Psychiatrist In Gaza: Coping With War

Palestinians living in Gaza have been under consistent attack from Israeli forces this week. Guy Raz talks with local psychiatrist Eyad Sarajj about how he and his family are coping.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now to Gaza City which has been under a sustained Israeli attack for six days now. Eyad Sarajj is a Palestinian psychiatrist and human rights activist in Gaza, and he joins us on the line. Dr. Sarajj, welcome to the program.

Dr. EYAD SARAJJ (Palestinian Psychiatrist and Human Rights Activist): Thank you.

RAZ: Where are you at the moment?

Dr. SARAJJ: I am in my house in Gaza City.

RAZ: Can you describe what the streets of Gaza City look like at the moment? Are people outside?

Dr. SARAJJ: Well, since Saturday morning, Gaza has been under a severe military attack by the Israeli air force. It also was hit by the Israeli navy and the land...

(Soundbite of child talking)

RAZ: Is that one of your children that we're hearing?

Dr. SARAJJ: Yes, sorry, it is.

RAZ: How are you able to protect your family right now?

Dr. SARAJJ: Well, I have to be with them all the time and try to reassure them by our presence, their mother and myself, and to explain things in a way that does not make them more anxious or disturbed.

RAZ: You're a psychiatrist, of course, Dr. Sarajj.

Dr. SARAJJ: Yeah.

RAZ: How do you explain, as you say, explain things to the children? What do you do and what do you say?

Dr. SARAJJ: First of all, they should understand what is going on in a simple kind of terms. It's only natural and normal to be afraid, so they should accept that. And second, we should explain why, what is happening. We are being, you know, attacked. This is a kind of war. And these are - they're far away, but when they send bombs that makes a loud sound, and this sound is disturbing. But we are safe. It's far away from us, so it's not going to hurt us.

And in the practice, of course, of things, whenever something happens, I hold the little one particularly to my chest and give him a sense of security, and my wife would hold the other one also. That is very important, the physical feeling of security and warmth around the children.

RAZ: Earlier we spoke to an Israeli who is living in Ashkelon. Are there air raid sirens in Gaza? In other words, do you have any warning before the attacks begin?

Dr. SARAJJ: No. There is no warning whatsoever. This is why it is more difficult for us. The first attack was on Saturday morning when we were discussing what we were going to eat for lunch, and suddenly there was a series of bombs and explosives around us. It was very disturbing indeed, and we were in a state of panic.

RAZ: Many Palestinians have been critical of Hamas over the past year. But I wonder whether the people that you know in Gaza who might not, you know, ordinarily support Hamas, are they now rallying around Hamas in this time of crisis?

Dr. SARAJJ: When you see the Palestinians' story, it's a story of victimization. And this is why when there is an outside enemy like Israel attacking now, all the Gazans, they aren't attacking Hamas as they claim. They're attacking Gaza and Gazan people. So we come together and - although some people are critical of Hamas. But at this time, this criticism is muted for the sake of sending our country as a whole.

RAZ: You yourself have been very critical of the missile strikes from Gaza into Israel, the missiles that had been launched out of Gaza into Israel. Do you believe that ultimately the Israeli attacks on Gaza will stop the rocket fire coming out of Gaza into Israel?

Dr. SARAJJ: Well, I am a strong believer of the nonviolent resistance, and I'm a strong believer in human rights. And for me, any people killed, any child killed anywhere is like killing all humanity, I mean. So in principle, I'm against violent resistance against the Israelis. But in the same time, I want the Israelis to understand using brutal force can only encourage more military and more extremist attitude.

RAZ: Well, Dr. Sarajj, thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. SARAJJ: Thank you very much indeed for having me.

RAZ: That was Eyad Sarajj. He's a Palestinian psychiatrist and human rights activist in Gaza. He joined us on the line from Gaza City. We also spoke with Sigal Ariely. She lives in Ashkelon in southern Israel.

