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An Interview with Dr. Eyad Sarraj in Gaza

by Leah Green 

Interview with Dr. Eyad Sarraj, Director, Gaza Community Mental Health Programme
and director of the Independent Commission for Human Rights in Palestine

When I started work here, I was the only psychiatrist in all of the Gaza Strip. In the last 10 years, we have seen 14,000 people and have trained not only our own staff, but also teachers, doctors, and institutions in the community. We established a postgraduate diploma in community mental health and human rights. It is a two-year diploma with seven universities contributing teaching, including Tel Aviv University. This year we graduate our first group of graduates. The program is recognized at the level of a masters degree. Instead of simply sending one man or woman to study abroad we decided it would be better to teach 10 or 12.


In the course of working with the patients, we could not help but see that there is a very intimate relationship between mental health and human rights. It was impossible for us to define mental health, a state of wellbeing, in a state of oppression, in an environment that is very oppressive and very abusive in so many ways to the individual sense of dignity.

On the surface of things, you can see that this is a private society, that the families look cohesive. They get together and they talk, but a little deeper you discover a lot of problems. In the past 50 years, because we had a common enemy-the Israelis, the energy of the Palestinians was directed against the common enemy. In fact, I think every Palestinian found a form of self-actualization through identifying with the cause, the just cause, bypassing all the normal stages of development.

Suddenly, today, we seem to have no cause. There are no more struggles. For one, because of the peace process and handing over responsibility to Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. So people are now beginning a journey for basic needs, to be secure first, which is why there is a lot of frustration in Palestine and in Gaza, particularly. Suddenly, people have come down to realize that their basic needs are not there. In the past, we were all, in the name of Palestine and liberation, overlooking this area of basic needs. This is why people feel very frustrated today, and sometimes feel alienated. They feel they haven’t achieved what they intended to achieve by this struggle. It is leaving people in a state of poor morale.

In the last five years with the peace process, after the Oslo Agreements and the establishment of the Palestinian Authorities, we found out that certain things we were talking about are true from one nation to the other. We found out that some Palestinians, who themselves were tortured in Israeli jails are torturing other Palestinians. One day during my last detention I overheard a Palestinian officer interrogating a Palestinian man. He was calmly asking questions, but there were no answers. Gradually, the interrogator raised his voice and began shouting. Suddenly, he was screaming; but in Hebrew. I was stunned. That was a graphic illustration of the powerful psychological process of identification with the aggressor. In simple terms, the Palestinian officer who was once a helpless victim in Israeli prison was now assuming the position of power, which in his deepest mind was symbolized by the Israeli officer.

It was the same as the Palestinian children who, during the Intifada, saw Israeli soldiers beating their fathers in front of their eyes. Suddenly, for them, the Israel soldier became the symbol of power, the hero, without them realizing it.

This is one of the problems we face today. Not only that, but the Palestinian Authorities came from a culture that is different from our culture here. In the last 30 years of the Israeli occupation, we Palestinians in the occupied areas became more sensitized to the question of human rights and the question of democratization, ironically, because we lived under the Israeli military occupation with all its abuses of human rights. But we saw democracy, and the rule of law. Particularly if you were an Israeli you could enjoy these things. We couldn’t participate, but we could see. We saw the Israeli Parliament debating things and not killing each other because they disagreed.

The Palestinian Authority leadership that came from abroad was living in Arab cultures, where there is no tradition of democratization, no tradition of respect for the rule of law. In fact, the Palestinians abroad were living in all these countries outside the law. They were engaged in a liberation movement, and the just cause had justified for them everything that they were doing outside the law. The problem is that some of them continue to behave here as if they are still outside the law, although today they are the law, themselves.

Plus, the tradition of secrecy and lack of transparency within the PLO has meant that very quickly a new group of elite was created that control power, wealth, arms, and position and the rest of the community is disadvantaged. That has brought a new level of bitterness. Within the nation, people are asking themselves, what have I done? People I have treated had thrown stones during the Intifada, thinking they were helping liberate Palestine. Today, they ask themselves, what did I do? I lost my education, I was in jail, I was abused, and who is getting now the benefits, who is reaping the fruits of this? Somebody else. This is creating a lot of problems.

In the course of my work as a commissioner for citizen rights, I made it clear that for me, human rights are above nationalism and religion and all these boundaries. For me, human rights are human rights whether it is by the Israeli Occupation or by the Palestinian Authority. Violation of human rights should be exposed. The best way to correct things is to say the truth and expose this.

Some people within the Palestinian Authority do not want this. They want the violations to be hidden and not talked about. They say we shouldn’t spread our dirty linens to the world. My idea is we have to spread it. We have to really decide what is wrong with us before we can ask other people to be good. This was and continues to be a very serious confrontation because you are not allowed to say things like what I continue to say about torture and killing people during interrogation. This may be the only country in the world that does not respect the high court of justice…If you cannot get justice from the high court, where else can we get it?

