Psychologist to Bereaved Gazans Becomes One of Them

Hassan Ziadah, who lost five members of his family last month, has been treating traumatized Palestinians since 1991.

Reuters

Hassan’s mother taught him how to read and write when he was five, even though she had only attended school until the 4th grade. Due to space limitations and relevancy considerations, that was a detail I left out of a piece I wrote about Henk Zanoli, the Dutch man who had been recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority as a righteous gentile, and who returned the medal that he received from Israel (“Holocaust honor returned,” August 15). He did so because Israel and its army had killed Hassan’s mother, Muftiyah Ziadah, 70, three of his nine siblings, Jamil, Omar and Youssef, his sister-in-law Bayan and his 12-year-old nephew Shaaban. A single Israeli bomb hit their house on July 20. The IDF spokesman said the army was looking into “exceptional” cases.

Nine other families devasted on same day

But the Ziadah family is not exceptional. That same day, I would stress again and again, precise and sophisticated Israeli bombs obliterated or nearly obliterated nine Palestinian families in their homes, 73 people all told. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem documented 60 such families that Israel killed in July and August, a total of 458 people, including 108 women under the age of 60; 214 children and 18 men and women aged 60 and older.

“When an entire family is killed, society’s primary source of support is lost,” Hassan Ziadeh said in a phone call from Gaza. “When Israel targets entire families, it is destroying a social institution.”

Another son of the late Muftiyah, Ismail Ziadah, is married to a Dutch woman, Angelique Eijpe, a great niece of Henk Zanoli. She told me about the courageous decision of her great uncle to return the Yad Vashem medal as a gesture of protest and shock. In saving an 11-year-old Jewish boy, Elhanan Pinto, from the Nazis, Zanoli and his mother, Johana Zanoli-Smit, did so not for the sake of postwar recognition and awards.

I had first met Hassan in the 1990s, then again after Israel’s Cast Lead offensive in Gaza from late December 2008 to January 2009. We met at his office in the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, where he recounted the trauma experienced by children and adults whose lives do not allow them to mourn and work through the loss of their relatives killed by Israeli army fire. We hadn’t imagined that the day would come when Hassan, the psychologist, would speak about himself as a “case.”

“The loss of one close individual is difficult to process, so what happens when you lose five at the same time under continuing bombing, fear, external insecurity, waiting for death that could come at any moment?” he asked rhetorically in a telephone conversation a week ago.

“We’ve gone through three wars in six years,” he notes. “The children don’t need history books about them. They’ve experienced them themselves. Nine-year-old children remember two wars well and are living a third. Over the past several weeks, all of us have been reliving 1948,” he said. “People have left their homes, going around with mattresses and blankets, as at that time [1948], not knowing where they were going. This time the Israelis made us leave, too, but there wasn’t anywhere to go. Everywhere we went, we were in danger of being killed.

“We are emotionally and physically worn out and know that what used to be will never return, first of all for the many orphans. More than ever, I’ve remembered my father’s stories from 1948 about his village, Faluja,” he said, referring to a village whose lands are now settled by the southern Israeli town Kiryat Gat and the moshavim Shahar, Noga, Nir Chen and Nehora.

During the Israeli siege on Falujah, where an Egyptian army unit was positioned, Hassan’s father tried to return to the village after previously fleeing to the village of Beit Jibrin. He didn’t tell his children what happened then, and Hassan only remembers the scars on his father’s legs, from having been shot by the soldiers. After the Egyptian army withdrew, and contrary to what had been agreed upon, Israel expelled the residents of the village.

“My father lost his only brother in that war, killed by Israeli weapons fire. I remember how hard the loss of his only brother was for my father,” Hassan recounts. (His father died in 1987). “Today we, like thousands of other Gazans, need to deal with multiple brutal deaths.”

'Such treatment is not ethical'

Hassan, who has worked at the mental health center since 1991, spoke a lot in our conversation about the meaning of psychological treatment during periods of unrelenting and continuing trauma. “I came to the conclusion that such treatment is not ethical,” he said. “For 23 years, I have been trying to help children living in trauma, but there is no guarantee that they will not be affected again. It’s as if I am just preparing them to deal with something worse. You cannot provide true psychological treatment when the patients have no protection, no guarantee that it won’t happen again and soon, when what causes trauma never ends,” he said.

“What is at issue here is a lot more than individual, separate cases,” he continued. “Even when there is no war, there is no stability in the Gaza Strip, and in a situation like this, how can psychological treatment help? One political decision on Israel’s part — lifting the blockade — could do a lot more good than all of the psychological treatment performed in Gaza and all of the quantities of money invested in them. The long-standing blockade limits our field of vision, our broader outlook, our creativity. The occupation is not only of land. The blockade is not just of goods, objects. The occupation is also cognitive, of one’s will, of feelings and thoughts. The siege is also over the ability to hope.”