The following interview with Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, internationally renowned founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), was conducted in May 1997 as part of field research for my Ph.D. dissertation focusing on popular memories of the first Palestinian intifada. I have chosen to publish the interview now in memory of Dr. El-Sarraj, who died on December 17, 2013.
I spoke with Dr. El-Sarraj when he was also serving as Commissioner-General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights (PICCR, now known as the Independent Commission for Human Rights). We met at the PICCR’s office in Ramallah. The bulk of our conversation focused on the “intifada generation” and its experiences with trauma and empowerment.
John Collins (JC): Can you give a general overview of PICCR and its work?
Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj (EE): PICCR was established in 1994 by a Presidential decree—it is supposed to function as a state organization to monitor questions of human rights [and to] also function as an ombudsman, receiving complaints from people, trying to resolve these issues, and reviewing legislation. We have two offices, one here, one in Gaza, we have a legal department, we have fieldworkers, and we have a Board of Commissioners, which consists of about 17 Palestinians members from inside and outside—credible names in that field, non-partisan, independent people.
JC: The first question that I have for you related to my work concerns the idea of an intifada generation [referring to the First Intifada in the late 1980s early 1990s]—this is a term I talk about, jil al-intifada, in all my interviews, and I get very different responses from people in terms of who that term refers to. I wanted to ask you, do you think that group even exists? Is there a generation that you can define as the “intifada generation,” and if so, how are they defined?
EE: Well, you see, the intifada lasted for more than seven years and definitely has left an impact on everyone, particularly children. And you cannot deny that the effects of the intifada on children will last for a long time…If you talk only about the cycle of violence, from one generation to the other, these children were directly hit by different scenes of trauma and violence. They were subject themselves, in many instances, to dramatic experiences. They will never forget; these memories will never be erased, [they will] continue to be there.
Now it depends on how the person is dealing with this, but [for] at least 30 percent of them, it will definitely influence the future of their children. So what you can say is the “intifada generation” – and we can see it in different signs of the intifada generation today – is the rebellion, which they learned the language of during the intifada, the physical character of their asserting themselves. At the same time, [there is] their need for stability…to have a kind of stability and security by trying to be part of the family again. So they have this kind of pendulum status now between being rebellious and the need to be part of the family. So, I mean these are all part of the violence we see now, in the streets, in the domestic violence, torture of people in prison – [these] are definitely implications of the intifada. Many people during the intifada were tortured by Israelis, and now some of them are identifying somehow with these—with their torturers. At home, some of them are becoming problematic, violent against other children, their wives, and so—these are the implications of that time.
JC: A lot of the people I talked to in Balata [Refugee Camp], the young people, made a point of telling me about how toward the end of the intifada, there was a big increase in early marriages, in parents trying to marry off their sons earlier, and they tell me that a lot of those ended in divorce. Is that something that’s pretty widespread?
EE: In the first two years, according to my information, in the first two years of marriage, 40 percent end up in divorce.
EE: Early marriages, I mean early marriages. In Gaza it was quite a phenomenon, it was during the intifada, and people tried to explain it by saying that it was because of economic hardship—you know, big families, people want to get rid of their daughters, and the way to do it honorably was by marrying them off. And because they were scared that they could not protect these girls in the environment of violence and so on, they wanted somebody else to look after these girls and so on. I don’t know if it is still the same today or not, but we have to investigate that.
JC: I wonder if it’s also an attempt by the parents of the young man to try and get him to settle down, protect him as well—they think that if they marry him off that he won’t go out in the streets as much and, you know, get involved in demonstrations and things.
EE: Many people think that the best way to solve problems is by making young people get married, so that they will become quieter, more responsible.
JC: I know in South Africa right now there is a lot of talk about the generation, the younger generation which went through the worst of the demonstrations in the 80s, being a “lost” generation—and that’s not a term that I’ve heard a lot here, but I’m wondering what you think about that, if you think that the intifada generation has somehow lost something?
