while the rain pounded outside,an esteemed psychiatrist from Gaza told an audience at the Canadian Arab Federation Friday night that it's time the Palestinian resistance learned some new tricks.
This blunt observation came courtesy of doctor Eyad El Sarraj, who warned his rapt listeners at the Federation's McNicoll Avenue hall that "if we want to win our country, we have to respect our differences, we have to respect our laws, we have to be democratic in our homes."
It's something he knows a lot about. The outspoken director of Gaza Community Mental Health, who has nursed the psychic trauma of two intifadas, has himself now been imprisoned and tortured by his own government, the Palestinan National Authority of Yassir Arafat.
That's largely because of his other personal mission as commissioner general of the Independent Palestinian Commission for Citizens' Rights. In the climate of orthodoxy created by war, the PNA's infractions don't get a lot of airtime, a most disturbing turn of events according to El Sarraj.
"There is something about us -- we have a public language and a private language. We all say privately that our leaders are corrupt, but publicly we kiss their hands," he says, gesticulating emphatically as his Jewish colleague and tour mate, doctor Ruchama Marton, chair of Israel's Physicians for Human Rights, looks on.
The two have addressed half a dozen social justice meetings in a three-day blitz, impressing audiences both Jewish and Arab with their low tolerance for political nonsense.
El Sarraj, for example, upbraids his compatriots for their reaction last week to the Jerusalem wedding catastrophe: "Many cheered, believing God had given revenge." While the Israeli military has pushed Palestinians into this psychological space, he says, it is nevertheless undermining as political strategy, as well as morally offensive.
"I am against the killing of anyone, any time," he says. "If Israelis commit crimes against humanity, that doesn't mean we should." And although the gathering is respectful, some want reassurance that the doctor isn't equating Palestinian violence with that of the occupiers.
El Sarraj responds with the weary meticulousness of one who has answered the same query many times: "I believe Palestinians historically have the most just cause ever, equivalent to that of aboriginals in North America. And although I am a pacifist, the right of resistance is a sacred right, just like Europe resisted the Nazis. I respect the people who die resisting, I respect Hamas. But I beg to differ. I say we have to strategize differently. Human rights is not divisible -- for Palestinians, for Jews, for aboriginals. A human life is a human life. Killing civilians in Tel Aviv is not justified. I believe it is not helping us, but is damaging our struggle."
Still, "this is a terrible world for a Palestinian to be in," he says. "God is being killed every day" -- the consequences of which he deals with hourly in the eight Gaza clinics where he treats children and families terrorized by the occupation. It's a situation that will prove equally burdensome for generations of Israelis as well, he makes clear, because these battered Arab children are going to be victimizers in years to come.
Every family in Gaza is in deep trouble, he says. Many children up to age 15 try to sleep with their mothers, and most households have a member whose private panic has turned to bedwetting. Yet crowded living conditions continue to push the youngsters into the streets and the broader conflagration. Here they receive conflicting messages. In the morning, Palestinian TV tells them to stand fast against the occupiers, but the evening news shows what happens if they do: legs cut off, bodies shattered. The situation mires the children in helplessness and despair of ever being protected again.
And the mosques? They function, says El Sarraj succinctly, merely to ensure fidelity to authoritarian regimes. "For generations we were told in the mosque that we were sinners. We were conditioned to follow the leader or the president. Islam is used to convince people to obey the state."
It is time, says this psychiatrist-turned-tactician, to stop letting the Israeli establishment control the trajectory of their resistance. To win their homeland, Palestinians must develop wise forms of collective action that are not simply reactive. "Getting us to shoot is part of the (Israeli military's) plan. They have studied us. They know that blood will incite Palestinians and that we will go to Arafat and say, "Get your troops here.'
"We have had 50 years of this. Let us discuss and think what is the best strategy," he says shortly before the meeting adjourns into small knots of people arguing with so much polemic and so much waving of hands that it feels like a gathering of my own family, and I slip out into the fog.