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The scourge of drugs in Jerusalem

January 25, 2014 at 2:55 pm

By Sawsan Ramahi

Palestine has never been classified among the countries known for heavy use and trafficking of drugs, unlike some other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon. Prior to 1967, the number of people known to use drugs was listed in dozens; at that time, the West Bank was under Jordanian control and statistics available from the Global Report on Drugs showed no narcotics production or trafficking. However, large amounts of morphine and heroin from Turkey and Lebanon were smuggled through Jordan to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The situation changed after the Six Day War and the start of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the occupied territories became fertile ground for smuggling and use of all types of illegal substances.

The spread of drugs in East Jerusalem

Increased drug use and abuse in Israel, especially post-1967, affected the Palestinian community across what was a relatively open border between the Zionist state and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Workers from the occupied territories crossed into Israel daily; around 75% of known drug addicts in Palestine were people engaged in occupations in Israeli factories, farms and even settlements. Jerusalem’s central location made it an almost ideal location for the distribution of illegal drugs.

Jerusalem can be divided into three main areas:

i. The Old City within the massive walls built by Ottoman Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent.
ii. The city that has developed beyond the city walls, including the districts around Jerusalem such as the Joaz valley, Shuafat, Beit Hanina, Sheikh Jarrah, Al-Tur, etc.
iii. The villages, refugee camps and communities surrounding Jerusalem such as Ram, Aldahia, Abu Dis and Bethany and the camps of Kalandia, Shuafat and villages northwest of Jerusalem, etc…

Regrettably, the spread of drugs (storage, distribution and use) has spread to the three areas in varying degrees, the most prominent of which are:

i. Many parts of the Old City, especially near the Jaffa Gate and Alwad district, and the Jewish Quarter.
ii. Althawri, Tor, Mesrara area near the Damascus Gate (Bab Elamoud) and the three “graves” in the holy city, and Beit Hanina.
iii. Ram, Abu Dis and Bethany, Anata and Shuafat camp (which is now recognized as a centre for all types of drugs, with about 550 addicts as well as dealers) as well as the village of Bir Nabala, which lies north-west of Jerusalem.

Reasons for drug abuse

Many reasons have been suggested for the drug abuse now found in Palestine; some are held in common with other parts of the world, others are “domestically Palestinian”. Details of the latter follow:

Domestic reasons

The obvious and arguably most important reason is the ongoing Israeli occupation, which has a distinct influence on the drug problem in the occupied West Bank.

a. Political detainees are often held with criminals, including those convicted of drug dealing, murder and theft. Studies show that 26% of drug abusers have criminal records. Some prison administrations are known to condone drug smuggling into and within their institutions, especially amongst Arab prisoners.

b. A direct result of Israeli policies in occupied Palestine since 1967 has been increasing despair and frustration among Palestinians. The pressures of the occupation shake the confidence of the local populace, creating a loss of hope that their land will one day be liberated. The occupation authorities target the younger generation (18-28) in this respect.

c. The occupation authorities appear to condone the drug-smuggling networks in East Jerusalem where no serious attempts have been made to raid dealers’ and addicts’ “nests”, even though some are well-known and only 50 metres or so from police stations or other Israeli occupation institutions. Near the Damascus Gate, for example, and around the Jaffa Gate, which are very close to the police station.

There is a feeling locally that the police know very well what is happening but are “comfortable” with the situation as long as the victims are the Palestinians. It has been observed that a known drug dealer is left free to peddle his poisonous wares in East Jerusalem, but as soon as he tries to do the same in Israeli West Jerusalem he is picked up by anti-drug units of the local police.

d. Critics accuse Israel of promoting drug abuse by regarding addicts as “sick and unemployed” and paying each an allowance of (in 2008) 1200 to 2400 sheels a month. Addicts are examined periodically to confirm their continued drug abuse. Many are family bread-winners for whom the loss of this income is a serious blow, so they return to drug abuse to maintain the income level.

e. Israel apparently encourages addiction among young Palestinians; this is done, claims Hosni Shahin of Samed Community Centre in the Old City, to put pressure on families to sell their land and property to Jewish settlers in order to have enough money to fund the addiction. According to Mr Shahin, Israel turns a blind eye to drug smuggling into the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. As a result, the issue affects every strata of Palestinian society. “Israel is trying to destroy the Palestinians and our community,” he added, “and encourages drug use to ‘neutralise’ our youth so that they won’t resist the occupation of our land.”

f. Israel spends millions of dollars on anti-drug education programmes to raise public awareness of the curse of drugs, especially among youth groups. Despite the Israelis claiming that East Jerusalem is annexed to the state of Israel, it is excluded completely from such programmes and funding. Half the budget is spent on awareness and counselling programmes, and the balance is spent on related matters such as research, surveys and treatment of drug addicts. None of this activity takes place in East Jerusalem; all but a few of the posters and flyers are issued in Hebrew even though Arabic is the official second language. By law, they should be written in Arabic as well.

