Leading Palestinian human rights campaigner Dr. Eyad Sarraj, who dealt with the mental-health damage caused by political oppression and challenged both Israeli and Palestinian abuses, died after battling leukemia, his family said Wednesday. He was 69.
Trained in Egypt and Britain, Sarraj became the Gaza Strip’s first psychiatrist and established a community mental-health program in 1990. The program focused on the most vulnerable groups, such as children and victims of torture and other abuses, and served as a foundation for his human rights work.
Sarraj spoke extensively about the toll on mental health exacted by Israel’s rule over the Palestinians. Israeli occupation, he wrote in 1997, has left the Palestinians “exhausted, tormented and brutalized.”
He was briefly jailed in the 1980s by Israel, which occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005, and in the 1990s by the Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government then led by Yasser Arafat, according to his biography.
Sarraj later served as chairman of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, taking on a role of ombudsman for ordinary Palestinians.
In recent years, he and other political independents worked at reconciling rival Palestinian political camps — the Islamic militant Hamas which has ruled Gaza since a violent 2007 takeover and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who administers parts of the West Bank.
After Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, Sarraj told United Nations investigators that post-traumatic stress disorders are widespread among Gaza’s children, according to his biography.
Sarraj won greater recognition abroad than at home. He received the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders in 1998 and the Olof Palme Prize awarded by Sweden’s labour movement in 2010.
Sarraj was born in the town of Beersheba in British-ruled Palestine in 1944, and fled with his family to Gaza during the 1948 war over Israel’s creation. He studied medicine in Alexandria, Egypt, and earned a degree in psychiatry in Britain.
In recent years, Sarraj had been battling leukemia, according to his brother, Hakim. Sarraj died late Tuesday at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem where he had been undergoing treatment for more than a month, his brother said.
Sarraj is survived by his wife, Nirmeen Kharma, and three sons. Funeral arrangements are pending.
— By Ibrahim Barzak