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Israeli Official Issues Warning As Airstrikes Continue

A column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets in Gaza i i
A column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets in Gaza

a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. Credit: David P. Gilkey/NPR

A rocket is fired to the north of Israel from the Gaza Strip i i

At top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel. Photos by David P. Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Photos by David P. Gilkey/NPR
A rocket is fired to the north of Israel from the Gaza Strip

At top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel.

Photos by David P. Gilkey/NPR
Residents of Sderot and visitors gather on a hilltop to watch Israeli airstrikes in the distance i i

Residents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day. David P. Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David P. Gilkey/NPR
Residents of Sderot and visitors gather on a hilltop to watch Israeli airstrikes in the distance

Residents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day.

David P. Gilkey/NPR

Israeli fighter jets pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for a sixth day Thursday, and Palestinian doctors say the death toll in the territory now tops 400. One airstrike Thursday killed Nizar Rayan, the most senior Hamas leader to die since the Israeli offensive began Saturday.

Meanwhile, rocket fire continued to rain down on towns in southern Israel, and a senior Israeli Cabinet minister warned that the conflict is far from over.

Not long after word of Rayan's death, warning sirens sounded throughout Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza: More barrages were on the way. In Ashkelon, people abandoned their cars in the street and fled for cover.

Rockets also hit Ashdod and Beersheba again. Both cities are about 25 miles from Gaza. No one was seriously wounded in the latest rocket attacks.

Inside Gaza, the fire from the air proved far more deadly. At least 17 Palestinians were killed Thursday, according to a senior medical official in Gaza, and 92 were wounded.

Rayan was an important figure in Hamas' political and military wings. A professor of Islamic law and an imam, or Islamic preacher, Rayan openly advocated renewing suicide bomb attacks against Israel. He was in his house in north Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp when the bombs struck.

The Israeli military said in a statement that the house was used as a weapons storage site and Hamas communications center. In addition to Rayan, the airstrike killed at least 11 others, including several of his children and two of his four wives. The airstrike also wounded civilians in the densely packed neighborhood.

Rami Abu Safeya lives in the Jabalia refugee camp near Rayan's house. Reached by telephone, he said, "We laid down on the floor, glass and windows broke all around us. The explosions continued, and then 10 people in my house ran away. Many people in the neighborhood were injured."

Israeli Official: 'It Will Take Time'

Back in Ashkelon on Thursday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said the operation against Hamas is far from over.

"This is not going to be an easy one. Therefore, we have to be very patient — very patient and very determined. And it will take time," Ramon said.

Israeli leaders have said from the start that the goal of the punishing air and naval bombardments is to create "a new security reality" in the south and end Hamas rocket fire — not to overthrow the Islamist group or re-occupy Gaza.

But on Thursday, Ramon argued that regime change in Gaza should be the wider goal of the operation. Ramon said ideally the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas — which now controls only the West Bank — should be returned to power in Gaza.

"Even to create a Palestinian state is impossible because the Hamas is dominating Gaza. It's impossible. And if the Hamas will continue to dominate Gaza, it will be impossible to continue the Annapolis process. Any peace process will be almost be impossible to reach. And that's exactly what the Hamas wants," Ramon said.

Conflicting Visions Among Israeli Leaders

But hardly anyone believes Israel can realistically uproot Hamas's deep support among Gaza's 1.5 million residents and impose a new, more moderate Palestinian leadership in the territory. Indeed, a senior Israeli official said later that Ramon was expressing his personal opinion and not government policy. The official said "regime change is not the operation's goal. We have no illusions about that. The goal is to bring about a new quiet in the south."

That stated goal could give Hamas leverage in any cease-fire talks. Hamas leaders have said they want an end to Israel's stifling economic blockade of Gaza in exchange for a new, informal truce.

The conflicting visions among Israeli leaders of what Gaza might look like when the shooting stops is reminiscent of the 2006 Lebanon war. Then, Israeli officials seemed frequently at odds over the goals and day-after scenarios of a conflict that many Israelis say marked a profound failure of leadership.

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