Past and Future in the Gaza Strip
an interview with Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, director of GCMHP (Gaza Community Mental Health Program)
by Dr. Eli Erich Lasch, former Israeli director of health services of the Gaza Strip
Dr. Lasch: What was the first thing that happened, after the Israelis went away? (in 1994)
Dr. El-Sarraj The first thing was that the rule of law was destroyed suddenly. Suddenly, there was a new kind of environment – political, social …
Dr. Lasch: When you say suddenly, what do you mean?
Dr. El-Sarraj When the Palestinian authority was established with Jassir Arafat in 1994, he brought with him all kinds of people from Tunesia who had nothing to do with the political essence of the community itself, who didn’t know much about it, and they were put on top of everything, they were the leaders and they were so chaotic: The way they always lived was a life of chaos, of secrecy outside the rule of law. In Lebanon for instance, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, was actually functioning outside the law.
Dr. Lasch: I know.
Dr. El-Sarraj So, this kind of culture came to Gaza, a culture without any conception of the rule of law. So, that was lost immediately. And not only that. What was happening very quickly, was that people started to bribe which was again something new. We know that with the Israelis, it was difficult to bribe. But with these people who came from Tunesia – they were like the Egyptian officers (who ruled Gaza before 1967, E.L.) Everybody remembered them.
Dr. Lasch: I remember that everybody was astonished, that I was not ready to accept a bribe.
Dr. El-Sarraj Yes. Very, very rare for an Israeli to take a bribe.
The general feeling now is that with money you can get anything you want.
Dr. Lasch So people come to the Health Department and …
Dr. El-Sarraj And nothing. Because of nepotism everywhere. If you belong to a strong family or had somebody in the authority next to Arafat, then you could, of course, have it all. If you don’t have a big or rich family to bribe or you didn’t have people next to Arafat, then bad luck. You are finished.
Dr. Lasch When we were there, we built houses for people outside the camps. Are these people still outside the camp or were they put back?
Dr. El-Sarraj No, no, no, they are still out there. The camps have changed very quickly: You know, there was a kind of transitional period between the Israelis and the Palestinian authority, and everybody in the camp started to clean the land and build on it. So, now the camps are changed and full of houses. The place is overcrowded. You know that Gaza now has one and a half million people. All the fields and the green parks in the city of Gaza are overbuilt; Gaza and Gabalia are connected, are like one big city. It’s ugly, because most of the buildings, 90 percent of the buildings are unfinished. So, it’s ugly.
Anyway, the most important thing was the loss of the rule of law. Second is the corruption. And of course, economically, Gaza is more dependent on outside than before. Because there was a lot of expenses and there was no development. No developmental plans. Take today, for instance. Israel declared a siege of Gaza, declared Gaza to be a hostile area. As a result, they have cut down the number of goods that are allowed to go into Gaza from over 1000 to 10. Only very basic commodities. Now Gaza can’t do anything, because there were no developmental plans under Arafat. And that after the Israelis tried to make Gaza dependent on them. So there was no movement in that direction. A lot of funds came to Arafat and most of them disappeared without any signs of development.
Dr. Lasch Did it go into his pockets?
Dr. El-Sarraj I really don’t know. His pockets? Around him, who knows? But you know, there were so many people around him who were making millions. Millions of dollars. It’s not just being good business people which made them rich; they are not that good, but it is because of corruption. I don’t believe that Arafat himself has pocketed money for himself, but the people around him? Almost all of them are very corrupt.
And the rule of law deteriorated all the time. To the extent, that when Abu Mazen came to power, he had no power. All the power is in the hand of the militias and the big tribes who had their own militias and these two control the country. So, when Hamas came, in the beginning people said: “At least we now have one authority, because in the past before Hamas everybody who had a gun was a ruler in his own area.” Hamas started to hit big families, big tribes. And now they’re hitting the militias. So they hit Hayes family, you know them, Bakr family, from the family of Said Bakr, you remember him. His family is big. They hit that family They killed ten people of Bakri. And so on. And now they’re hitting Islamic Djihad. There was a clash with Islamic Djihad. Right. So they want to control power and they will try everything. May be, some people think that this is the way to start to deal with the Israelis. To convince the Israelis that they are the people who control everything, and they can do business with them.
Dr. Lasch The problem is the fundamentalism. They are very fundamentalistic.
Dr. El-Sarraj There are divisions within Hamas, Razi Hamad, for instance, is an almost secular man, liberal, neo-talking
Dr. Lasch But most women are now wearing the black Jalabib …
Dr. El-Sarraj That was so also before Hamas
Dr. Lasch I remember, at my time, the young women, especially the residents who were not living in the camps, dressed almost like European women.
