The human cost of the drug crisis sweeping Gaza

The scale of the drug problem can be gauged from the periodic claims published on the Ministry of the Interior website about the large quantities of drugs seized. (Getty Images)
Updated 13 January 2019
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The human cost of the drug crisis sweeping Gaza

  • ‘200,000 addicts’ as Gaza drugs epidemic spirals out of control
  • Faced with extreme poverty, few job prospects and a lack of hope, desperate residents are easy prey for drug dealers

GAZA: It started with a single pill. Mohammed was working as a digger of tunnels through which goods were being smuggled into the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt when he said felt the need for a “pep pill” to help him make it through the daily grind of grueling 18-hour workdays.

In 2010 he started to take tramadol, also known by the brand name Tramal, an opioid pain medication used to treat moderately severe pain, which is commonly prescribed after surgery or for musculoskeletal problems.

At the time, Mohammed was 30 years old, with a degree in information technology but little prospect of landing a job. A resident of the “Brazil” neighborhood of Rafah, next to the border with Egypt, he lived in a modest home with his parents and five brothers, clinging to hopes for a brighter future on the strength of his university education. With the income from his salary as an IT professional, Mohammed imagined, he would save his family from the clutches of poverty.

Soon his dreams collided with reality, however, in the form of dire economic conditions and a lack of job opportunities as a result of the blockade of the coastal enclave imposed by Israel in 2007. Gaza was effectively placed under a land, air and sea siege, as Egypt and Israel closed their border crossings after a takeover by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Two years earlier, in 2005, Israel had unilaterally disengaged with Gaza, ignoring warnings by the Palestinian Authority. The following year, the Authority held elections from which Hamas emerged victorious, paving the way for a unity government formed with the secular Fatah party in March 2007.

By June the two groups had fallen out and, after a brief but deadly power struggle, Hamas succeeded in driving out Fatah from the Gaza Strip.

Under these circumstances, the only work Mohammed could find was digging tunnels at a depth of 30 meters. From the start, he struggled with the bone and muscle aches brought on by long hours spent in a cramped working space. One day, a co-worker offered him half of a tramadol pill.

“It had a magic effect,” he said. “It helped to improve my mood and tone and increase my ability to work long hours.”

The Hamas government does not provide any official data from which a clear picture of the drug problem in Gaza can be drawn. However, anecdotal evidence suggests the widespread use of narcotics, especially ecstasy, which is sold in the form of tablets with such names as “happiness,” “rotana” and “lyrica,” cannabis and opioids. Despite attempts by security forces to stem the flow of drugs into Gaza, the high demand ensures a steady supply.

The scale of the drug problem can be further gauged from the periodic claims published on the website of the Ministry of Interior about the large quantities of drugs seized by the authorities. On Oct. 2, 2018, for example, Major Ahmed Al-Shaer, the head of the drug control department in Rafah, announced the seizure of 33 boxes of cannabis, 7,000 ecstasy tablets and 62 cartons of tramadol.

Despite many awareness campaigns, including a recent one titled “For yourself, Save it,” the Hamas government has by all accounts failed to deliver on its promise of a “drug-free Gaza.”

Fadl Ashour, a consultant psychiatrist and neurologist, said that during a study in the Gaza Strip three years ago he found the number of addicts to be as high as 200,000. He attributes the use of drugs such as opioids, stimulants and hallucinogens by young men and young women to the feelings of hopelessness and anxiety that pervade the Gaza Strip.

Said, a 26-year-old, is another person who fell victim to a major social problem that remains largely hidden from public view. Addicted to tramadol, he realized he had to kick the habit when the price rose sharply and he could no longer afford it.

