Still Crying in Gaza’s Wilderness by James S. Gordon, M.D.
Still Crying in Gaza’s Wilderness
James S. Gordon, M.D.
Raed Taleb-Gdeh’s narrow, tired face is looking up into mine. His long nose is inches from my own, but he is shouting. “I believe in the prophets Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed! All teach us peace. I open my hands in peace. We are all sons of Adam! Why did the Israelis do this to us?”
I am back in Khouzaa, a village in the southern part of the Gaza strip, with Jamil Abdel-Atti, the clinician who directs our Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) Gaza program for healing psychological trauma. We were here in October, seven weeks after the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas had ended. Then, we walked through a landscape that Israeli bombs and tank shells had reduced to rubble. In the warm October sun, women covered in black and old men in dusty clothes sat in plastic chairs in front of their ruined homes. Children who had seen their parents’ arms and heads scattered in the street climbed piles of broken concrete and picked at shredded family goods.
Four months after our first visit to Khouzaa, Jamil and I are in parkas standing in the coldest winter in Gaza’s memory, between rows of corrugated metal caravans. We have come to see if there are signs of physical rebuilding, evidence of psychological recovery.
Another man is gesturing at Mr. Taleb-Gdeh, he too is shouting. “His 19 year old son was killed by Israelis while he was giving first aid to the wounded.”
Mr. Taleb-Gdeh, 43, had been a security guard for Fatah and then the owner of a computer repair shop and a home. “All gone,” he concludes, lowering his head.
He waves at a green field and beyond it, the border with Israel. “This used to be beautiful. There were trees and flowers and many bees. My father’s house was there, but it is gone. The Israelis won’t let me visit the site. In the mornings,” he adds, “they shoot from their tanks.”
“Still?” I hadn’t heard or read about this, and I’m incredulous.
“Oh yes,” he says, while the men around us nod their heads. “They do it when the little boys go out to hunt birds.”
“Are the boys carrying rifles?” I ask, hoping for legitimacy for the Israeli response.
“Oh no,” and here Mr. Taleb-Gdeh smiles, “They just have nets.”
Mosallam El-Najar, the community leader who’d been our guide on my previous visit, appears. “We have one hundred caravans,” he says, “but 1,200 houses were destroyed.” He leads us into a caravan. It’s eight or ten by twenty feet, as cold inside as it is out. “Six live here,” he says. “So little room. No privacy. The roof leaks and the electricity is on three hours a day.” Outside, stinking sewage streams from aboveground pipes.
“Each caravan,” Mr. El-Najar, a former customs official, explains, “costs the aid group $6,000. In a way, it’s worse to have them. They are not proper for our extended families. For $6,000 we could repair a house or begin to build a new one.”
I ask about the much-publicized cement that is coming in from Israel. “It’s okay for patching a wall,” Mr. El-Najar observes, “but no good for a foundation or bearing weight. And hardly anyone can afford it anyway.
“And the psychological issues which we discussed before are even worse now. We are nervous all the time and, as you can hear, we shout when there is no reason. The men hit the women and the women hit the children. They are upset because the children cannot sleep and they urinate in their beds and wake up screaming. No one can remember anything. I call my wife by my daughter’s name, and sometimes I cannot remember which child is which.”
“And the flu has been here,” Mr. El-Najar goes on, “with fever and coughing. We all have trouble breathing. The other side lives in prosperity and is productive. We have no work.”
Our CMBM team is now leading “Mind-Body Skills Groups” in Gaza, many in Shejiah and Beit Hanoun, neighborhoods as devastated as Khouzaa but easier to reach from Gaza City. There’s been little rebuilding in these places either, but at least our work with meditation and movement and sharing feelings is quieting anxiety and agitation. Children sleep better at night and can read words that were recently blurs. Family violence is decreasing.
As Jamil and I get ready to return to Shejiah, several men urge us to drink coffee in their caravans. “So few people come and even fewer listen,” Mr. El-Najar explains.
When we finally leave, I tell Jamil “we have to work here”.
“Yes Jim,” he agrees, but his sad voice tells me that though he too wants to help, Khouzaa’s needs are too great, and our resources, like those of the people who live there, are too small.
James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist, is the Founder and Director of The Center for—
Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) in Washington, D.C. and the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression. CMBM is the only organization to have a major program for healing psychological trauma in Israel as well as Gaza.