EE: Well, definitely the intifada generation has lost its education, and the sense is that many of these children are now poorly educated if not illiterate. They of course were traumatized, and some of them were damaged psychologically—in that sense you can say at least part of that generation was lost socially, educationally, and in terms of psychology, and also in terms of losing their skills. There is also a very serious problem – I am not yet aware of the full investigation – but there are some reports that throughout the intifada, because of the chronic malnutrition, many children are showing stunted growth, physically. Of course, chronic malnutrition also affects the mind, the brain, so it is very serious. According to some reports I have heard about, some people say that 15 percent of the children of Gaza today suffer [from] this stunted growth, and that it is a serious problem.
JC: I’ve also been hearing bits and pieces about problems with suicide in Gaza, but also in some other places—Jenin and so forth. Can you say anything about that? Are we talking about an after-effect of the intifada as well?
EE: Well, there seem to be a lot of people talking about it now. They say a number of people are killing themselves. I’m not sure, you see. The problem is that there is no clear reporting of cases. It is not said that they were attempting suicide when you look at their hospital records; they say “accident,” so you don’t know who tried to commit suicide or not without proper investigation. But people talk about cases of, like one case every day, you know, between the West Bank and Gaza, of people killing themselves or at least attempting that. This is serious because in our culture, killing yourself is considered to be taboo, as well as a sin. People believe strongly you should not kill yourself because you do not belong to yourself—you belong to God. Your body is a property of God, and if you kill that property, as if you have the body on lease, you know, it is a sin to kill yourself.
This is a culture where the family is very strong, cohesive, relatively speaking—there is a kind of communal identity which is quite strong compared to the West’s individualism, right? With that, if you have suicide, then there must be very serious questions, you know, why people are killing themselves. Is it poverty, is it hopelessness? [This] is a question that we need to address, because there are definite feelings of helplessness all over the place now, due to the political and economic situation. But if some people reach the point of hopelessness, that is very serious.
JC: Is that how you analyze the recent—I mean, is it, do you think it’s largely hopelessness? And do we have a sense of who these people are, what kind of people?
EE: Well, during the intifada, by accident, we came across a number of pieces. A plastic surgeon in Shu’fat Hospital called me to see a case once, and I went there, to the burn unit, and I found that a number of women were admitted who had attempted suicide by setting themselves on fire. At that time we did a small study, and we found that the majority of those attempting suicide were young women.
JC: How young?
EE: They were between 18 and 25, and were usually driven to suicide by marital problems, social problems, family problems. Today also the majority of cases still involve young women. But we also have to make a distinction between attempting suicide and actual suicide. Attempting suicide in many cases is a cry for help, but killing yourself is definitely a sign of depression and helplessness, unless you do it for altruistic reasons, like people going into Israel to bomb themselves and kill other Israelis—they believe they’re going to heaven. That’s a different category altogether. They go there with a smile, believing they are going to heaven, so they are a different story also.
JC: Do you have a sense in general, from the work that you’ve done on the effects of trauma, the effects of the intifada on young people, is there a difference in terms of gender in the way that young people were affected by the intifada—in other words, the problems faced by girls, are they different from the problems faced by boys, the after-effects and so forth?
EE: There is a difference between males and females, boys and girls. Girls are of course overprotected in our [culture]. Girls are overprotected, because if they are confronted or if they are harassed, or if they are, you know, if they are in any way interfered with by outsiders, this is a shame on the whole family, right? So people were trying always to keep the girls at home. Now at the beginning of the intifada, women went out into the streets to protect their children, basically, and in the process they came into confrontation with Israeli soldiers, and that encouraged young girls also to go out.
But soon after that, men began feeling so insecure because they had lost control over the family—because boys were out, and now women were out, and young girls were out—and the man, the father, was sitting in the corner so helpless. In the process, men tried to regain their authority by using religion and tradition, saying “it is a shame on you to be out in the streets, you women—you should go back in the house.” And gradually they were dragged back into the house, so young girls also went back inside the home. But many of them suffered, even when they were not confronted directly by the Israelis.
The intifada’s effect on them came from what they had heard, what they had seen, what was relayed to them, and from, of course, the experience of their own brothers or fathers. And in many ways, when you are not really involved in a situation that is provoking anxiety, but you only hear about it from a distance, you may become even more anxious—because when you are involved, you can get rid of your anxiety by some action.
