Monday, October 27, 2008

international psychiatrists protest at israel's gaza blockade

Many newspapers are carrying the AFP report on the demonstration yesterday by mental health specialists from various countries and international human rights activists at the Erez crossing. AFP said that dozens of mental health specialists took part in the protest at "Israel's closure of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip after they were prevented from entering to attend a conference there. Around 70 demonstrators waved signs denouncing the Israeli closure of the Palestinian territory, with slogans such as 'Let Gaza live' and 'Israel: a medical conference is a security threat?"

The conference on mental health in the impoverished coastal territory is hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In the conference to be held today, doctors in the West Bank town of Ramallah will participate via video conferencing. The focus of the conference is the impact of the Israeli blockade on the mental health of Gaza residents.

AFP said: "The Israeli military rejected the doctors' accusations in a statement, saying it would allow medics to enter Gaza to provide care but not to attend a conference in a 'territory controlled by terrorists.'"

The agency's report added: "Israel has sealed the territory of 1.5 million people off from all but limited humanitarian aid since the Islamist Hamas movement -- which is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state -- seized power there in June 2007."

The Jerusalem Post report extensively quotes civil administration spokesman Peter Lerner. Some of the international mental health specialists held a press conference in east Jerusalem's Ambassador Hotel yesterday to voice their objections.

Lerner described the mental health conference in the Gaza Strip as a "political demonstration and the exploitation of science for political needs that only help the terror organization that controls it."

The Post added: "Meanwhile, a group of Canadian Jews called Independent Jewish Voices issued a statement attacking the Israeli authorities for preventing the foreign participants from going to Gaza. Organization coordinator Diana Ralph claimed that 'the complicity of the Canadian government in supporting the humanitarian disaster of the Gaza blockade is making the situation worse.' Three members of Ralph's organization - Dr. Mark Etkin, Dr. Judith Deutsch and Dr. Jim Deutsch - had been scheduled to go to Gaza."

One of the British would-be participants in the conference, due to speak in Ramallah, is Dr. Derek Summerfield of South London and Maudsley, "who has strongly criticized Israel over the years in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and advocated a medical and academic boycott of this country."

When I hear reports on trauma in Gaza I remember the Maudsley-trained psychiatrist Dr Eyad Sarraj [pictured], founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) in 1990, at a time when he was the only psychiatrist serving Gaza. He told me in an interview in 2001:

“In Gaza now every single person, adult or child, is traumatised to a different degree. Do you know what the children’s preoccupation is now? Guns, terror, violence – nothing else – and they are very jumpy.”
Around half of Gaza’s 1 million inhabitants are under 16 years old. He told me that the widespread fear and terror among children was causing numerous problems. There was a big increase in the number of children who suffer from bedwetting and insomnia, while in school children are finding it hard to concentrate and are showing rebellious attitudes.

More than seven years on things are even worse, and the blockade is exacerbating the situation.

A press release on the GCMHP website says that the Israeli authorities have told 120 international mental health doctors that they will not be allowed to cross into Gaza for the conference. The gathering is the fifth annual conference of GMHP, and is entitled 'Siege and Mental Health: Walls vs Bridges'.

The military authorities forbade the entry into Gaza not only of the foreign mental health specialists but also of Israeli physicians from the Tel-Aviv based Physicians for Human Rights, who on other occasions are given access to the Strip, as well as of Palestinian physicians and academics from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

GCMHP says: "The denial of entry permit was sweeping and arbitrary, for all requests made through the WHO without exception, and without even claiming that there was any 'security' reason for the denial of permits. This is a further exacerbation of the siege on the Gaza Strip, while public opinion is focused on the ongoing government crisis."

As GCMHP puts it: 'Walls Triumph over Bridges ... conference on siege is a victim of siege'.

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