Nawaf is one of the lucky Gazans who works for an international organization. Last week, he received a permit to travel to East Jerusalem for a few days. We met by chance, and I immediately noticed his eyes. They resembled the eyes of every other Gazan I’ve met over the last year. The phrase “extinguished eyes” might have been invented just for them.
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Hassan Ziadah, a psychologist who works at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, is very familiar with this look. The pain and fear are so great that people can no longer cry, he said; all the tears have dried up.
Few people can leave Gaza, and few can enter. Thus, for the most part, only foreigners – NGO workers, diplomats and journalists – can see with their own eyes how Gaza residents are coping with the burden of loss and destruction from last summer’s war. Everyone else, including journalists from Israel and the West Bank, needs intermediaries.
Thanks to Al Jazeera in English, we learned about a local initiative in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood to bring a little cheer to people’s hearts by painting the houses’ gray concrete walls in bright colors and filling corners with plants. Tamer, a Palestinian NGO for the promotion of education, donated the brushes and paint, and other neighborhoods plan to follow Zeitoun’s lead.
Ziadah welcomed the project: It fosters cooperation and helps people overcome the passivity caused by shock and loss, he says. But this is only a small part of the picture.
A Palestinian journalist from a Western country who was permitted to enter Gaza was shocked to discover how death has become part of “normal” daily calculations. Someone told him a certain school had rearranged its classes, because in one class “12 students were killed” in last summer’s war. Death is the constant; the variable is the rearrangement of the classes. Ziadah said there has been an upsurge in the number of people considering death as a way out.
Another Western journalist described children filled with admiration for the members of Hamas’ military wing, who marched in honor of the war’s one-year anniversary. He was stunned by the similarity between Hamas’ army and the Israel Defense Forces, and terrified that the marchers’ weapons would accidentally go off in the midst of the crowd.
Parents say children wet their beds and have nightmares in which they stand paralyzed while a wild animal attacks them. At least some of those who flocked to the parade presumably suffer from similar fears.
“The children feel angry; they want revenge. So they’re attracted to the power embodied in the military parade,” Ziadah said.
Nawaf, 45, decided to use his brief respite from Gaza to visit a psychologist. He doesn’t believe a psychologist in Gaza could really help him, since “they suffer from the same trauma as the rest of us.”
Ziadah knows exactly what Nawaf means. He himself lost his mother, three brothers, a sister-in-law and nephew when an Israeli bomb hit his family’s home in the Al-Bureij refugee camp.
During the war, the IDF bombed dozens of houses whose residents were still inside. In 70 cases documented by B’Tselem, 606 people were killed – about a quarter of all Palestinian fatalities. They included 93 children under 5; 129 children aged 5-14; 42 teens aged 14-18; 135 women; and 37 people aged over 60.
On July 20, 2014, the day the Ziadah house was bombed, the IDF bombed six other houses, killed 76 people – including 41 children and 23 women. But Ziadah’s family got special attention because his sister-in-law’s great-uncle, Henk Zanoli, responded by returning the Righteous Among the Nations medal he received for saving a Jewish child during the Holocaust.
Ziadah, a senior psychologist, sometimes needs help from his colleagues at the mental health clinic to overcome his own pain and continue treating his many patients. But he also thinks his personal bereavement enables him to better understand his patients – and people who aren’t his patients, too.
Some direct their fear and anger inwards, resulting in depression, chronic pain and dependency on antidepression medication. R., a field researcher for a human rights organization, noted a new development: Now, even women are becoming addicted to mood-improving drugs, not just men.
And of course, said Ziadah, there are always those who direct their anger outward.
Those who lost neither their relatives nor their houses consider themselves the lucky ones. Consequently, they treat their own fear and depression as “luxuries” and view seeking treatment as “self-indulgence.” But there’s no way to keep the war from intruding into the present.
“In general, people try to forget,” said H., a doctor working for UNRWA. “But for those who directly lost someone or something, everything reminds them of it. My friend’s brothers were killed, and during the [Id al-Fitr] holiday, she refused to leave her room. That’s the day when, traditionally, men visit their female relatives and bless them.”
Last year, Ramadan overlapped with the war. As a result, this Ramadan brought back memories and many people even feared another war would erupt, R. said.
“Wherever you go, you see the ruins – all kinds of buildings left with strange shapes after the bombing that haven’t yet been removed,” he said. “Your eyes don’t have a moment of rest from the memory.” Or, as Ziadah put it, people have no chance to engage in the therapeutic activity of avoidance.
Moreover, shots are heard every day, and drones buzz overhead for days on end. These sounds, the ruins and the uncertainty are reminders that “there’s a real threat to life,” Ziadah said.
“In a state of worry and fear like this, a person needs a mechanism that will help him overcome and bear this overwhelming suffering all the time,” he added. “There’s religion, a central element of our culture, which has the important element of belief in fate – that this was ‘written for us.’ There’s praying to God to save us and make things easier for us.”
One foreign journalist said that in mosques, Hamas members order people not to be sad about their dead. H., the doctor, sees the familial and societal solidarity among Gaza residents. But R. sees the “75 percent,” in his estimation, who want to leave the Strip because there’s no future there.
“I work from morning ’till night in order to forget and not think about the situation, about myself,” he said. “But what about those who have no work? The families with unemployed adults go to the sea and lie about on the beach with nothing to do all day.”
Nevertheless, like Ziadah, R. is convinced people continue to live, and ostensibly even to adjust – because there’s simply no other choice.