When we elected our Palestinian Parliament, nearly 80% of the people went to vote. This is a very high percentage. That vote was a form of empowerment for the people, but then the parliament was marginalized. It has no decision-making power. In fact, it has passed so many laws and resolutions. One of them is the basic law. Yet they were all thrown away. Another example of how we don’t count is that some people who lost their election were appointed to high positions in the PLO executive committee, which is the highest level of authority. Some were appointed governors! All the governors of the towns of Gaza Strip failed their elections, except one. It seems it is part of their qualifications. How can you become a governor? Fail your election!

Some within the Palestinian Authority are using the tactics of intimidation and corruption. I believe this means these people are putting the cornerstone to a police state that will function under the thumb of the Israeli government, which is concerned not with people but security. Whoever makes the security for Israeli citizens is fine with them. I believe this policy is wrong.

Even for the long-term interest of Israel itself, we Palestinians should live in a democracy. For the long-term interest of Israel’s children, I need my children to live in a sense of security and respect. Not the gun, that intimidates me. What I need is a partner in peace that can look at me in the eye and see in me an equal human being. I need that from my own Authority. I want to be treated the same way the Israeli government treats its own citizens. If Israel has tortured me, there was a war, a battle, and they could have said this is an enemy, this is a terrorist, but what could you say if you torture me as a Palestinian by Palestinians?

Without this kind of basic respect for ourselves as dignified human beings, without democratization of Palestine and a respect for the rule of law, I can assure you that there will never be real peace. You will still have people who will be setting off bombs, especially with the economic situation the way that it is. And for the majority of us, it is not very good. The annual per capita income of Palestinians in Gaza is $700 a year. In Israel it is $18,000. This is impossible to tolerate! We go there and see. An ordinary Palestinian here buys a bag of milk and sugar or a pack of cigarettes for the same price you pay in Tel Aviv, because, all our products come from Israel. But our annual income cannot compare. How can you expect these people to be peaceful?

Within the Palestinian community, a new elite not only has wealth, but also are unashamed to show it. They have cars, bodyguards, and villas and apartments. We know that when they arrived here they were penniless. We made campaigns to get money for them from the public. This situation is very difficult for me to imagine – things have to be changed. We have to look deep inside ourselves and correct things.

Israelis have to look deep within themselves and be courageous – admit that they have done Palestinians wrong. Admit it and deal with it. We have to deal with ourselves, too. I myself decided one day, I’m not going to die every day, in fear. I want to die once, in dignity. If they come, they come, I don’t care, but am here, I will stay here and say what is right.


Few people believe that there will be change. It is very difficult to imagine a real change in the structure and mentality in the Palestinian Authority. What I hope for is a new generation. I hope I can contribute ideas to a new generation of leaders of the future. The only way to do it is to say the truth.

One day I published something damaging against an official here. He called me, and was very abusive on the phone. Later during the day, people came to me and said, you’d better leave your house today because this man was in his office fuming with anger, and he will get you. Just go away for a few days. Others said I ought to leave the country. Stay away for one or two weeks, anywhere. I have never left my house. Throughout the Intifada, I have never even locked my door. I live alone. So, I was sitting facing the door that evening and I was asking myself, should I leave or not? It was wise to disappear for one or two nights. I couldn’t. If I leave today, I will never come back to this place. I will lose myself.

I decided I would stay, and wait, and wait, and wait. And I did for three days. I decided, this is where I belong. I’m not going to campaign for human rights in England or France or America. I’m not going to work as a psychiatrist in Oxford. This is my area, where I am contributing to humanity. And, I should stay here.

To some extent, they have become a little tolerant of me – a little. A few weeks ago, I was called in for interrogation for an article that was published and was very critical. But they have, at least, stopped detaining me and putting me in solitary confinement, as they did in the past. I hope there is a kind of change and a level of tolerance, but I have little hope that they will really change, and of course I am not going to change.

I tell you, I am giving you a warning now. I can see it. Palestinians today are sitting and waiting. Everybody is telling them peace is coming. Oh yes, this is only temporary, Oslo Agreements are only an interim agreement. We will have the final status solution within a year. Don’t worry. You will have a democratic state. You will have West Bank and Gaza. You will have Jerusalem. You will have everything. This is the promise. And people are sitting and waiting. Sitting and waiting. If nothing of this happens, people will explode. I can tell you with frankness, it is going to be bloody. Inside and outside, it is going to spill everywhere.

The message I want you to carry with you, if things are taken on the surface like CNN propaganda, like Arafat is meeting with Barak and Barak is going where and Clinton is talking about peace, this has nothing to do with peace. What is happening today is, a group of politicians are deciding the future of people without realizing they are playing with dynamite.

A few months before the Intifada, I was in my private office and my receptionist came to me and said, “Somebody is outside and he doesn’t want to pay.” Usually, people pay before I see them. A 16 or 17 year old man came in and asked, “Is it safe to speak?” I said yes, it is safe. I thought immediately, he is paranoid. He said, “I’m not a patient. I have something very important to say.” That is another sign of psychosis. They say everybody else is a patient. So I sat with him for one hour, trying to figure out if he was insane. He told me, “Doctor, I want you to get me a bomb or hand grenade -something.” I said, “I am a doctor, I don’t deal with these matters. But, why do you want a bomb?” It was another sign of mental illness for me. He said, “I have figured out after years of studying the Palestinian-Israeli problem that the only way out is that every one of us put a hand grenade on himself, go to Israel, kill himself and kill another Israeli.” I sat for one hour to find out if he was mentally ill or not. He was not, in the sense of mental pathology. He was behaving in an abnormal manner, right, but in an abnormal environment. Together, they make normal.

