Dr. Iyad A-Sarraj passed away on Tuesday, 12/17/2013, in Tel Hashomer Hospital, after a long battle with cancer. The loss of Dr. Iyad A-Sarraj is sad and painful. Iyad was a humanist. He was among Palestinian leaders who combined their struggle for independence and freedom with a humanist world view. In articles published in his memory, many emphasize his activism for human rights – for every human being no matter who they are. This is how he was seen by all who knew him and were familiar with his work. Iyad enjoyed appreciation and trust both among his people as well as in the international community.

Iyad A-Sarraj was born in April 1943 in Bi'r al-Sab‘. His family was among the victims of the Nakba, one of the multitudes of Palestinian refugees who were uprooted from their homes and homeland to Gaza. Having completed his studies in universities in Alexandria and London, he became a psychiatrist. Before returning to Gaza, Iyad worked as a visiting research fellow in Oxford University. In 1990, Dr. A-Sarraj established the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme – GCMHP and served as its president. The programme provided valuable psychological support to many and promoted the psychological rehabilitation of many residents of the Gaza Strip, especially women and children. As the human rights commissioner of the Palestinian Authority, he criticized human rights violations committed by Israel against the Palestinians as well as those of the Palestinian Authority against its people. He was arrested by the security forces of the Palestinian Authority on more than one occasion and was tortured during one of his arrests.

In recognition of his work in the field of human rights, Dr. A-Sarraj was awarded several prizes, including the Martin Ennals award, the Olof Palme prize, as well as the Juan José López Ibor Award in the field of psychiatry. When he was awarded the Palme prize, it was stated that it is given in recognition of his “self-sacrificing and indefatigable struggle for common sense, reconciliation and peace between Palestine and Israel.”

In his speech, A-Sarraj responded:
“I am proud and happy to receive this prize, but I consider that the real heroes are the victims of violence, torture and war. This prize gives me hope and encourages me to continue to fight to defend those in Palestine whose rights have been abused, whether by the Palestinian Authority or by Israel, and to work for justice and peace.”

After Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Dr. A-Sarraj, along with other Palestinian leaders, took on a central role in the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to heal the rift between Fatah and Hamas with the goal of thwarting the continuing split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

News of Dr. A-Sarraj's death was received with shock and great sorrow. Dr. Jabr Wishah, Deputy Director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, described Dr. A-Sarraj as a kind of romantic revolutionary, for “he would dream of things that other people didn't think were possible to realize.” “In a conservative society like Palestinian society”, said Wishah, “mental health and psychotherapy are not the first thing on people's minds. With his courage, his commitment, his integrity and personality, A-Sarraj succeeded in gradually instilling a culture whose main purpose is to learn what the occupation does to human beings. He was a pioneer in his field.”

Another friend, Husam A-Nunu, said: “Dr. A-Sarraj cleared a path for a discipline that was not known among us, a discipline that has suffered from stereotypes not only toward the patients but also toward whoever practiced in the field. Through his work, Dr. A-Sarraj brought great hope to those suffering from mental illness, to their family members and to their environments. Since their establishment, the mental health clinics that Dr. A-Sarraj founded have helped 35,000 people.” A-Sarraj, he said, “lit a candle that spread light around it, and founded a progressive movement that spread light in Gaza and in all of Palestine. I lost a father and a teacher, I lost a man that I loved and admired. I learned a great deal from him. I feel great sadness.”

In June 2009, Dr. A-Sarraj testified before the United Nations fact-finding mission headed by the South African judge Richard Goldstone after “Operation Cast Lead”, Israel’s military campaign against Gaza, where 1,400 Palestinians, including 352 children, were killed. A-Sarraj stated in his testimony that about 20% of the Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip following the war suffered from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, and that 300 mental health experts were required to address the health needs of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip. “I wish that the Israelis would start... to walk on the road of dealing with the consequences of their own victimization and to start dealing with the Palestinian as a human being, a full human being who’s equal in rights with the Israeli; and also the other way around – the Palestinian must deal with himself, must respect himself and respect his own differences in order to be able to stand before the Israeli also as a full human being with equal rights and obligations. This is the real road for justice and for peace.”

In October 2011, in an article published by Dr. A-Sarraj along with the director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Raji A-Sourani, the two authors harshly attacked the siege imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip: “As many as 1.8 million Gazans remain locked inside the world's largest open-air prison. The international community cannot allow this crime to continue. Palestinians must be treated as equals and their human rights respected and protected.”