“I lost my job in the smuggling tunnels after the Egyptian army tightened its grip over the area and destroyed most of them during intensive campaigns in 2013,” he said. With his livelihood gone, he could not longer afford afford to pay the going rate of 20 Israeli shekels for each tablet. But after popping up to 10 pills a day, detoxification was not easy. Due to a lack of facilities and services to help people with drug problems, Said had to deal with the withdrawal on his own. He describes the experience as excruciating. Symptoms such as severe pain in his bones and abdomen, stomach disorders and blurred vision persisted for about a month before gradually easing.

“Help from family and loved ones can cut the time required to get rid of addiction by half,” he added.

Life is just as precarious for many of those involved in the supply of drugs in Gaza. Abu Zuhair, for example, has been in the tramadol businesses since the early days of the blockade and is facing a one-year jail term after being caught with two pills. The 39 year old said the price of an ecstasy tablet ranges from 150 to 200 shekels, while a tramadol pill sells for 20 shekels.

Getting hold of the opioid is much easier than obtaining hard drugs, he revealed. Tramadol is smuggled into Gaza mainly from Sinai in Egypt through tunnels, especially in the eastern part of Rafah, near the border with Israel, an area beyond the tight control of the Hamas security forces, he said. When border controls are periodically tightened by the Palestinian and Egyptian authorities, tramadol still finds its way into Gaza, Abu Zuhair added, as smugglers send shipments by sea in small boats equipped with twin engines for speed, or with the help of divers.

In 2015 the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act was adopted by the Legislative Council with the backing of Hamas’s Change and Reform bloc, although it failed to get the endorsement of President Mahmoud Abbas. However, the efficacy of the law, under which drug-related activities ceased to be a misdemeanor and instead became a crime, is open to question given that supply and demand apparently remains so high.

Abu Zuhair scoffs at the recent law, which he said targets addicts and petty dealers but poses little threat to the drug lords who know how to pull strings to stay out of legal jeopardy. During his own brushes with the law, he said, most of the people he encountered in custody were small-time users or people who had sold a few tablets to help make ends meet in times of financial crisis.

Gaza resident Yasser said he nearly ended up in prison for a minor breach of the law. The 47-year-old told how he was picked up in the southern town of Khan Younis for consuming one piece of a split tramadol pill and spent an hour in police custody before an officer decided to let him go after verifying his version of the incident. Yasser said he was taking the drug as self-medication for a sexual disorder for which doctors in Gaza had no treatment.

Said, meanwhile, is now a recovering addict who is proud that he managed to kick his habit and regain the trust of people who once treated him as a social outcast and avoided him. He said he has found a job at a gas station and is saving up to get married.

As inspiring as his story is, Said is aware that his transformation is an exception to the rule. More than five years after he was first tempted to use tramadol, the conditions in Gaza that led to his addiction have only changed for the worse.


US aid cuts hit Palestinians, further dimming hope for peace

Updated 6 min 20 sec ago
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US aid cuts hit Palestinians, further dimming hope for peace

