: Al Jazeera