Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Fear in Gaza by Barbara Weyerman, OPSI

The latest invasion of the Israeli defence forces IDF in the Gaza Strip ended with the massacre of the Al-Athamna family. A few days before the 8 November, when seven shells hit their house and killed 19 of them, “a tank entered the garden, destroying hothouses, trees, pipes and a generator, until it hit a wall. The soldiers made a hole in the wall and entered the house, gathered all the family members and sent the women to a room on the first floor. The men were put in the kitchen and bathroom. The soldiers collected all the cell phones, and with leashed dogs, searched all the rooms on all four floors. They called out the names of all the family members….After two hours, the soldiers left. They returned three days later through the hole in the wall. They again gathered all the family members, counted them, searched and left after three hours. ‘They knew very well who was in the house, how many children, how many women. They knew very well there were no terrorists and no arms in this house,’ said Majdi”, one of the surviving family members. (Amira Hass in Ha’aretz, 13.11.2006). – During the 9-day long invasion of Beit Hanun, altogether 80 Palestinians were killed and hundreds were wounded by the IDF. David Becker and I arrived a day before the invasion started. We came to work with the team of the Women’s Empowerment Project of the Gaza Community Mental Health Project (GCMHP). This was our 7th visit; we had been training WEP staff twice a year in the psychosocial approach since 2004, when we began by working with the team on an accompanied self-evaluation of their program for the support of women affected by domestic violence (see publications:“Overcoming fragmentation – linking counselling and income generation”). This time, we spent many hours talking to the team members about their experiences of the preceding few months. Four hundred people have been killed since late June 2006, when the IDF intensified its operations in the Gaza Strip. These attacks were hardly noticed because of the media focus on Lebanon. One of the team members mourned her fourth brother; he had been killed by gunfire from a helicopter a month before. The women talked about other close friends and neighbours they had lost. They said it was even more difficult to lose someone in the internal clashes between Fatah and Hamas than at the hands of the Israeli army. “If he is killed by the Israeli, he is a martyr, if he is killed by a Palestinian, the life is lost for nothing.” To make it worse, every death calls for another death in revenge. Families are divided, brothers are on different sides, and everybody is armed. But the women’s worst fears are of the Israeli operations. Six women had recently received a call that their house would be exploded. Such calls, they said, are made by IDF 15 minutes before the house is destroyed. However, none of the staff’s houses was blown up. Nowadays, they said, it is very hard to know whether a call is real or if it is made by other Palestinians to terrorize people. One woman described how struck by panic she was when she received such a warning, unable to move or speak. “My hair stood up straight from my head, fear is the worst feeling - no words can describe it.” Others reported not being able to sleep for nights after such a call. One woman said she and her children sleep in the same room: if the Israelis attack from the sea, she moves to the back of the house, if the neighbour receives a call that his house might be destroyed, she moves to the front of the house. The children cling to her. When one of them wants to go to the toilet, she has to accompany him or her; but then the other children are scared to stay in the room alone and come along too. All the women described how the children cling to them and wet their bed. Each staff member has had experience with bed-wetting children. Even though or because everybody recognizes bed-wetting as a symptom of fear and sadness, it is considered shameful. When talking about their children, the fragmentation and disintegration of structure becomes evident. Adults can't really protect and calm their children as they are themselves too scared and too vulnerable. One woman said she didn't have the words to speak to her children about the killing of five people they recently witnessed. Another staff member described how she panicked when she saw her daughter coming back from the market, covered in blood. The girl stood next to a man who was shot in his head by another Palestinian. One woman described how she and her family were locked into their house for many hours, during another attack on their neighbourhood. A tank was positioned just outside their house. They heard the sounds of gunfire and soldiers conducting searches. Her husband, a political ex-prisoner, was terrified. As soon as the tank left, he shouted at his children; he was agitated and aggressive. “I told him to stop it, it is not the children, it is your fear,” she said. The staff members hardly mention such experiences when they talk about their clients, women who seek advice and support because they suffer from domestic violence. And yet, there is a clear connection between the deteriorating political and economic situation, the lack of perspectives, the decades of occupation and the daily experience of humiliation and powerlessness for men who try to defend their honor where they still can – in the family. The growing conservatism and the control of and restrictions against women in Gaza. WEP works to supports victims of violence and supports campaigns towards changing discriminatory laws that condone and perpetuate such violence. For additional background on violence against women in Gaza see the Human Rights Watch Report: A Question of Security. Violence against Palestinian Women and Girls http://hrw.org/reports/2006/opt1106/

Author: Barbara Weyerman, 22/11/2006