I thought it could be poverty only. I come from a well-to-do family, and one day one of my cousins said to me “I want to be a suicide killer.” He was 16. I was amazed. But I could understand. It is very difficult to understand unless you are Palestinian and unless you live in this part of the world. If you are a Palestinian living in the States or England or anywhere in Europe, it would also difficult to understand. When you live in this environment where systematic humiliation is being practiced against you in every message you get, you are bound to boil with anger. That young man who came to me at my practice one month before the Intifada was one of the signs that something was going to happen. I saw it.

I saw it in the streets, one day. I was passing not very far from here. One group of Israeli soldiers were on the pavement, and they were calling to a group of Palestinians on the other side of the street in a very inhuman way, very impolite: “Donkey, come here!” One of the people stood. The rest of the people left. They looked at him and said, “Come here!” And he said, “No”. So, they went to him and they put their bullets into their rifles. The one pulled open his shirt and shouted, “Kill me! I don’t want to live! I dare you to kill me!” That scene, only a few months before the start of the Intifada, that sign of defiance told me the people are finished. They are boiling over.

The Palestinians are going through cycles from helplessness to hopelessness to depression and then gradually becoming anxious then angry, and then defiant and then going into the streets and so on, and then it goes again. It goes three or four times this way. Sometimes, during this kind of environment, you become an easy target for any fanatic. A fanatic comes along and tells them, “Come and join me. If you die, you go to heaven, seventy women are waiting for you, not just one. You will be in rivers of honey and milk. You will be in paradise. You will be protected by God from all this misery and this humiliation and poverty. How could you disbelieve God? This is God telling you, come to me. You kill yourself, you come to me. I’ll protect you. I’ll give you everything you need, and more.” Would you be tempted? As a normal person who believes in God, if you are living in such an abnormal environment and you have a strong belief in this, what else?

In our jail, the Palestinian Authority put me in solitary confinement. Four days later, they decided that I was talking to all the world from my cell. To have me in maximum security, they put me in Hamas jail. Hamas has a special jail within the big jail. They put me with 40 young Hamas cadres. Potential “terrorists”. I spent 12 days with them. I was amazed. The whole story is about humiliation, revenge, poverty, and lack of exposure to a decent book, lack of exposure to a nice park.

You know, within 12 days of talking to these people about democracy and human rights, and psychology, mental health, women, and children, I can assure you and without exaggeration, I have changed some of them. People have not been exposed!

What I believe is that violence can only bring violence. I was always against the armed struggle and against fighting and so on. Hamas is only a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. The message of our time is: respect, dignity, and human rights. I told my fellow prisoners, whoever will take this message will serve Islam, and give a shining example of Islam. Then, people will say, “Muslims are good people.” We must change the image! We must use the good part of the Koran.

For myself, I’m not a good believer but Islam is part of my identity, like being an Arab, but I don’t believe in nations. I see nationalism and religion has made borders in this world. Let us keep our identity, but don’t use it to build borders between people.

I grew up in an environment that made me hate Jews. They robbed me of my country, and killed Palestinians. One day, in 1956, when Israel occupied Gaza, I was 12 years old and a man came to our door. “Is Rajab there?” he asked. “Tell him Moshe is here.” I told my father, who came and quickly fell upon the stranger, crying with joy. The two of them were so happy to see each other. I was shocked! My father was hugging a Jew! Then my father told me, “Moshe is like a brother to me.” I couldn’t believe it. “If you are friends with my father, who killed all the Palestinians?” I asked. The creation of Israel by the Zionists was the division between us. For the first time, I could see that there are Jews I could love. Jews are not all one thing. There are good Jews and bad Jews. Then, I believed Zionists were bad. Later, I learned that labels were bad. I started to go with human experiences, as individuals. Moshe was one of my father’s best friends all his life.

When I came with a Red Cross bus across the Sinai Desert, I was terrified of an Israeli soldier with a machine gun sitting across from me. Instead of shooting me, he spoke: “I hope you have a safe journey,” he said to me, “and that your family is safe.”

During the Intifada, I was in my house alone. An Israeli officer said to me, “Come out!” so I went out. “Where is your ID?” I told him I had it in the house. “Go get it!” I went inside to get my ID. When I brought it to him, he pointed at a tire burning in the street. “I’ll give you a half hour to put it out!” he told me, and he took my ID. I knew I couldn’t put out that tire. If I did so, people would think I was against the resistance. I didn’t put out the fire. The officer began shouting at me. I spoke and said, “I can see a human being behind this uniform. I want to relate to him.” The officer threw my ID at me and left.

These and other experiences tell me that behind the people are human beings that can come out. If you can see that human being coming out, it gives you hope. People are yearning for peace, but they want a dignified life.

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj
Gaza Community Mental Health Programme
P.O. Box 1049

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