Dr. Eyad R. Sarraj, a psychiatrist trained at the Maudsley Hospital in London, is director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. During the Israeli occupation he developed ways of treating children traumatized in the intifada. He was then, and is now, a campaigner for human rights.
I talked with Sarraj about the condition of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since the new Palestinian Authority took control. It was a remarkable conversation."People are intimidated," he said. "There is an overwhelming sense of fear. The regime is corrupt, dictatorial, oppressive.
"I say this with sadness, but during the Israeli occupation I was 100 times freer. I wrote in the Israeli press and the Arab press. Today I am boycotted by our press and television.
"There are so many arbitrary arrests now, without charge, without reason. The Authority has nine security organizations, each with its own detention center. And people are systematically tortured."
(Elsewhere I was told about another doctor who expressed shock at the condition of a Hamas prisoner brought to a Gaza Strip hospital after being tortured. The doctor was arrested and held for six days.)
Sarraj was arrested himself last December after he told a visiting European press organization that the human rights situation in the Gaza Strip was "terrible." The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported his remarks, and the reporter called the Palestinian attorney general for comment. Sarraj was questioned at the criminal investigation bureau and released after 10 hours. Yet he still wants to take the risk of speaking out.
"Under the occupation we felt brute force," he said. "But we never felt the humiliation we do today, because we are oppressed by our own authority."
He was also critical of the terms of peace negotiated so far, which leave Israel in control of access to the Gaza Strip. After the Hamas suicide bombings, the borders were closed. Virtually no one can leave the densely populated strip for any reason.
"People feel the political process did not give them anything," Sarraj said. "It turned Gaza and the West Bank into a new kind of prison. President Arafat is humiliated; his people are humiliated. We don't feel proud of our authority.
"The economic factors increase the tension. People are sometimes thrown back on survival instincts. They are apathetic when you talk about democracy or human rights. What concerns them is bread."
An outsider visiting the Gaza Strip for the first time in four years sees signs of physical improvement. Some streets are being cleaned up and paved, with money from foreign donations. But there is no sign of the kind of investment that would be needed to provide a functioning economy for the Gaza Strip's nearly 1 million people.
"The mood in Gaza is not a healthy one," Sarraj said. "People feel alienated, depressed, hopeless. And hopelessness is the worst emotion you can have.
"I am a man for peace with Israel. I was for it long before Arafat. But peace for me needs dignity. Nothing can qualify as peace unless Israelis and Palestinians can live a dignified life together.
"The kind of peace we have now is a total psychological surrender. It is far more damaging to the self than fighting a war. . . .
"The message is still: We need leaders on both sides strong enough to establish real peace, among dignified human beings.
"But I have a deep hope that it will get better. The reason is that we, Palestinians and Israelis, are destined to live together. We have to make it work. We have no other option."