Dr. El-Sarraj Up till now, my whole family dressed like a European family. Women in the poor class are mostly covered like always. There is definitely a new breed of Hamas women who some of them are covered from head to toe.
Dr. Lasch Why?
Dr. El-Sarraj Because I think religion has to do sometimes with the feeling of despair. When people are desperate, they have nothing else but surrender to God. And God teaches them to pray, to do this, to do that. They want only to relate to God. They believe what they are taught in the mosques: that their behavior, the way they look, the way they behave is very important, if they want to relate to God. So they have to do this, they have to do that. They believe it. They are simple-minded.
Dr. Lasch Did all the nice restaurants on the sea-shore disappear?
Dr. El-Sarraj No, no, they are all functioning.
Dr. Lasch No beer, no wine …
Dr. El-Sarraj No beer and no wine. If you want to have it, you have to have it at home. And now it’s very difficult to get anything in Gaza because of the siege. Especially cigarettes. Gaza today is one of the foolishest areas on Earth. And one of the most expensive places to buy things like cigarettes. One package of cigarettes costs ten Dollars. A bottle of mineral water is not allowed.
Dr. Lasch Why?
Dr. El-Sarraj By the Israelis, by the blockade. … Soap is not allowed.
Dr. Lasch Soap?
Dr. El-Sarraj Soap … to clean yourself … is not allowed. Coffee is not allowed …
Dr. Lasch By the blockade?
Dr. El-Sarraj By the blockade. This act is of course very stupid again. Talking about the Palestinians and Israel: The Palestinians and Israel are natural partners. That is what you wrote in your book and I agree with you 100 %. But we are caught in a vicious circle, where one thing leads to another. The Israelis with their collective punishment: All the people including myself, all the people who love peace are now gradually becoming very angry.
Dr. Lasch Why?
Dr. El-Sarraj You have to ask? And then of course we have a new generation that is worse than the present one. You know, we have one generation after the other becoming more violent, more radical, more extremist, more stupid, illiterate, no education, no identity, unemployed, hopeless, desperate, and we have so many mosques at the same time, so many stupid imams in the mosques, who even preach against the Christians, not just against Israel or the Jews, but against Christians, too. You know, my secretary, Ranna, you know Ranna, she’s a very good woman, a Christian woman, she lives near where they build the mosque, and every Friday the imam with the loud-speaker says: Now we have to fight the Christians. … So every Friday she leaves …
Dr. Lasch But where will it end? Where is it leading? What will happen?
Dr. El-Sarraj I think that we have a serious problem on the Palestinian side, a very serious problem of leadership.
Dr. Lasch Abu Mazen?
Dr. El-Sarraj Non, no, Abu Mazen is one of the signs of the problem. Before him, Hamas, before him Jassir Arafat. Arafat is the source of the problem of the Palestinians, because he was there for forty years and he was not leading as such. You know, leadership in the meaning that he can change society for something better. He was actually the leader, but he, the system Jassir Arafat, was really destroying the Palestinian society.
Dr. Lasch Let me ask you a question.
Dr. El-Sarraj But we have also a serious Israeli problem, a serious Palestinian problem, a serious American problem …
Dr. Lasch When you live in Sderot and you are bombarded, you see the result of the withdrawal in a different way: instead of hoping that the withdrawal will start the process of peace, everything became worse.
Dr. El-Sarraj Sure.
Dr. Lasch I would like to ask you a question. I want to hear your opinion. I have the feeling that the greatest mistake of Rabin was to bring in Arafat.
Dr. El-Sarraj Yes.
Dr. Lasch He threw out Arafat from Beirut and then after the first Intifada which was not caused by Arafat, it was you people who initiated it.
Dr. El-Sarraj That’s right.
Dr. Lasch And I must tell you one thing: During the first Intifada, I was very proud. I was happy and proud.
Dr. El-Sarraj Yes.
Dr. Lasch I remember that people, doctors, our friends, came to my home and talked to me about what was happening. And then Rabin brought back Arafat. For me, Arafat got the feeling: I can only achieve something by violence. You agree?
