March 2014

Eyad El-Sarraj (1943-2013)

Eyad El-Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist who pioneered mental health care in Gaza and became an internationally recognized human rights advocate, criticizing both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, died on Tuesday, 17 December 2013 in a hospital in Israel; the cause was leukemia. He was 70.

Rising to prominence during the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli military occupation in Gaza in the late 1980s, Dr. Sarraj focused in particular on the traumatic effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on children. He described those effects in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times in 2009 during a three-week offensive by Israeli forces in Gaza after years of rocket fire from there against southern Israel.

Politically independent, Dr. Sarraj championed non-violence and democracy. In recent years he was involved in trying to promote reconciliation between Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, and its rival Fatah. The prime minister of the Hamas government described him as “a meeting point for all Palestinian people”.

Fluent in English, Dr. Sarraj gained international respect, and his Gaza City home was familiar to foreign diplomats, researchers and journalists seeking his opinions. Stated he was “someone who persistently stood on the side of human rights, peace and justice”. Dr. Sarraj was not always in such favor with the local authorities. He was detained twice, spending days in a police lockup.

The first detention came after he accusedt he security forces of torturing members of Hamas who had been rounded up after a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. He was seized a second time after he wrote an article criticizing a Palestinian Authority official.

From 1996 to 1998, Dr. Sarraj was the commissioner general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights.

He was born on April 27, 1943, in Beersheba, a city that was then under the British rule of the Mandate of Palestine and that is now in southern Israel. He moved with his family to Gaza to escape the war of 1948 over the establishment of Israel.

In the 1970s, he studied medicine at the University of Alexandria in Egypt and then in Britain, graduating with a master’s degree from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London.

While in Britain, he married an English woman, and they had two sons, Ahmed-Saif and Waseem. They divorced, and Dr. Sarraj remarried in Gaza in 2004. His survivors include his wife, Nirmeen; their son Ali, 7; and his sons from his first marriage.

In 1990, Dr. Sarraj founded the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP), an institution that describes its goals as developing the mental well being of the Palestinian community and working to empower vulnerable groups like children, women, and “victims of organized violence and torture”. I am privileged to be on the board of GCMHP since its foundation.

He is the winner of the Physicians for Human Rights Award in 1997 and the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders in 1998, the Juan Lopez Ibor 2010 Award, and the OLOF PALME prize (2011). Dr. Sarraj published extensively on issues of peace, civil society, human rights, and psycho-politics. He used to chair the Palestinian Reconciliation Committee.

He had the determination for fighting for human rights of the Palestinian people. Although he had a British passport and as a Psychiatrist he could have left his home town but in spite of all the problems and invasions of Gaza, he remained in his town struggling for reconciliation and peace.

It is a great loss for me and for world psychiatry and human rights to lose my dedicated friend and colleague.

Prof. Ahmed Okasha
President, Egyptian Psychiatric
WPA President (2002-2005)
Chair, WPA Ethics and Review
Committee; WPA Council member
Member of Gaza Community Mental
Health Programme

* Acknowledgement: ‘Alray-Palestinian Media Agency’ website is kindly acknowledged here for the photo of Eyad El-Sarraj.




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