Opinion

Palestinians in Gaza Suffer Enough Without Being Defamed as Sexual Deviants and Mentally Ill

‘Rampant sexual abuse, drugs and despair’, as a recent Haaretz article claimed? Not in the Gaza we know. Gazans have outlived all predictions that they would break as individuals and as a society

A man paints the colors of the Palestinian flag on a girl's cheek during a rally marking the 13th anniversary of the death of Fatah founder and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, in Gaza City, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017
A man paints the colors of the Palestinian flag on a girl's cheek during a rally marking the 13th anniversary of the death of Fatah founder and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Gaza, Nov. 11, 2017. Khalil Hamra/AP

A November 11th Haaretz interview with a psychologist who occasionally visits the Gaza Strip (Gaza Kids Live in Hell: A Psychologist Tells of Rampant Sexual Abuse, Drugs and Despair) portrays Gazan society as a community that has completely lost its moral backbone – to the extent even, the interviewee Mohammed Mansour claims, that there is rampant sexual abuse and drug abuse and that, for all intents and purposes, everyone is mentally ill.

Our longtime and extensive experience as mental health professionals and researchers in Gaza is very different.

Virtually all of the assertions made in the article about Gaza’s population as a whole are speculative, based as they are on either no evidence or merely the interviewee’s impressions, anecdotes or case examples.

Palestinian school children walk in a flooded street during heavy rain in Gaza City on November 21, 2017.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

This is true not just of the wildly exaggerated assertions of sexual abuse and mental illness, but also of the following claims made by Mansour that we firmly believe, from our experience, to be false:

- That the mental health community in Gaza is itself complicit in sexual abuse

- That abuse has increased measurably since August of this year

- That married men are constantly looking for extramarital sex

- That younger men sexually abuse their peers or younger children to gain control

- That the well-known abuse of tramadol increases the proportion of sexual assaults

- That all social conventions in Gaza have broken down, there is no enjoyment, that Hamas is the only barrier to total societal collapse (without which there would be nothing but crime), and that everyone is out for him/herself in Gaza.

It is acknowledged in the article that there is no systematic research on sexual abuse in Gaza – which makes all the more curious the willingness to describe and publish such misinformation.

Palestinians sit in a basketball court in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza strip on November 18, 2017 as they await clearance to take a bus to travel through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, after it opened for three days for the first time since the Palestinian reconciliation deal.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

But ignored in the article is careful research over decades on large and representative samples of everyday Gazans – some of which we have ourselves reported on – that has shown that despite increasingly dire health- and life-threatening conditions, the large majority of Gazans do not report high levels of mental illness and that marital and parent-child relations are remarkably strong.

Ignored also in the article are the pernicious effects of the continued occupation, siege, and movement restrictions as the fundamental sources of the suffering that Gazans do endure.

Yes, Gazans refer to the narrow strip in which they live as ‘hell’; yes, economic and health conditions are dreadful; yes, there is rapidly increasing frustration and despair; and, yes, increasing numbers of youth ache to exit Gaza for better opportunity elsewhere.

But depicting Gaza as a society in chaos, unmoored from its historically strong culture of collective resilience and steadfastness, and in which everyone only looks for personal interests, is simply incorrect.

At least three core values have and continue to drive Gazans (and Palestinians more generally): To achieve the maximum education level possible, to form families, and to create a livelihood to support those families.

There is no evidence that Palestinians’ commitment to these values has decreased, even though the drastic economic conditions make their achievement of these values increasingly difficult – something that causes deep heartache especially for young Gazans.

A Palestinian boy waits for a travel permit to cross into Egypt, after Rafah border crossing was opened under control of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority for the first time since 2007, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 19, 2017
SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

Nevertheless, they continue to scrap to fulfill as many as feasible, with their characteristic attitudes of "there is no option but to continue on" and "someday we will have a full measure of happiness."

Indeed, Gazans have outlived all predictions that they would break after each successive setback across their lifetimes. Thus, after the 2008-9 war it was predicted that Gazan society would crumble, and even more so after the 2014 war. That hasn’t happened.

Children laugh, play, and swarm their way to school. Schools – from elementary to universities with advanced degrees – overflow with students. Young women and men seek for every opportunity to further their education in Gaza and abroad.

Young Gazans prize marriage as a goal and yearn for the day that they could afford to begin their families. And they scrap for any and all ways to earn money – including innovative online initiatives – to support their families of origin and their own families to come.  

Farmers and fishermen work every day under heavy and threatening restrictions. Countless civil society organizations, NGOs, mental health facilities, and hospitals push on with the merest of resources.

Families meet constantly – to observe holidays, celebrate children’s achievements, welcome new children, and mourn losses. Whenever affordable, families go to the beaches to relax in some brief leisure.

Families swim in the Mediterranean Sea on a sweltering hot day, in front of a black flag warning them not to swim in this polluted area, in Gaza City, Friday, July 7, 2017.
Adel Hana/AP

These dynamics are plain to see for any that would spend time among the population at large, as does one of the authors of this piece, Yasser Abu Jamei, in the daily course of his life.

In a month-long visit to Gaza in May of this year, this article’s co-author, Brian Barber, for example, repeatedly encountered celebrations of all kinds: graduation ceremonies, distinguished student performance honors, awards for lifetime civil service to Gaza, and so on.

The visit also included endless conversations in the parlors and dining rooms of families, in and outside of refugee camps, with parents and their high school children, both eager and anxious about the rigorous, upcoming tawjihi college-qualifying exams.

It included living with families and experiencing yes, the frustration, but also the creative ways in which the families deal with the 20-plus hour energy blackouts: with arrays of devices at the ready for the few hours of power when it comes (flashlights, cell phones, chargers of all kinds), waking at any hour to launder, iron, and bathe, and the stringing of extension cords across refugee camp alleyways to share power with neighbors who don’t have those back-up devices.

Palestinian girl Roueya Al-Krunz is dressed by her mother to take part in Taekwondo training session, at their house in the central Gaza Strip October 23, 2017.
MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

It also included accompanying the mukhtar (tribal mayor) of one of Gaza’s largest clans for days as he found time in his packed schedule as a school principal and doctoral student to address the needs of his people, resolving conflicts of all kinds by bringing the parties together, and working seamlessly with the police on the more serious issues.

This is the Gaza that we know as a Gazan father and psychiatrist, and as an American social psychologist who has spent considerable time annually in Gaza for 23 years.

We’re not seeking to whitewash the very real difficulties faced by Gaza’s de facto caged-in population, but we’re not willing either for a groundless Hobbes-meets-Lord of the Flies-type depiction of life in Gaza to gain traction that it doesn’t deserve.

Yasser Abu Jamei, MD, MSc is the Director General of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, an NGO established by the late Eyad El-Sarraj in 1990. With its three community centers, it is considered one of the key mental health services providers in the Gaza Strip. 

Brian K. Barber, PhD is an International Security Program Fellow at New America and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, both in Washington, D.C., and Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee. Twitter: @briankbarber