The second reason is also linked to the occupation: the frustration caused by the deteriorating political situation and a build-up of frustration since the defeat of June 1967 drives many Palestinians to use drugs in order to “escape” from the painful reality of their life in the occupied territories.

Third, the pressure, tension and fatigue seems to have sapped young people’s capacity to carry the burdens of daily life under occupation; again, some turn to drugs to escape from this reality.

Fourthly, there are limited leisure and entertainment opportunities for young Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Due to the absence of any building permits being granted by the Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem, congestion and overcrowding is rife. With a growing, young population, this creates a lot of tensions within families and between neighbours. Drugs provide a temporary “way out” for people in such situations.

Studies in other Arab countries have pinpointed the following issues which are shared with the people of Palestine:

i. There is a strong correlation between drug abuse and high rates of poverty, unemployment and child labour.
ii. There is a correlation between the physical environment of work and housing and the use of drugs.
iii. The separation or divorce of parents, or the death of one of them, especially at an early age, and the attendant loss of family income pushes some people towards drug abuse.
iv. There is a relationship between the educational achievements of one or both parents and the potential for drug abuse within the family. If either or both parents are illiterate or have less than primary level education, the level of drug abuse increases significantly.

In addition to the above, there are reasons related to the coherence of the family itself and peer pressure, family size and income levels.

Major challenges facing the Palestinians:

1. The continued smuggling and sale of drugs of all kinds onto the Palestinian street, especially by Israeli “mafia” and other criminal elements.
2. The increasing number of drug abusers and drug addicts in the Jerusalem area, especially in districts of the occupied West Bank confined within the apartheid wall.
3. A lack of up-to-date local information about the spread of the drug problem means that NGOs still depend on Israeli and international data. Although this is helpful, it is important to create a Palestinian database to combat smuggling, dealing and abuse.
4. The weakness of civil society and official institutions in combating the problem.
5. The seriousness of the influence of the Israeli mafia and organized crime organizations on Palestinian society.
6. The gap – which continues to grow   between treatment centres in terms of number and quality and the number of addicts and drug abusers. Despite the growing severity of the drug problem in Jerusalem, it is clear that there is a lack of suitable specialist treatment centres for Palestinians. The centres in East Jerusalem can only cope with a very small proportion of cases: they are, the “My Friendly Doctor Society” for the care and rehabilitation of addicts based in Bethany; the Old Town Centre for Guidance and Prevention of Drugs run by Caritas Jerusalem Society in Sa’adia neighbourhood near the Zahra Gate; the Assembly of the Family and Society in Abu Dis; and the Assembly of Guidance and the Centre of Purity in Shuafat. The latter is licensed by the Palestinian Authority but like other Jerusalem institutions does not have a licence from the Israelis. Most of these centres are based outside the city because the Israeli government prohibits the establishment of Palestinian community associations in Jerusalem. This in itself causes Jerusalem-based addicts and those seeking treatment and support great difficulty as they have to pass Israeli checkpoints to get to the treatment centres.

Statistics on drug addicts in Jerusalem

Drugs emerged as a major problem at the end of the seventies and spread in the areas surrounding Jerusalem, such as Thawri, the Old City and Shuafat camp. In the 1980s, hashish smuggled from southern Lebanon to the occupied West Bank (including Jerusalem) and Gaza Strip was replaced by heroin as the preferred drug. Addicts of the former soon became addicted to the latter. Those addicts who couldn’t fund their habit displayed withdrawal symptoms.

In 1986, the number of drug addicts and abusers was between 200 and 300; they fell into the world of narcotics through their contact with Israelis, usually at work. Figures from the Islamic-Christian Front in August 2008 showed that the figure is now more than 6,000 addicts and thousands more casual users in Jerusalem alone.

The Front demonstrated that the scourge of drugs is more prevalent in East Jerusalem, with 2.5% of the population being addicts, one of the highest rates in the world; casual users amount to 6.2%, around 20,000 people. Together, these figures illustrate why Jerusalem is today the gateway for drugs into the West Bank. Young people aged 14-25 are particularly at risk; the number of addicts and users in that age group increased from 70 in 2001 to 780 in 2004; fatality rates went from 15 to 16.5% in 2008.

Al-Huda Association for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Addicts in Shuafat believes that the number of addicts in Jerusalem and its environs is 6,000, while the number of casual users in 2009 reached 25,000.

