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. The research was subsequently published in the book Occupied By Memory: The Intifada Generation and the Palestinian State of Emergency (NYU Press, 2004). I have chosen to publish the interview now in memory of Dr. El-Sarraj, who died on December 17, 2013. (Image source: www.palestinechronicle.com)
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.
JC: Can you give a general overview of PICCR and its work?
ES: This was established in 1994 by a Presidential decree—this is supposed to be functioning as a state organization, basically to monitor questions of human rights, [and to] function also as an ombudsman, receiving complaints from people, trying to resolve them, and also review legislation. We have two offices, one here, one in Gaza, we have legal department, we have fieldworkers, and we have a Board of Commissioners, which are about 17 members from Palestinians 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—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. And 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?
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 in the future. So what you can say is the “intifada generation” – and we can see it today 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 intifada, 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.
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?
In the first two years, according to my information, in the first two years of marriage, 40 percent end up in divorce.
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 is by marrying them off. And because they were scared, that they could not protect these girls in the environment of violence and so on, so they wanted that somebody else ought 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.
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.
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.
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?
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 which I am not yet aware of the full investigation, but there are some reports that throughout the intifada, because of the chronic malnutrition, many of the children are showing stunted growth, physically. Of course, chronic malnutrition affects also the mind, the brain, so that is very serious. According to some reports I heard about, some people say that 15 percent of the children of Gaza today suffer [from] this stunted growth, and that is serious.
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?
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 not only a taboo, but also it is a sin. People believe strongly that you shouldn’t kill yourself because you don’t belong to yourself—you belong to God. Your body is a property of God, and if you kill that property as if you’re having the body on lease, you know, it is a sin to kill yourself. And also 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 individualism in the West, 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.
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?
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 where we call it the burn unit, and I found that a number of women are admitted who attempted suicide by setting themselves alight. And at that time we did a small study, and we found that the majority of attempting suicide cases were women of young age.
They were between 18 and 25, usually due to marital problems, social problems, family problems. Today also they say that the majority of cases are still young women. But we also have to make a difference 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 and bomb themselves and kill other Israelis—they believe they’re going to heaven. That’s a different category altogether. You go there with a smile, believing you are going to heaven, so they are a different story also.
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?
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 were in the confrontation with Israeli soldiers, and that encouraged young girls also to go out. But soon after that, when men were feeling so insecure that they have lost the control over the family—because boys were out, and now women are out, and young girls are 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 were back into the house. But many of them suffered, even when they were not confronted directly, right, by the Israelis. The effect on them was transmitted from what they have heard, or what they have seen, or 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 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 by active involvement—by throwing stones or whatever—were better in terms of mental health than children who did not participate. So women, in that sense, or young girls who did not participate, come into that 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.
You were saying that those who participated tended to have fewer psychological problems than those who didn’t. 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...
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.
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 has become real, right—it was so exciting. There also [were] some people who were venting out their anger against other problems, parental problems, family problems, out in the streets onto the Israeli soldiers. It was also a kind of attempt by these children to rebel against authority, any form of authority—a parent authority, a teacher authority, and also the Israeli occupation authority in the streets. It was a kind of very exciting challenge, right, with multifaceted [factors] behind it.