This is why we found, for instance, that children who were participating in intifada through active involvement—by throwing stones or whatever—were better in terms of mental health than children who did not. So women, in that sense, or young girls who did not participate, fall into this latter category. Some of them are seriously affected. Some of them have witnessed serious events, like demolishing a house, or killing, and so on. And they were definitely affected, seriously.
JC: You were saying those who participated tended to have fewer psychological problems than those who did not. That reminds me of [a related] issue—in demonstrations, do you have a sense of whether demonstrations for young people had an aspect of sort of play, enjoyment? In other words, they’re dangerous, but at the same time…
JC: One got that impression from watching it on TV sometimes, that there was a kind of routine and that it was a bit like a game, you know—a dangerous game.
EE: I think there are too many factors involved there. But risk-taking behavior was part of it, and the thrill that is involved. There is also the feeling, which quite rapidly can spread between people, the communal spirit, you know—that we are defending our territory. You know, with children particularly, because many of them in the refugee camps spend most of their time in the streets. They were involved because they were defending their own territory—the streets. And for them that was a game that became real – it was so exciting. There [were] also some people who were venting their anger with other problems – parental problems, family problems – out in the streets onto Israeli soldiers. It was also a kind of attempt by these children to rebel against authority, any form of authority—a parent’s authority, a teacher’s authority, and also the Israeli occupation authority in the streets. It was a very exciting challenge, with multifaceted [factors] behind it.
JC: How much conflict do you think there was between generations? I came here assuming that that was an important part of the intifada. People that I interviewed seemed reluctant to admit that there was conflict between the younger and older generations during the intifada.
EE: Oh, there is definitely that. I mean, this is normal anywhere anyway, and in our part of the world it was very clear there was a sharp division between the two generations. Children in a sense were physically taking authority from their parents, and that put them into confrontation with their parents, particularly the fathers. I saw, I witnessed myself, cases of children who were challenging their father, accusing him of being [a] coward because he’s staying at home—they want to go out in the streets and die for Palestine. But the father couldn’t do anything to stop them. And by doing that, they were—they started also to act more vigorously in so many other areas, so you were assertive, you were really strong. And that made them different. There was a time when we had a proverb in Arabic that Gaza is ruled by a child. This was the cynical statement from the adults who were so helpless—couldn’t do anything, so they said Gaza—the balad, the country—is ruled by a child. Balad hâkimha walad. That was a common saying.
JC: What are the longer-term implications of that? Do you think those changes that occurred in the hierarchy of generational authority are permanent in some sense? I mean, has the social structure been altered?
EE: Well, see, there are different forces working against each other. For instance, we now have a tendency and a tradition of tribalism, right, and respect for the hierarchical system, dependency on the father image, and so on. We have the rebellion in the intifada against all that. We also have the beginning, or the seeds are being put for democratic transformation, which means that you have to undermine this tribal system or confront it. So you have the two—the tradition, the tribal system, and you have the experience of rebellion and the need to establish democracy. So these forces will be working against each other. I think the tendency now in our culture, in our environment in general, is to go forward in the democratic experience, right? And about how to do it—there is an intense, very lively dialogue today in all sectors of this society about this, and I think that in that sense, Palestinians are ahead of their Arab neighbors.
JC: And where do younger people fit into that? Is it possible to say that young people are more inclined toward a democratic political culture than their parents, or is that an unfair generalization?
EE: Well, I am not sure, to be honest with you. I don’t know of any study now that has really dealt with this issue, in which we can talk with some real information. You need to study the young generation to see if there is any change. But from the limited number of studies that were done, and I’m not sure of the methodology, but the impression I have is that younger generations are more hard-liners when it comes to nationhood and nationalism. They are strong—they have strong feelings against the corruption, authority and against dictatorship and against all this oppression and lack of democratization. They are stronger in expressing their views. They tend to be more expressive of themselves, right? So on the whole I have the impression that the younger generation are really more keen on having democracy than the older ones.
JC: In that sense are they a threat to the [Palestinian] Authority?