Dr. El-Sarraj I agree. It was the greatest mistake Rabin made. But the Palestinians themselves accepted Arafat as leader, knowing all of them that he was such a corrupt and destructive man. Knowing him very well, particular people who worked with him like George Habash and Abbas were responsible for what happened – because they allowed him to control and to mass the money – all the same, knowing that he was actually destroying the Palestinian society. He was a destructive force. And I was one of the people, you know, who had known it from the beginning – and of course I became more publicly talking about him after his arrival. You know, on the day of his arrival in Gaza, I was talking in Marna House (a hotel for international visitors in Gaza), you know, which is opposite Shifa Hospital, giving a live interview to the BBC. He was coming from Rafah and I said to them: “This man is going to destroy peace, this man is going to destroy the Palestinian society. And I am very sad that this is going to happen. On the one hand, I am very happy that some Palestinians are coming back home, but I know that this man is not going to bring peace or promote honesty.”
during the reign of Arafat, Dr. El-Sarraj was three times in jail (E.L.)
Dr. Lasch Your people warned me: Don’t bring in the Tunesians! And one of them was you.
Dr. El-Sarraj Yeah, that is what I was told in Tunesia. In 1991, I went there. I was called there to see Arafat and he asked me to go to the Washington peace talks and I did. I went with Khader Abu Shafi, I was one of the people in the team. At that time, I met so many people who were my close class-mates and friends for a long time; and they told me one after the other: If you can manage to get by and solve the problems with the Israelis on your own, it will be much better. Because if you bring us and Arafat to Palestine, he will destroy everything. They said that to me. One of them is today the head of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. It was a known fact. But I think that Rabin had no choice at that time because of the Americans, because he had no other Palestinian leaders.
Dr. Lasch The problem with Rabin was that he was a brilliant strategist, but what he lacked was human understanding.
Dr. El-Sarraj I don’t know.
Dr. Lasch In my opinion, he should have brought people from you, from inside.
Dr. El-Sarraj Arafat would have killed them, that’s the problem. Arafat controlled the masses of the Palestinian people by his rhetoric and his slogans. And then controlled the elite through corruption. Or through the guns. I remember Rashad Shawa, the mayor of Gaza. When he tried to do something with Sa’adat at that time, he was almost killed. You know, they killed the Imam of Gaza, Hashem el-Khuzandar. He had a kind of Sa’adat initiative. So people were intimidated. How could you go out against Arafat and against Fatah in Gaza with them controlling all the guns which were there. In the mean time, they were corrupting so many people all the time. Sending money to people in Gaza and the West Bank to buy them off – that was the way of doing things and everybody was silent. Either because of fear or because of money.
Dr. Lasch So, what will happen? How will that end?
Dr. El-Sarraj Look, Hamas is a problem, but the worst thing is not Hamas. I believe that Hamas has the basic ingredients to talk and solve the problems with the Israelis. First of all, they are quite powerful, not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank. In the West Bank, they are more popular than Fatah.
Dr. Lasch But will they agree to talk?
Dr. El-Sarraj (laughing) They will agree. They have a very good proposal. The proposal is an indefinite truce between us and the Israelis. After one, two, three years, we can exchange ambassadors. But now truce, no violence: For Israel it’s a very good thing now to have a truce associated with a partner who can control security. You know, they control the rockets from Gaza. Rockets which were launched are stopped now by Hamas. And now, Hamas is controlling others. Yes, last night they killed people from the Islamic Djihad, because they don’t want rockets. Hamas is meaning business. I hope, people like Razi Hamad can convince Ismail Hanye, the prime minister, they are ready, they are ready.
Dr. Lasch They are ready to accept that Israel exists?
Dr. El-Sarraj Yes, they are ready to accept that Israel exists and to have a long-time truce with Israel for 100 years. The problem is that the Israelis, the Palestinians and the Americans are pushing, pushing, pushing. So, what happens with this pushing? Extremists will be born. You make people starve, you make people desperate, suffering and then, who controls the people? The most extreme. Today, within Hamas there are divisions. One main division between Ismail Hanye, Razi Hamad and others who belong to the moderate side. And on the other side the extremists. I am a physician and a human being, I am not a nationalist and I’m not a religious man. I believe that nationalism and religion can be forces of evil. Depends on the man who is in control. Both nationalism and religion are used for power.
Dr. Lasch Tell me, is there in Gaza an influence of Iran?
Dr. El-Sarraj I don’t see it, to be honest with you.
Dr. Lasch Do you see any problem with Iran?
Dr. El-Sarraj I don’t see any. But of course the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Djihad who sit in Syria must have contact.
Dr. Lasch But they are far away.
Dr. El-Sarraj But in Gaza I don’t see it. I don’t see any influence from Iran. In our local politics, Iran is not even mentioned. They talk about Iran and its influence in the American press. But not in Gaza. We don’t have it in our concept.