According to Al-Huda’s director, Ahmed Hijazi, drugs started spreading among the citizens of Jerusalem in the early nineties due to an influx of Israeli drug dealers of Russian origin pushing heroin and cocaine.

Effects of the proliferation of drug abuse

1. A disinterest in issues of national importance. Drug abuse and addiction keeps the Jerusalemite Palestinians away from national issues and struggle against the Israeli occupation. In answers to a questionnaire, 60% of abusers and addicts said that they believe that Israel is not serious about fighting drug abuse. That figure rose to 81% when the question asked if Israel is “To some extent not serious”. This suggests that drug users believe that Israel facilitates their drug taking to divert them from their national case and concerns caused by the Israeli occupation. Furthermore, 67% of the respondents said that their drug abuse and addiction reduce their interest in political and national issues and thus prevents or limits their participation in the struggle against the occupation in the city. When those who said “I agree to some extent” are added, the rate of those admitting that they don’t care about national matters due to drug abuse rises to 86% of the total. Based on the population statistics, that places 21,500 Palestinians are reluctant to participate in activities against the occupation due to drug abuse and addiction.

2. The Social Aspect: Many studies confirm that the issue of drugs has an adverse effect on social structure within families, especially in terms of understanding between the father and mother, or one of them, and the sons who take drugs; or between the drug user’s family and their neighbours. Drug use also damages the reputation of the user’s family, with many side-effects. When the head of the family is a drug user (and 21% of addicts are in this position), there is also a detrimental effect on his wife and children. Drug addicts contribute towards the spread of infectious diseases, including AIDS, adultery, prostitution, gambling and theft. As a result, social participation by abusers and addicts is restricted and they become pariahs. Around 50% of drug abusers and addicts have an almost non-existent relationship with their parents.

3. Drug abuse in society has devastating effects on the economy:

a. About 73% of drug abusers and addicts are unemployed or have been dismissed from their jobs.
b. The addiction creates a tendency to be lazy and unwilling to work, along with a preference for asleep and seclusion from others.
c. The lack of income in users’ families due to the need to fund their addiction often forces one or more children or siblings to leave education and seek work.
d. The average daily expenditure of drug addicts is estimated to be $12. A simple calculation based on the statistics for drug users in Jerusalem alone means that the estimated daily spend on drugs is $312,000; monthly the figure is $9,360,000; annually, it is a staggering $112.3m.
e. If we add to these figures the incomes which could reasonably have been expected to be made by those unemployed solely due to drug use it becomes possible to see what a financial impact drug use has on the economy and society.

4. The cultural aspect: Drug abuse and addiction takes users out of the education system. Around 94% of drug addicts admit that they have no desire to study or general reading (such as newspapers, etc.). Young Jerusalemite Palestinians who drop out of school and join the labour market early in order to fund their addiction are more vulnerable to outside pressures, including efforts by the Israeli security services to recruit such young men to work for them. In a society in which religious adherence is still strong, it is noticeable that drug addicts lack any sense of religious culture and practice. Any faith they had is reduced and they stop participating in religious rituals; this applies to Christians and Muslims.


The city of Jerusalem is of special interest to Israeli politicians as they consider it to be the “undivided” capital of their state. As a result, they are seeking ways to end the Palestinian presence in the city and have plans to reduce the Arab population of East Jerusalem so that the Palestinians become a minority of not more than a quarter of the total population over the next ten years. Israeli policies to isolate the city from its Palestinian heritage and culture through closing institutions are part of this process, known as “Judaization” of the Holy City. Those who resist are seeing their homes demolished and themselves “deported” from their occupied city to the occupied West Bank.

It appears to be a clear policy that Israel uses the illegal trade in drugs as a weapon against the Arab presence in Jerusalem, ruining the health of young people and weakening their mental and moral strength. The drugs to which the Israeli police turn a blind eye are destroying young Palestinians on an intellectual, cultural and economic level as part of the process to destroying them completely. The problem is exacerbated by the decline in social and moral values, civil unrest and political tensions arising from the occupation. Rising unemployment and the widening circle of poverty play their part.

The failure of the Palestinian Authority and Arab politicians to take this seriously means that there is a serious lack of programmes in place to help Palestinians in Jerusalem to tackle the drug problem. International impotence in the face of the Israeli occupation does nothing to help this situation. It appears to have been forgotten that according to international law Jerusalem is still occupied territory and is thus supposed to be protected from geographic and demographic change at the hands of the occupying power, Israel. As long as the world ignores even that fundamental point, then it is unlikely that any significant progress is going to be made towards combating the evils of drugs in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.