EE: They are a threat to any form of authority that will try to oppress them, whether at home or in the streets, in their country as a whole. Definitely the younger generation will be a threat to them, and there will be a time when these people will rebel against any form of authority that is oppressive and so on.
JC: Then how do you understand the integration of large numbers of young people into the security forces by the Authority?
EE: The need for work is the number one reason. The second is that since many of them were part of the intifada generation, they were part of Fatah Hawks or whatever, so they thought it would be natural for them to join together as one group, and they did, particularly in the Preventive Security, in the waqâ’i. They all joined that.
There is a kind of solidarity that is transmitted from the time of the intifada to today—we did the intifada and now we are doing important work also for Palestine. There is a kind of spirit—I could feel it particularly among the Preventive Security people. Their communal or collective identity kept them going along from one era to the other, and they kept a kind of solidarity. But other people are joining because of the lack of work, and it is also a status symbol if you have a badge or something, so it is power.
JC: In some sense, those who are in the security forces now are being separated from other members of their generation…You saw that in September, right, in the clashes, I mean there were probably police and stone throwers who were the same age who were almost at cross-purposes there. The police were trying to prevent escalation of the clashes.
EE: Yes. Well I think that the victims in these clashes, when the Israelis are involved, the real victim is the policeman who could not do anything, who was so helpless and almost paralyzed—to decide where to shoot. That is a victim who needs some help. Many young soldiers easily identify themselves with the masses, and they want to protect them, and so many of them were killed in the process, or injured and so on. Others have identified themselves with power and with the Palestinian Authority? And this, in the absence of the common enemy, is very apparent. In the presence of the common enemy, sometimes it is hazy, it is not very clear, and because of that some of them suffer, because they do not know where they belong.
JC: How widespread do you think the problem of torture is now?
EE: It is less than before, definitely. You see, I think this is very healthy, by the way, this is one of the great successes of this Commission. Because we kept very strong pressure with other NGOs that deal with human rights too and other people within the Authority, a kind of movement after the killing of people, we started to raise our voices and so on.
In the last two cases of killing in Nablus, we were very angry; in fact one of the Ministers became angry. The Minister of Justice said this was unacceptable and so on. We wanted him to be more forthcoming after the first case of killing, but it was not too late when he came after the tenth case of killing, and he joined the pressure group of people who said “That’s enough, enough is enough.”
And I knew from then, I wrote a letter to President Arafat and he responded by saying, “I made it clear to people all over the place, particularly in the security forces—stop beating people in any inhumane way” and so on. And people told me lately that there are two things that resulted from all this campaigning. One is that there was a quite clear job description of all the security forces, because they are interfering with each other. And the second, stopping torture.
Now, in the last few months, we have had a sharp decline of the number of cases of torture, which is a good sign. But in certain departments, like the Military Intelligence, and the Bahriyya, Force 17, all these groups—we do not know what is going on behind closed doors. I assume that they have not changed, but we have to wait and see.
JC: In terms of the individual officer, the individual intelligence officer, policeman, whatever, who is maybe acting on his frustrations from his own experience of torture, are there any kind of services available for those people, to help them deal with [that], so that they don’t become victimizers?
EE: Oh yes, in the Gaza Community Health Program we deal with victims of torture and we try to help them individually and in groups and we did several community campaigns to make people aware of the effects of torture and how to handle it at the family level and so on. There are ways, of course, but the problem is how you can reach all the people. We have at least 70,000 Palestinians who were tortured by Israel during the intifada, and that is a huge number. If you take into account the limited resources we have in terms of manpower and experience and so on, it is almost impossible.
JC: I was thinking specifically of those who are in the security forces now and who may be responsible for some of the cases of torture that are occurring, so if the problem is with their own psychological attempts to deal with their own experience…I mean, it’s one thing for Arafat to tell them, “you must not do this,” but…
EE: Somebody has to treat them and rehabilitate them.
EE: Well, we [at the GCMHP] suggested this to some security forces, but so far we haven’t had any positive response, although they keep talking about training and so on. But it is a very important process, and some non-governmental organizations are doing human rights teaching and training of security forces, but we are not part of it.
This interview can also be found on The Weave.