Some 100 academics and mental health workers were denied entry to the Gaza Strip to attend an international medical conference, but the conference took place anyway – by video link, with one group gathering in Gaza City and another in Ramallah.
The conference, organised by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) on 27-28 October, focused on the mental health impact of the Israeli blockade of the enclave (since June 2007 when Hamas took over).
However, for many this "virtual" method proved less productive, as the foreign experts and local health workers were generally unable to conduct sustained discussions and take advantage of each other’s knowledge and proficiency.
"It made it harder to exchange experiences," said Samir Qouta, a psychologist at the Islamic University in Gaza, told IRIN.
"Denying the foreigners entry to Gaza made mutual interaction impossible, but still the conference took place – and that in itself is a big achievement," said the GCMHP’s Husam el-Nounou.
Gaza’s border crossings were closed, exports banned and imports restricted to humanitarian goods after the Islamist Hamas movement took over in the territory.
The denial of entry for many of the Gazan health workers and visiting experts served to highlight just how isolated the enclave is from the rest of the world.
Israeli security officials said the conference was political in nature and would have helped serve the interests of Hamas.
Conference goers denied they had any interest in partisan issues.
Few Mental Health Experts
"According to my research, the siege is affecting social and economic life," said Qouta, adding "the impact is especially clear on the children."
"The quality of life has really deteriorated," he said.
Health experts say lack of medication and a shortage of specialised doctors in the enclave are having an adverse effect on people’s well-being in general, but mental health is particularly affected as there are very few experts in the enclave, and patients cannot easily travel abroad.
"The siege is making it worse. The people are suffering more," Qouta said.
Even with the difficulties in running the conference, many participants felt they still learned and were able to share with each other, using technology like the video link and email.
"Also, our colleagues in Gaza now know they have support and solidarity from mental health experts abroad," said W.H.G. Wolters, a clinical psychotherapist from the Netherlands who attended the conference.
He noted the tough challenges mental health workers in Gaza face in carrying out their work.
"The workers face severe stress and traumatisation, in addition to having to face their own survival in the difficult situation," Wolters said.
In some cases, they had to treat their own family members, further complicating an already daunting job.