  • The US government’s development agency, USAID, has provided more than $5.5 billion to the Palestinians since 1994
  • ‘We don’t want their money, we don’t want anything to do with America’
JERUSALEM: Tens of thousands of Palestinians are no longer getting food aid or basic health services from America, US-funded infrastructure projects have been halted, and an innovative peace-building program in Jerusalem is scaling back its activities.
The Trump administration’s decision last year to cut more than $200 million in development aid to the Palestinians is forcing NGOs to slash programs and lay off staff as the effects ripple through a community that has spent more than two decades promoting peace in the Middle East.
The US government’s development agency, USAID, has provided more than $5.5 billion to the Palestinians since 1994 for infrastructure, health, education, governance and humanitarian aid programs, all intended to underpin the eventual creation of an independent state.
Much of that aid is channeled through international NGOs, which were abruptly informed of the cuts last summer and have been scrambling to keep their programs alive.
President Donald Trump says the USAID cuts are aimed at pressuring the Palestinians to return to peace talks, but Palestinian officials say the move has further poisoned relations after the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. The aid groups, many of which have little or no connection to the Palestinian Authority, say the cuts hurt the most vulnerable Palestinians and those most committed to peace with Israel.
“If you want to maintain the idea of the peace process, you have to maintain the people who would be part of the peace process,” said Lana Abu Hijleh, the local director for Global Communities, an international NGO active in the Palestinian territories since 1995.
Before the aid cuts were announced, it provided food aid — branded as a gift from the American people — to more than 180,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza on behalf of the World Food Program. USAID had planned to contribute $19 million a year for the next five years to continue the project but pulled out in August.
Global Communities can now only provide aid to 90,000 people through March, and Abu Hijleh had to lay off around 30 staff, including in Gaza, where unemployment exceeds 50 percent.
“It really hurts, because you’re talking about the most basic level of assistance,” she said. The average family receives a monthly voucher worth around $130.
Sadeqa Nasser, a woman living in Gaza’s Jebaliya refugee camp, used her voucher to support her disabled husband, their six children and four grandchildren.
She says her sons each bring in less than $5 a day from odd jobs. “They cannot afford to buy food for their families, so I help them out,” she said.
Since the aid was cut off, she’s been able to qualify for welfare payments from the Palestinian Authority, which itself relies heavily on foreign aid. “Without it we would go hungry,” she said.
Funding has also been cut for a five-year, $50 million program run by a coalition of NGOs to provide health services, including clinical breast cancer treatment for some 16,000 women and treatment for some 700 children suffering from chronic diseases.
Infrastructure projects, including desperately needed water treatment facilities in the blockaded Gaza Strip, have also been put on hold.
Anera, which has carried out development projects in the Middle East for more than 50 years, said it was forced to halt five infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza before completion and cancel three more in Gaza that were pending funding approval. It says the projects would have benefited more than 100,000 people.
The NGOs are reaching out to other donors, but USAID is one of the biggest sources of funding for a global aid community overwhelmed by conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The Trump administration has also cut off funding for peace-building initiatives involving Palestinians — even residents of east Jerusalem, which Israel considers to be part of its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, to be the capital of their future state.
Kids4Peace, a group founded by Israeli and Palestinian families in Jerusalem in 2002, brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim teenagers together for seminars and summer camps where they can share their experiences and learn more about one another.
The group’s organizers acknowledge the longstanding criticism of such initiatives — that campfires and singalongs won’t bring peace to the Middle East, especially after a decade of diplomatic paralysis and little hope for resuming meaningful negotiations.
But they say that with a $1.5 million USAID grant in 2016 they tripled the number of annual participants to around 70 and revamped programs. USAID takes a hands-on approach, requiring regular audits and demanding concrete accomplishments.
Participants now take part in a Youth Action Program in which they plan and execute projects in their communities. One group is campaigning for Arabic subtitles in Jerusalem cinemas. Another set up a community garden in a tense neighborhood where Jews and Arabs had rarely interacted.
Kids4Peace was a finalist for another $1.5 million grant this year, but that has been indefinitely postponed because of the funding cuts. It will continue to run programs with the help of private donors, but its growth prospects are in doubt.
“We see the trend lines moving in a negative direction, in terms of more hostile attitudes toward the other, less interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, more resistance to peace negotiations,” said the Rev. Josh Thomas, executive director of Kids4Peace International. “We see that as a need for greater investment rather than less.”
Trump also halted aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides basic services to more than 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East, but UNRWA was able to narrow the funding gap with aid pledges from other countries.
Palestinian officials say they won’t bow to pressure.
“We don’t want their money, we don’t want anything to do with America,” said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “If (Trump) thinks he can put pressure on us through his money, it won’t work.”
Critics of the policy fear that cutting off aid will further diminish Washington’s ability to manage a conflict that remains highly combustible.
“When America vacates the Middle East space, we do so at our own risk and we do it to the benefit of our adversaries,” said Dave Harden, a former USAID mission director in the West Bank and Gaza.