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In Palestine, not even the birds are free

Tue, Nov 18, 2008

General, Divide and Rule, Palestine

In Palestine, not even the birds are free

by Patricia Campbell

In mid-October, my colleague and I traveled to Palestine to attend a conference organized by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and the World Health Organization. The theme of the conference was Siege and Mental Health: Walls vs Bridges. We were presenting a paper examining how the war in Northern Ireland has affected the mental health of our patients in Belfast. This is my personal account of that experience.

It was the middle of the night as our taxi drove along the unlit barren roads from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Ramallah in the West Bank. As we approached Ramallah, I noticed the familiar sight of what looked like a prison. The driver confirmed that it was Atranout Prison, which holds those who “illegally” cross the many Israeli-imposed borders that fragment Palestine, in order to see their families and look for work.

As we entered Ramallah, we were stopped at a Palestinian police checkpoint. We were not hassled. A military-style figure shone a torch into the taxi, viewed two Western women in the back and signaled for us to proceed. It was not so easy to enter Gaza.

Blocked from Gaza

Two weeks before our conference was scheduled to begin, Israel denied entry visas to all the foreign clinicians, medics and academics who had been invited to the conference.

In protest, conference participants assembled at the Erez/Gaza Crossing. I was struck by the heavily-fortified concrete wall that imprisons the people of Gaza. I wanted to see beyond that wall. What is Israel trying to hide?

I continued to observe. To my right were large rocks surrounded by garbage – empty drinks cans and food wrappings – an indication of disdain for this restricted area. The rocks were topped with winding and tangled razor wire. A little bird flew into the wire and got tangled. As it struggled in vain to escape, I looked away to avoid witnessing its miserable fate. I thought, not even the birds are free in Palestine

I saw a small group of adults and children waiting to return to Gaza after having been given special permission to leave. One man was allowed to leave for medical treatment. A woman sat patiently on a concrete slab, showing no expression in her eyes. I was especially moved by the sight of little children playing like children in any other part of the world, but in a place without colour or any facilities to stimulate their young imaginations. Trapped in grey concrete surroundings, they seemed oblivious to the draconian measures being imposed on them, perhaps because they knew nothing else.

Although our efforts to enter Gaza were unsuccessful, the conference organizers had a “Plan B,” and the conference proceeded by video link between Ramallah and Gaza.

The conference

From Gaza, a 15-year-old girl gave a moving account of how she had taken on the role of parent to her younger siblings. Her mother is imprisoned in appalling conditions and has given birth to a brother they have never seen. She longs for the day when the family can reunite and the children can meet their new sibling.

Another report explained how Israeli authorities dehumanize Palestinians by imposing closed prison visits, which means that no human contact is allowed between prisoners and their loved ones. Moreover, the screen that separates the prisoner from the visitor is coloured so that the prisoner appears the same colour as the screen.

The impact of imprisonment and torture on mental health was addressed in a workshop that compared the plight of prisoners in various parts of the world. My colleague and I presented a small number of patients from Belfast. All had experienced imprisonment, maltreatment or torture, and they all suffer serious mental illness.

At the end of the conference, two psychiatrists, Gaza-based Dr Ahmad Abu Tawahina and London-based Dr Derek Summerfield (who spoke from Ramallah) addressed the delegates.

Dr Ahmad spoke of the need for health-care professionals to promote the empowerment of people. He gave an analytical account of how the superiority complex of the Israeli regime influences Palestinians. He described constant efforts to frustrate and humiliate Palestinians, including a total disrespect for Palestinian Ministers who are kept waiting at checkpoints. Palestinians may internalize this oppression and unconsciously adopt the inferior role. For me, this was very poignant. I have always believed that we must empower our young people because they are the future negotiators in every aspect of life. Those who negotiate from a position of weakness and inferiority are more likely to accept less than they deserve.

Dr Summerfield spoke about professional ethics in conflict zones. He described how doctors are bound by ethics of responsibility (being accountable) and ethics of conviction (personal beliefs). He highlighted how some doctors ignore and collude with torture because their personal beliefs overrule their professional responsibilities.

Despite Israeli interference, the conference was a huge success. Thought-provoking workshops and an art exhibition helped to build bonds between international delegates who shared a common concern for health, peace and human rights. Our exchange of knowledge, experiences and ideas has laid the basis for future collaboration. I felt hopeful.

Divide and rule

After the conference, my colleague and I visited Jerusalem. Palestinians require permission to enter this beautiful city with its eight gates. An Israeli military checkpoint enforces this policy. As we sat waiting in traffic, I couldn’t help but compare this check point with Aughnacloy Checkpoint, which separated the British-controlled part of Ireland from the Republic of Ireland.

