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Think About It: In memory of Dr. Eyad el-Sarraj
By SUSAN HATTIS ROLEF
22/12/2013
'Eyad was always first and foremost a proud Palestinian...more concerned with Palestinian responsibility for the Palestinian situation, than with blaming Israel...'
 
Every once in a while we have the privilege of encountering an outstanding person, who is inspiring in his personality, opinions and actions. We need not agree with everything he says, but we cannot ignore his presence and the halo that seems to surround him.

I had this feeling the first time I met the late Yigal Allon in 1977, and when I interviewed Arye Deri in 1989, after he was appointed interior minister at the age of 30. I also had this feeling in 1986 when I first met Dr. Eyad el-Sarraj – a psychiatrist and neurologist from Gaza – a little over a year before the outbreak of the first intifada.

Dr. Sarraj, who was born in 1943 in Beersheba, passed away in an Israeli hospital last Tuesday, and was buried in Gaza, where he had spent most of his life.

I met Sarraj – a strikingly handsome, aristocratic looking man – at the Hebrew University, where he gave a lecture about child psychiatry in the Gaza Strip. At the time he was the only psychiatrist in Gaza, and was employed by the Israeli Civil Administration there.

What concerned him was the experience of many children in Gaza, who saw their parents being humiliated by the Israeli authorities – military and civilian – and the breakdown of parental authority, which was to become even more evident during the intifada, when extreme violence also traumatized their lives.

I had a chat with Sarraj after the lecture, at the end of which he invited me to visit Gaza. At the time it was not unusual for Israelis to drive into Gaza, and since I am not averse to leaving my social and ideological comfort zone, and being subjected to “the other” (at that period I frequently visited Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria, and development towns in the Galilee and the Negev), I jumped at the opportunity.

Between 1986 and 1994 (when the Palestinian Authority was established, and when I became a civil servant, with the restrictions involved), I visited Eyad in Gaza at least half a dozen times, and met him in Jerusalem on numerous occasions, getting to know him well in the course of many long and open conversations about ourselves, life in general, and possible ways of changing the reality we live in.

I discovered a calm and serene man, even in the most stressful of times and situations, devoted to the welfare of his people, to human rights in general, and to the ongoing dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, in which he continued to participate until the very end. However, he was neither a politician nor a leader of masses.

I learned from him that in 1964, when he was 21, he had joined the newly established PLO, but left as soon as he discovered that it advocated violence. I also gathered from what he said that despite the fact that over the years he had frequently been humiliated by the Civil Administration, which seemed eager to get moderate, educated Palestinians like himself to leave the country (for a brief period in the late 1980s he actually moved to the UK with his British wife and two sons, but soon returned to Gaza without them), and even though he abhorred many of our policies and actions, and especially our inclination, in his eyes, to over-react, he did not hate us, and had a deep understanding for our history, concerns and anxieties.

Clearly his personality was mainly responsible for his outlook, but he once told me that what had left a profound impression on him was an extremely positive encounter with an Israeli officer he had had the first time he returned to Gaza from Egypt after the Six Day War. At the time he was a student in Alexandria.

However, Eyad was always first and foremost a proud Palestinian, deeply concerned with the fate and welfare of his people, and more concerned with Palestinian responsibility for the Palestinian situation, than with blaming Israel, realizing that both sides had to change for a solution to be found, and that a systematic process of forgiveness and reconciliation – such as that, which had taken place in South Africa after Nelson Mandela assumed power – was an absolute necessity.

He always believed that violence, acts of terror and the firing of rockets at Israel would not help the Palestinians reach their longed-for state, but he also spoke up against corruption in the PA, and the breach of human rights within the PA, and, as far as possible, in the Gaza Strip under the Hamas. In 1996 he was actually imprisoned and tortured by the PA for his activities. I met him in Jerusalem soon after his release, and the physical marks of the torture he had undergone were still evident.

I have frequently been told by right-wing friends that the encounters between Israeli left-wingers and Palestinians are one-sided affairs, in which the Palestinians use us in their struggle against Israel, and will not be there for us, if and when we might need their assistance.

This was certainly not my experience with Eyad. When my eldest daughter was killed in an accident in 1995, he was unable to come for the funeral, but made a special effort to get to Jerusalem as soon as he could to comfort me, and help me find the way to go on. Furthermore, unlike some of my radical Mizrahi friends, who are inclined to make me feel personally guilty, as an Ashkenazi, for the “ethnic demon,” Eyad never tried to make me feel personally guilty, as a Zionist and an Israeli, for the evils of the occupation. It was always more a question of what we – Israelis and Palestinians – can do together to improve the situation.

In the last decade I had no direct contact with Eyad. In this period he remarried – this time to a Palestinian – and built a new family. Unknown to me, he also contracted a rare type of cancer, which finally led to his premature death.

However, I continued to read articles he wrote, and interviews he gave – including one memorable one he gave Boaz Gaon over the phone in the course of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2009, in which he described the hardships he and his family were undergoing under Israeli shelling.

From these articles and interviews I learned that he had lost faith in the feasibility of the two-state solution, for which he blamed both Israel and the Palestinians. In 2008 the only way out he could see was that the West Bank be returned to Jordanian administration, and the Gaza Strip to Egyptian administration. That was before the “Arab Spring,” which went sour, and I do not know how those events affected his thoughts.

Of the many pictures I shall always bear with me of Eyad is one of him, dressed in white, and another Gazan doctor playing a peaceful game of chess during the curfew (which went into force at 8 p.m. every evening) in the garden of his house in the Rimal neighborhood, toward the end of the first intifada.

The quiet was broken every once in a while by loudspeaker announcements in Hebrew coming from the nearby Israeli military camp, but the two doctors just went on with their game, oblivious to the interruptions.

Dr. Sarraj will be sorely missed by his many Israeli friends, who were privileged to know him.

The writer is a retired Knesset employee.
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