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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.