Being brought up in Northern Ireland, waiting at check points was not a new experience for me. The walls and heavy military presence in Palestine were all too familiar, as were many of the stories and experiences. I realized just how besieged the people of Palestine are, with their movement and choices restricted and their human rights constantly abused

Before departing from Ben Gurion Airport, we spent an evening in Tel Aviv, where I learned more about the Israeli way of life. We met an Israeli off-duty solider and heard his story. We met young men who had just completed their three years of compulsory military service. They all shared the same warped view, “Palestinians are terrorists and we need to protect ourselves.”

Our experience at the airport was shocking. Many people are strip-searched, interrogated and kept waiting for hours. My colleague and I were subjected to harassment, interrogation, theft of personal belongings and excessive security measures. We were asked to produce our badges from the conference, which the guards referred to as a ‘peace conference’ and a ‘human rights’ conference. They seemed threatened by peace and human rights. We were escorted to flight check-in and then separated. We were only able to find each other in their maze of security systems because we had mobile phones. Otherwise, we would have missed our flight.

This was a very important journey for me, personally and professionally. When I addressed my fellow delegates at the Erez Border protest, I explained,

“I am here in a professional capacity. I am bound by a code of ethics. There is nothing more ethical than being here today. This is my opportunity to express my humanity.”

As health care professionals, we have a responsibility to do what is right.

NOTE: On December 31, 2008, Israeli bombs struck and demolished the four-story building that housed the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. See bombing and Appeal from Gaza- Please Help Us!

Patricia Campbell works as a community psychiatric nurse in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is also president of the Independent Workers Union of Ireland and a founder of Universi, health workers’ union.

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- who has written 168 posts on SusanRosenthal.com – Socialism is the Best Medicine.


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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Arja Says:

    It seems the only foreigners getting through to Gaza are on the Free Gaza boats (http://www.freegaza.org ). How this crime against humanity and violation of international law gets so little press boggles my mind! But then I’m reminded that corporate media is corporate owned and presents corporate propaganda.

  2. Adrienne Rosen Says:

    I am amazed at the perpetual blind spot that fuels both sides. But on sites like this one it is predictably one sided. What about the bombs hitting the Israelis???? This must be addressed.
    What about the rampant anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-thinking ideology of Islamic fundamentalism that is so thoroughly shoved down the throats of the people of Gaza by Hamas? These questions must be addressed. And you know what – they should actually be THOUGHT ABOUT rather than responding with a reflexive burst of crazy party line retorts.
    Big Hug,
    Adrienne

  3. Susan Rosenthal Says:

    Let’s be clear. There are not two sides here.

    Israel is a major military power that dominates the Palestinians in every way. And the defiance of the oppressed cannot be equated with the violence of the oppressors.

    The Palestinians elected Hamas because they were losing ground with moderate parties that tried to negotiate with Israel. Despite what it says, Israel does not want to negotiate. It has been consistent in its efforts to destroy the Palestinians.

    To ask the Palestinians to stop fighting back is to ask them to meekly submit to their annihilation.

    There is only one solution to this conflict. The Jewish state must be replaced by a democratic, secular state that grants equal rights to ALL of its residents.

    As long as Israel remains a Jewish state, it will oppress the Palestinians, and they will fight back with every means at their disposal.

  4. Arja Says:

    Thank you, Susan. I’ve been struggling to find words to express these ideas, but I have not been able to do it so clearly, yet so succinctly as you have done in these few lines. I tend to get verbose and ramble …….. and thus lose my readers and listeners. I would like to quote you in my emails/postings referring them to your website.

    Have you read Starhawk’s story about Palestine? http://codepink4peace.org/blog/2008/12/thoughts-and-action-on-gaza-from-starhawk/

    This is the part that I like in particular:

    To know and see the enemy, you must let them into the story.  They must become real to you, nuanced, distinctive as individuals.

    But when we let the Palestinians into the story, it changes.  Oh, how painfully it changes!  For there is no way to tell a new story, one that includes both peoples of the land, without starting like this:

    “In our yearning for a homeland, in our attempts as a threatened and traumatized people to find safety and power, we have done a great wrong to another people, and now we must atone.”

    Just try saying it. If you, like me, were raised on that other story, just try this one out.  Say it three times.  It hurts, yes, but it might also bring a great, liberating sense of relief with it.

    How do we atone? Open your eyes.  Look into the face of the enemy, and see a human being, flawed, distinct, unique and precious.  Stop killing.  Start talking. Compost the shit and the rot and feed the olive trees.

    Happy New Year!
    Arja

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