Drugs and Delusions in Despondent Gaza

When despair mounts in the beleaguered Strip, addiction spreads — either to opioids or to dreams of waging a holy war.

A drug addict stands behind bars at a Hamas-run prison in Gaza City March 1, 2017.
MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

There is a direct connection between the recent death sentences handed down to two men for drug trafficking in the Gaza Strip and the arrest of hundreds of Salafi activists there.

The death sentences attest to the local authorities growing concern over the increasing number of people using drugs, and the growing power and boldness of those who peddle them. The arrests reflect the authorities fears that more youths will leak out of the ranks of Hamas into self–described purist religious groups pushing for a military confrontation with Israel. The two groups attest to the extent to which daily life in Gaza has become intolerable. One is addicted to Tramadol, the other to militarization of religion.

Both groups are drifting into the realm of fantasy, both are despairing of the chances to improve their horrible reality. Religion and faith in Allah bolster the Palestinian public as it deals long–term with the Israeli regime of organized sadism, but that does not mean everyone all the time. When the frustration and helplessness and despair overpower the support embedded in the verses of the Koran and the joint prayers in the mosques, some individuals turn to addictive painkillers and hashish, while others are helped by harboring delusions of launching a new military campaign that will pave the way to the springs of paradise.

Both seek a way to escape the substandard drinking water in Gaza, the overflowing sewage, the rampant unemployment, futility of life, poverty, war traumas, overcrowding and emptiness. They secretly obtain the address of a drug dealer or, at the mosque, exchange whispers before prayer with someone who knows somebody who explains enthusiastically that Hamas is not keeping its promises to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine because its leaders have become just like Fatah, taking care only of themselves and thinking about this world rather than the world–to–come.

More drugs were seized in Gaza in January alone than in all of 2016. Most of them apparently originate from Egypt, and are smuggled in either above ground or via tunnels; these include Tramadol and other painkilling opioids as well as hashish. After the massive destruction of commercial tunnels in 2012 there was a steep drop in the amount of drugs entering the Strip. The drug markets recovery indicates the renewed use of some of those tunnels.

Palestinian employees check seized drugs at the office of Gaza Prosecutor General, in Gaza City February 26, 2017. Picture taken February 26, 2017.
REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

The difficulties of trading in underground conditions makes merchants think about the most profitable commodities in relation to their weight, volume, cost of transportation and demand. Weapons and drugs remain most profitable, and drugs are in demand in Gaza, ya habibi. Otherwise, they wouldnt be taking such great risks to smuggle them.

Any governing authority manages to seize only about 30 percent of all drugs smuggled into its territory, according to a report by journalist Muhammad Al Jamel that appeared on several Palestinian news sites. He wrote that the substances most likely come from Egypt via a commercial tunnel that splits into two — an official tunnel whose goods Hamas inspects and on which it imposes taxes, and a secret passageway that reaches a house or store or orchard, from where unreported commodities emerge.

On March 20, less than a day after the military court in Gaza sentenced the two drug dealers to death, the government authority that is waging a war on drugs, the police anti–drug department announced the seizure of 50,000 Tramadol pills in 500 cases, another 120 cases of another painkiller and 12 bundles of hashish.

Hamas wants to continue ruling Gaza, but it cannot do so securely in the crowded enclave if the quality of life of its residents does not improve dramatically. That means that there needs to be additional employment, fair wages, heightened productivity, marketing of goods to the West Bank and foreign entities, study opportunities outside Gaza, freedom of movement, regular meetings with family and friends, clean water and electricity 24/7.

Israel must lift the siege restrictions it has imposed on the Strip so that living and economic conditions will be rescued from disaster, which wont stop at the Green Line. But if the Israeli government will lift the restrictions, and people start leaving and entering Gaza more freely, the exclusive status of Hamas as the ruling party will weaken, or at least the addictive power of its boasts about liberating the country by force of arms and with the help of Allah will weaken. Therefore, Hamas needs those Israel–imposed restrictions on freedom of movement.

Israel is apparently not about to lift the restrictions, however, and this is one more sign that it is interested in Hamas remaining in power, and in a split Palestinian self-rule. In other words, Israel is interested in keeping the Palestinians busy with exhausting mundane and immediate issues (like supplying electricity four or 12 hours a day, carrying purified water to the fifth floor without an elevator, getting approval for treatment or to attend professional workshops, preoccupation with salary cuts).

When everything gets lost in the minutiae, the crux of the matter itself — the subjection to a foreign power and desire for liberation — shrinks into mere slogans and rhetoric. Frustration reinforces the need for drugs and fantasies of a military flare-up as an outlet. It is a political outlet, a psychological outlet, an outlet for the lack of international interest, an outlet for the rage over the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.

And when Israel doesnt lift the closure restrictions, it indicates that it is interested in the cycle of military flare-ups with Hamas.