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Revered Palestinian psychiatrist dies aged 69

From Why Gaza: By Lora Lucero:Professor Chomsky’s visit to Gaza was sponsored by TIDA, a new homegrown institution founded by Dr. Eyad Sarraj.  I first met Dr. Sarraj in 2004 when Israel would not allow him to leave Gaza to travel abroad to accept an international award for his work as a psychologist.  A friend and I brought the award to Gaza and presented it to Dr. Sarraj at his Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.   Tonight Dr. Sarraj was sitting next to Professor Chomsky — two intellectual and moral giants.   I felt honoured to be in the same room with them.
Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj Dies at the Age of 70

December 18, 2013

Dr. Eyad el-Sarraj has died this Tuesday at the age of 70 after a long battle with leukemia. Dr. el-Sarraj was a renowed and respected Palestinian psychiatrist and human rights defender based in the Gaza Strip.

The founder and medical director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), was considered the father of mental health and the pioneer of mental health in Palestine Today in Gaza reports.

Husam El-Nounou, the head of GCMHP said, “Our commitment to Dr. Sarraj is to continue his message and his struggle for respect of human rights.”

El-Sarraj’s body was brought back to the Gaza strip on Wednesday morning and his funeral is expected to begin after the midday prayer at the al-Omari Mosque in Gaza City.

Dr. el-Sarraj won the Martin Ennals award for Human Rights Defenders in 1998, for his work in Gaza.

Palestinians honour Gaza mental health pioneer

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

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, Al Jazeera
December 18, 2013

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 started by Dr. El-Sarraj has helped some 35,000 Palestinians dealing with trauma in Gaza. Photo by 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’s son, Wassem, accepted the 2010 Olof Palme Prize on behalf of his father. Photo by EPA.

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.

“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.”

Palestinian Human Rights Defender Dies at 69

By Julie Webb-Pullman, Scoop
18 December 2013

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, Palestinian psychiatrist and Commissioner-General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, passed away in Gaza a few hours ago.

Born in Beersheva, Palestine on 27 April 1944, Dr El-Sarraj arrived with his family in Gaza in 1948 as a refugee.

He grew up to become the first psychiatrist to practice in Gaza, beginning in 1977. Dr El-Sarraj went on to found and direct the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), which he established in 1990 to promote the mental well-being of three major target groups in the Palestinian community: children, women, and victims of organized violence and torture.

“We strongly believe that there is a correlation between human rights and mental health, because sound mental health cannot be gained under violent circumstances, and human rights will not be respected in a society exposed to ongoing trauma,” states the organisation’s strategy document.

His human rights work was not without cost – in 1996 he was arrested and tortured for condemning torture and violation of human rights by the Palestinian Authorities.

But nor was it without recognition – in 1997 he was winner of the Physicians for Human Rights Award, and in 1998 of the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders.

In 2010 he was awarded the Swedish labour movement’s largest and most prestigious award, the Olof Palme Prize for his self-sacrificing and indefatigable struggle for the Palestinian people.

“In his professional and political work, Eyad El-Sarraj has stood on the side of the individual human being, regardless of nationality, gender or social position. He has brought into the light the destructive influence of repression on mental health,” the Committee stated when announcing the award.

In the same year, Dr El-Sarraj was jointly awarded the Juan José López-Ibor prize in psychiatry, along with Professor Jules Angst, in recognition of his contribution to advancement of the rights and dignity of people with a mental illness, and his scientific research.

Other notable activities include being a consultant to the Palestinian delegation at the Camp David 2000 Summit, and his appearance as an expert witness before the United Nations-mandated Goldstone Commission on the war crimes committed during Israel’s 2008-9 military offensive “Operation Cast Lead.” His evidence on the long-term psycho-social impacts of the conflict on civil society in Gaza was quoted in the final report.

The light that Dr Iyad El-Sarraj shone into some of the darkest corners of Palestine can not be dimmed by his death.

“You are the window through which I can breathe,” one of his patients once told him.

His legacy of hope, and a legion of Palestinians both taught and inspired by him, will continue his important work, and keep the windows open to let in the air and light that Israel, and now Egypt, are determined to prevent entering.

May Dr El-Sarraj find the peace in death that tried to bring to so many others in life.

Notes and links
Avoiding Armageddon: From the experts
Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj is the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP). He is also the Commissioner-General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights. He currently lives in Gaza and is an expert on the mental impact that the violence in the area has on children growing up in Gaza. He has also written extensively on the subject, in English as well as in Arabic.

“A 17-year-old boy in Gaza today is somebody who thinks of life as in a prison. He’s not allowed to leave Gaza. He’s not allowed sometimes even to cross between cities within the Gaza strip, because the Israelis most of the time now block the way for people to move within [the] Gaza strip itself.

“He’s somebody who has seen so much of bombing, of killing, of murder, of blood, of humiliation. And he doesn’t think that he has a future as a scientist, as a doctor, as an engineer. Sadly and tragically, many of them think that the best thing to do is to be a martyr – which tells you about the psychology of these people – that this has become an equivalent to life.”
“You see, I look at this as a product of the environment. People are not born to become martyrs. People are not born to become heroes. People are the product of the environment. You bring an environment of hopelessness and despair, you have a martyr, somebody who thinks death is the beginning of life.”

“You bring an environment of hope and joy, and people then will do everything to stop [the] dying of people, or killing, or murder, and try to live in [a] happy environment.”

“There is definitely a moment for any of the potential martyrs when he decides to be one. But there is a process that takes them through this path, a process of a kind of transformation within him. And then the moment comes when he meets somebody – in a mosque, or in a street, or in a school, or wherever – and groups of people who are ready to invite or take in such young, potential martyr are there.”
Dr. El-Sarraj Gave evidence to the United Nations fact finding mission into Operation Cast Lead. His evidence is quoted in the final report, known as the Goldstone Report


Personal tributes

From Lynne Segal:  Such very sad news. Palestine has just lost one of its most important voices for peace with the death of Dr Eyad Sarraj who, among other things, founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. With extraordinary eloquence and courage he argued tirelessly for peace and justice for Palestinians, always condemning any and all use of violence, whether by Israelis or Palestinians. Gaza is all the more bereft without his powerful voice. December 18th, 2013

From Uri Hadar: Last night Dr Eyad Sarraj died after many years of struggling with cancer. Eyad was a Gazan Psychiatrist who founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, one of the leading mental health institutions in Palestine. He promoted non-violent strategies in the fight against the Israeli occupation and supported the joint work with Israelis in resisting the occupation. He was a man of large vision, capable of living with contradictions and never losing his human identifications. His death is a loss to the Palestinian cause and to the quality of Gazan community life. Eyad was a close personal friend of mine and I am very grieved by his death.

See also Israel itself may be among the victims of its pathology by Eyad Sarraj, 1 June 2010

Thoughts on the Jewish boat to Gaza, Dr. El-Sarrad writes to Lynne Segal, September 2010.

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