Poverty-stricken Palestinians turn to drugs

A Palestinian police officer in Gaza City. (Tom Spender/IRIN)

alestinian refugee Samir Hassan [not his real name] never imagined he would one day replace his UN food coupons with marijuana and heroin, despite the hunger of his children.

“My life was normal, everything was normal, but unemployment is difficult and poverty is more difficult. Bad conditions led me down a worse path. I have even had to beg for money,” he said.

Hassan, a 35-year-old from the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, cares for nine family members including his sick mother. Before 2000, he used to work in Israel’s shipping industry, but with the outbreak of the second intifada [Palestinians’ uprising against Israeli occupation] in that year most Palestinian labourers from Gaza were banned from entering Israel.

Since then he has been unemployed, a situation that drove him to drug addiction. To fund his habit, he first sold his wife and children’s clothes before stealing his brothers’ property to be able to pay for his drugs.

Overall, drug dependency in the Palestinian territories is on the rise, according to drugs police and doctors. This, they say, is due to a sense of hopelessness among ordinary Palestinians and the lack of both effective policing to catch the dealers and of a clinical safety net to help those already addicted.

According to the Palestinian Anti-Narcotics Administration (ANA), there were more than 850 drugs seizures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2005. This year, up to October, there were 555 seizures, including 394 in the West Bank and 161 in Gaza.

The ANA said a type of hashish, known locally as Bango, was the most popular and easily-available type of drug in the Gaza Strip, while in the West Bank Palestinians can also get hold of hallucinatory drugs such as LSD.

Hassan told IRIN that his spiral into addiction began when he made acquaintance with two rich friends and began spending long nights with them smoking marijuana and taking heroin.

As he spoke, he began to cry and his blood pressure increased, turning his face red. He left the house abruptly, leaving his wife, M, also in tears.

“My husband has been lost. It is now 4pm and he will come back at midnight after having taken drugs. He wanted the drugs to help him forget our miserable living conditions but now we are living an infinitely worse nightmare,” she said.

She told IRIN she had tried to divorce her husband but her children dissuaded her.

Husni Shaheen, secretary general of the Palestinian Supreme National Committee Against Drugs, said the socio-economic conditions brought about by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which was ended last summer, had pushed Palestinians to drugs.

Shaheen added that most of the drugs in the Palestinian territories came from Lebanon and the Sinai desert in Egypt.

“Planting drugs in Palestinian Territories is very little, only for personal use and for small trading,” he said.

Now local NGOs run three drug rehabilitation centres in the West Bank and one in Gaza.

But Abed al-Jawad Zyadah, head of the Hope and Life Society in Gaza, said their drug rehabilitation efforts had been greatly hampered by the international economic embargo imposed on the democratically-elected Hamas government. The West wants Hamas to recognise Israel and renounce violence before it will resume funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

“We are limited to simply advising the people that come to us - there’s really nothing more we can do,” he said.

The stigma of drug addiction, a source of shame among Palestinians, also prevents the addicted from seeking help until their drugs habit is well-advanced, Zyadah added.

“They want to come to us in a secret way without anyone knowing. Often they wait until they are really in big trouble. Such reticence makes the work of NGO more complex,” he said.

Nevertheless, Zyadah said NGOs like Hope and Life had helped some 400 drug addicts in the West Bank.

Dr Adel Aouda, a psychologist in Gaza City, said he had treated some drug addicts because there was no dedicated drugs rehabilitation centre in the Gaza Strip run by the PA Ministry of Health.

“Drugs are spreading because we don’t have a plan to deter its use or stop the smuggling,” he said.

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