Dr. Lasch The problem is of course the rockets and the demonstrations (between the two groups).
Dr. El-Sarraj Let me tell you something (laughs ironically). Now, Palestinians hate other Palestinians more than they hate Israelis. The brutality of the Palestinians between Fatah and Hamas is unbelievable. You know, they kill people all the time. Imagine, and that happens, somebody in hospital – I wrote it, I published this – a Palestinian wounded in battle is in hospital. They kill him. The Israelis used to save these people. When the Israelis used to clash with the guerrillas and somebody was wounded, they sent a helicopter to rescue and take him to hospital.
Dr. Lasch And to an Israeli hospital.
Dr. El-Sarraj Now, Palestinians kill him. The amount of hatred between Hamas and Fatah now is unbelievable. I think that Hamas alone cannot function. Hamas should work with Abu Mazen. I hope that Abu Mazen will be ready. But Abu Mazen is too weak to accept their offer. Hamas can take over the West Bank and Jerusalem in two days. It’s the West Bank I’m talking about and not Gaza. But they don’t want to do it now, because they fear the Israeli reaction. So if Israel has some sound, strategically thinking people, they can make a deal today with Hamas and with Fatah. This is what’s going to happen, as long as there is no violence, as long as there are no rockets. Hamas is ready to work together for ten years.
Dr. Lasch I tell you, as I wrote in my book, what the Palestinians have to do, in my opinion, is to accept Israel as allies and helpers. To help to develop.
Dr. El-Sarraj Yes, absolutely. And this is the best role you can do. You know, the role you are doing in Gaza will catch on immediately, we need experts in all fields to come. And, you know, I started in Gaza the Gaza Mental Health Community Program. We have now six outreach centers throughout the Gaza Strip. And who was teaching us? The Israelis from Tel Aviv University, from Hadassah. They used to come to Gaza every day, every week to teach, as well as people from several parts of the world. I must tell you: Most of the people who were helping us in Gaza were Jews. If they were not Israelis, they were Jews. From England, from America, from France. So, this is the role you could play. And it is a productive role, it is something for the future. Because I covet you. Look, in Israel today, the average income per capita is over $ 20.000 per year, OK, in Gaza it is $ 600 a year. You cannot live in a palace next to a shanty-home. You cannot live in a palace next to an overcrowded slum, filled with 1.2 millions of desperate people. We have no water.
Dr. Lasch This is exactly, what I said in the past. The cause I came to Gaza
Dr. El-Sarraj Absolutely.
Dr. Lasch I said, you can’t have medical services from the 21st century at a distance of a few kilometers from a medicine of the 19th century, both under the same government. That is something impossible. That’s why I went to Gaza.
Dr. El-Sarraj Yeah, absolutely. And I remember, you defended me from the governor Scheike Eres, when I stood up and spoke to him. In 1987, he left Gaza and there was a big party in Shifa Hospital. And I stood up and said to him: “We are sitting on a vulcano and it is going to erupt any moment.” And after a few months, there was the Intifada. He wanted to be the ambassador of Israel in Palestine, the free country, not the occupied. I told him in front of all the people: “You have to stretch your hand to peace to speak of peace”; and when I met him in his office, you were not there any more, I called for two people to meet him in his office and I said to him: “Eli Lasch at that time was one of your examples. You should do what he was doing. He was doing a very good human and professional job. Exactly what we need. We don’t need people like Menasche Nab’a (the administrative officer of the Health Department who hated the Arabs).” I said to him, by the way (again laughing): “We don’t need that man. We need people who are professional and for whom the human part is important. And who think of the future of peace.” You know, what Menasche Nab’a told me once? He told me once: “Don’t worry about Israel. Israel will be destroyed within 70 years. So don’t worry!” I said to him: “This is terrible to say. But I think, you have better examples of people that we need. And today, we need them even more. But we have to have some kind of stability, some kind of outreach, you know.”
Dr. Lasch Eyad, I’ll tell you something. The only thing I can say is: “Inshallah!”
Dr. El-Sarraj Inshallah!
Dr. Lasch I believe, things develop. And if you need me as go-between, I’ll come, despite my age (78). I’m living in Germany and I’ll come over and I’ll be ready to help you.”
Dr. El-Sarraj OK, thank you very much.
Dr. Lasch For me, the future has to be cooperation.
Dr. El-Sarraj Another point:The future of the children’s hospital.
Dr. Lasch My baby.
