Gaza is less than 100 kilometres from Jerusalem. It is deliberately placed out of reach, separated by three visible borders. The Israeli border is the main obstacle, but there are two others, each affirming the authority of one of the two conflicting Palestinian factions: Ramallah’s Palestinian Authority and Gaza’s own government. Less visibly, we are prevented from reaching Gaza by means of a diplomatic siege that has created institutional prohibitions. But even when official governmental permission to cross into Gaza is granted, we are often obligated to think of the institutional consequences.
Recently, after three attempts to enter Gaza on a medical mission, I managed to obtain all the right papers and to circumvent the institutional veto. I was contracted as a consultant by Medicins Du Monde (MDM) Spain to train and supervise psychologists working for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education on the management of trauma-related conditions among children.
At the Erez checkpoint, the transition between the last Israeli neighbourhood in Ashkelon and the first Gazan neighbourhood of Beit Hanoun felt like a journey going back several decades in time. On the Israeli side, you see modern buildings, fancy cars and wide, modernised streets, while as you enter Gaza you are confronted with deteriorated infrastructure, broken roadways, carts drawn by animals, overcrowded living spaces, a multitude of children playing in the streets, dense lines of laundry hanging from the buildings, and fatigued faces regarding you with mysterious looks, perhaps wondering, “Why would anyone come to Gaza?”
To my surprise, there was no visible rubble of demolished homes remaining from the latest war on Gaza in May. I understood that any useful material is very quickly collected to be repurposed for future reconstruction. I noticed several amputee youth in the streets — young men and adolescents who lost a limb either during the war or because their knees were specifically targeted as they demonstrated in the Great March of Return. The graffiti displayed in the camps, in the city, and on the beach express support by the public of Gaza for Jerusalemites, for the people of Sheikh Jarrah, and for all Palestinian prisoners. Gaza, the captive, expresses resistance in order to liberate us!
War shines a spotlight on the misery of Gaza, but very quickly, this misery falls back into oblivion. Today, as I sit in the warmth of home to write this article — benefitting from a day off work because of the snowstorm affecting the region — I learn of a baby in Khan Yunis who died from Gaza’s lack of heating. Poverty, anaemia, food insecurity, lack of medical equipment, lack of fuel supply and lack of electricity are permanent in Gaza. I was deeply saddened when one of our trainees in Gaza, a senior colleague, mentioned in an informal gathering, “I visited Jerusalem last year.” The colleagues in Gaza expressed curiosity and even envy — to explain, she added: “I am a cancer patient and I was granted permission to be treated at the Augusta Victoria Hospital.” To have access to medical services outside Gaza one needs to be both very sick and very lucky at the same time.
Each of the clinical cases presented by the therapists were suffering from misery — in addition, in some instances, to psychopathology. Four out of 21 child cases were brought to supervision following the suicide of a family member. All of the others followed the traumatic death of a family member killed by the Israelis. In one case, the child was the only survivor of her family. In another case, the child’s 17-year-old brother committed suicide after his mother pressured him to leave the home to obtain food; a sister reported to the school counselor that her mother was depressed and spent all of her time in bed. When a therapist reached out to the mother to offer support and an antidepressant, the mother responded: “I need food, not medication.”
There is no safe place in Gaza. The face of trauma intrudes when a home is demolished, when a classmate is killed, when a cousin takes an illegal boat and disappears forever, when there is a threat of another war, and when Israel attacks the fishermen and the farmers to deter them from struggling to earn a living. The threats are many and real.
I left Gaza very early on a Sunday morning to catch up with my work in the West Bank. I encountered the endless line of Palestinian laborers waiting to cross the Erez checkpoint to work. I was told that they had been waiting since 4am. In their lean bodies, dark wrinkled faces, cheap cigarettes and the plastic bags they carried with a change of underwear, I saw a tableau of modern slavery. Unlike them, I was unaware that the Israelis would not allow me to cross the checkpoint with my suitcase. I had to rush to empty its contents into plastic bags and throw away my suitcase before reaching the soldiers.
I went to Gaza to teach and supervise — but I learned a lot as a clinician, as a Palestinian compatriot and as a human being. If Gaza were one person, her deepest trauma would not be the enemy’s aggression but the betrayal by her neighbours, her brothers and her sisters. We have yet to find a national remedy for this betrayal.
January 28, 2022
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