By Motasem Dalloul in Gaza
At 12 years old, Malak goes out with her father to help him collected wood near the Gaza-Israeli border. The Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip has left her father Jehad Darabi without work, and the house without heating. As they gathered the wood on one fateful day, the Israeli troops opened heavy fire on them, separating father from daughter.
"My father escaped, whereas, fear prevented me from running," said Malak. "As you can see, I can no longer stand."
Although her father was eventually able to come back for her and took her safely home, the incident left Malak with a psychological scar that goes deeper than bullets can reach.
"In the beginning, I was able to walk, but after several nightmare-filled nights I started to feel unbalanced while walking, until one day, it reached this point," she said.
Darabi, himself now suffering from acute anxiety, is left helpless. "Doctors say she needs daily physical and mental therapy," he said, "but we have no money for that."
11-year-old Ayed Al-Soos also provided for his family by selling old metal scraps he gathered from around the border area. "During one of his working days, the Israelis opened fire at him, removing his left hand and two fingers from his right," his mother, Rawya, remembered in a sad voice.
"Despite his serious injuries, his father never came to the hospital as he felt guilty and, at the same time, he feels unable to compensate his son."
Ayed’s father leaves their house each morning and does not return until late in the evening. "I don’t know where he goes, but I’m sure he leaves because he’s unable to meet our needs."
Malak and Ayed are two young victims of the 9-month-old Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. Manal Al-Sakani, a psychologist and counselor, has been following their cases.
"Both children were exposed to high degrees of psychological stress. They were compelled to share in their family responsibilities together with their unemployed fathers," Al-Sakani said.
Professor Mohammed Al-Helw, a lecturer of psychology at the Islamic University of Gaza, said, "This type of siege, in which the majority of the community becomes unemployed, is exceptional. I believe the psychological disorders resulting from it are to be expected, as the Gazan people are only human."
Al-Helw witnesses first-hand the outcome of the high unemployment rate at his university. "Many students are forced to discontinue their studies, as they have been unable to pay tuition since their fathers became unemployed."
"There are a large number of students living in a clear state of anxiety, since they must keep [their average scores] above 65 percent or they will be deprived of their student aid," he said.
In agreement to this, Dr. Mohammed Abul-Sobah, head of the Gaza Mental Hospital’s Psychology Department and lecturer at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said that many of the cases received at his clinic are suffering from psychological disorders as a direct result of unemployment.
"I recently received four patients at the Mental Hospital; a father and his three sons. They are suffering from a Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) resulting from their inability to fulfill their business commitments as their commodities are being denied entrance at the Karni Crossing [the commercial crossing between Gaza and Israel]" GAD is characterized by excessive and uncontrollable worry that is disproportionate to the actual source of worry.
Abul-Sobah said he also noticed a sharp increase in the number of Conversion Disorder (formerly known as Hysteria Disorder) cases during the first three months of the siege. These included Hysterical Aphonia (impairment or loss of speech), Hysterical Paraplegia (paralysis of the lower body) and Hemiplegia (paralysis of one side of the body), as well as hysterical blindness.
"At the hospital, we are experiencing an overcapacity in bed space despite the fact that many Palestinians refuse to go to the hospital or to the mental health clinics, because they do not consider themselves to be psychologically ill, until their conditions become increasingly complicated."
The Palestinians "were given the opportunity to select their representatives of choice in a democratic way, only to be penalized for that same choice," said Al-Maqadmi.
While the psychological stressors of unemployment come as indirect results of the siege on Gaza, the confused messages sent by international politics seems to directly affect the mental health of Gazans as well.
"The psychological plight of the Palestinians began with the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) election in 2006, following the universal opposition created toward their democratic choice of new government," declared Dr. Iyad Al-Sarraj, a psychologist and head of the International Committee for Lifting the Gaza Siege.
The Palestinian Authority, Arab regimes, the US, and the majority of the International Community encouraged the participation of Hamas in the 2006 PLC elections. "However, when Hamas accepted and swept nearly two-thirds of Palestinian voices, in one of the most clear and transparent elections in the world, all those previously directing it into the PLC arena formed a united front to compel Hamas to abandon their ideology or face International sanctions," explained Dr. Said Al-Maqadmi, a psychiatrist and manager of the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflicts Resolution.
"These circumstances led to a state of confusion for the Palestinian people, who were given the opportunity to select their representatives of choice in a democratic way, only to be penalized for that same choice."
"This state of confusion only increased as internal clashes erupted between Hamas and Fatah, and then reached its peak following the complete siege imposed on the Gaza Strip by the Israelis, the Arab states, and the International Community after Hamas presided over it," declared Al-Maqadmi.
Al-Sarraj went on to say that "the Palestinians believed they chose the right party, but the entire world opposed their choice and this led to confusion."
Multitude of Disorders
"An example of this behavior is the intentional approach of Palestinian children toward Israeli borders, with the hope of getting shot and dying," said Abul-Sobah.
It is not surprising, then, that these events have had unfortunate consequences, especially for the Gazan population.
"Psychologists are reporting that the continuous stress has resulted in a number of psychological conditions and has led some members of the community to suffer an unstable state of mind, making them easy targets for depression and frustration," warned Dr. Sameer Zaqout, a psychiatrist and current manager of the Gaza Community Health Program.
"If the Gaza siege continues, further unexpected psychological disorders will appear which will be difficult to treat."
He went on to say that "denying the results of unambiguous elections, attempting to impose an external political agenda that supports the occupation against us, internal clashes, division of the Palestinian lands into two parts, incessant Israeli incursions, killings and bombings, shortages of electricity and other basic needs, the death of patients who cannot attain treatment, down to the loss of burial shrouds; all this and there is still a long list of hardships the Gazans have encountered that make their life extremely difficult."
During a conference held in Gaza on Thursday, January 31, on the psychological impact of the Israeli siege, Dr. Jomaa Al-Saqqa, a public relations official at Gaza’s Ministry of Health announced that, "Some patients who need to be treated abroad and who were allowed to travel, are being blackmailed by the Israelis at Israeli checkpoints. Therefore, most prefer to return back, rather than head to the hospitals they have been accepted to receive treatment in."
According to Al-Maqadmi, "Gazan children and youth are suffering from many psychological disorders resulting from the siege, such as bedwetting, nightmares, PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], depression, aggression, as well as poor learning and achievement."
"An example of this behavior is the intentional approach of Palestinian children toward Israeli borders, with the hope of getting shot and dying," Abul-Sobah, head of the Gaza Mental Hospital’s Psychology Department, said.
Both Al-Maqadmi and Abul-Sobah believe this comes from their desire to become martyrs in the hope of going to Paradise to live a life better than this one.
Perhaps children like Malak and Ayed do not go to the Israeli borders just to help out their fathers after all.
-Motasem A. Dalloul is a freelance journalist and news producer based in Gaza. (This article was originally published in IslamOnline – www.Islamonline.net)