Dr. El-Sarraj Your baby. As you know, the land belongs to a family in Gaza and they told the government that they want to take the land back. The children hospital is going to be destroyed. The minister of health of Hamas came to me a week ago and said to me: “We have a problem. We have to move this hospital, because we have to hand over the land. What can you do?” So I said to him: “Well, you have to build a new one.” And he said: “Can you help us?” And I said: “Yes, I can.” So I wrote to some people and already I have collected two million Dollars. They will provide the land and the rest will come. I said to him: “Find the land and we will build the hospital.” Now, all that time, I remembered you and I told them about you. So, because you said, if you need me, I am ready to help you, I hope you will be able to rebuild the hospital that was there before.
Dr. Lasch I did it once (laughing). I’ll do it again.
Dr. El-Sarraj By that you mean to go to the politics?
Dr. Lasch Wherever I can do something.
Dr. El-Sarraj Germany is doing a very important job. Every day there are some visitors from Germany.
Dr. Lasch Concerning these things we are talking about. I have a connection with some websites and I am going to take a condensed version of what we said here and put it on some websites.
Dr. El-Sarraj Very good.
Dr. Lasch I have a question: I have read a little bit about where you, the Palestinians, come from. I read some reports that the big part of the people who call themselves now Palestinians and constitute now the Palestinian nation, are basically people who came from all over the Ottoman empire.
Dr. El-Sarraj Oh yes, it’s true.
Dr. Lasch They are not, like Arafat said, the descendants of the Canaanites.
Dr. El-Sarraj Bullshit.
Dr. Lasch That’s what Arafat said.
Dr. El-Sarraj He could say whatever he liked. He claimed, he was from Jerusalem, that he was born in Jerusalem. He was not.
Dr. Lasch I know.
Dr. El-Sarraj I cannot say that I am a Canaanite, I know, my family, for instance, came from Syria. Hama. But I don’t know, how many hundreds of years ago. Other people come from Egypt, some are from Tunis and Marokko. Some are actually from Yugoslavia. And many come from Saudi-Arabia. From the Arabian desert.
Dr. Lasch So we are two nations, two descendants of immigrants who claim the same country. Two peoples whom nobody wants to have.
Dr. El-Sarraj Absolutely, absolutely. Just to give you an example now: There are one hundred families, Palestinians, who fled Iraq because of the war there. So they went to Jordan; Jordan could not admit them; they went to Syria; Syria could not admit them; so they built a camp, a refugee camp on the border. You know, what happened? Not a single Arab country and not Israel, of course, accepted them. Now, they went to Brazil; Brazil accepted them.
Dr. Lasch Can there ever be peace, right here? Is peace in the Middle East possible? According to my personal experience, the answer is clearly “yes”. Basically my new book is written about reconciliation. I have proved that it is possible. We have to learn to rethink. And the only way, the one way, is working together for an aim that is higher than the small interests of everyone.
Dr. El-Sarraj Absolutely. This is, what Khaider Abu Shafi, remember him, (Dr. Lasch: He died not long ago) used to say, exactly that: “When we think of the nation, we should not think of our small individuals. You know, he had a great love story with an Israeli, you know that? Na’ama.
Dr. Lasch It’s fascinating, how similar we are.
Dr. El-Sarraj Absolutely. There was a big, big thing about them in the Israeli newspaper Ye’dioth Achronot, two pages, his picture, her picture. She came to teach in my center, she is a psychologist. I have recorded his memoirs, before he died. For a long time, I was recording his story. One of the fascinating stories he told me, a very moving one, touching: He said, when he was very young, he was in Hebron. His family moved from Gaza to Hebron. He was ten years old. When the pogroms of 1929 started, he used to live next to a Jewish rabbi. They were very close, like one family. They played together, they ate together etc. His father was a sheikh, you know, a religious man, a judge in the court. As soon as the violence started, his father told the rabbi: “I want you to come to my house, so you can be protected from these hooligans in the street. So no harm comes to you.” The rabbi answered: “No, no, these are my people. They will not harm me.” He refused to stay with Khaider Abu Shafi’s father. So he was killed. Khaider Abu Shafi told me this story and added: “This was the saddest day in my life.” He said: “You cannot make a state based on such kind of violence. You cannot have a state in which you can feel at peace with yourself, when you are so hostile and violent to others. You know, all Dr. Khaider Abu Shafi’s children married German women. They have no problems.
Dr. El-Sarraj I have to leave now and let you rest.
Dr. Lasch Thank you and ma’salama!