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Gaza's new mental health unit: A project of psychological control

February 14, 2020 at 2:04 pm

Palestinian students play during an entertaining day at their school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in Gaza city, on November 18, 2019 [Ashraf Amra / ApaImages]

In March, a field hospital being built by Israeli aid group Natan in conjunction the American Evangelical Christian organisation Friend Ships will start operating in the northern Gaza Strip near the Erez crossing.

Authorities in occupied Ramallah claimed the project, spearheaded by pro-Israel donors, is a front for American and Israeli intelligence operations. PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh accused the hospital of serving the Trump administration’s “peace plan”; but unfortunately the protests were more to harm the public image of authorities in Gaza rather than to analyze and explain to Palestinians, including authorities in Gaza, the intended harm of such a project.  In reaction, Hamas spokesman, Hazem Qassim, was defensive, telling Dunya Al-Watan: “They [the Palestinian Authority] wove them [their fears] together with imaginary information.”

I have seen adverts calling for international volunteers including mental health professionals to work on the project, and discovered the following:

Natan, an Israeli Tel Aviv based “non-profit humanitarian organisation”, is part of this project, providing psychological care among other things, through non-Israeli passport holders contracted to provide health services in Gaza.

Friend Ships-Natan have also teamed up to provide medical care to Syrians on the Syrian-controlled side of the occupied Golan Heights.

In its call for volunteers Natan said: “This new Health Center can directly influence Israeli security reducing the threat of violence from Gaza by improving the quality of life of the civilians there.” The organisation uses mainstream Israeli language to describe Palestinians as a threat that needs to be controlled in every possible way, there is nothing about justice, occupation, or lifting the siege. In this instance “improving the quality of life of civilians there” is a strategic method of control and hegemony.

The call especially mentions a member of Natan’s Board, Major-General Matan Vilnai, former Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli army who is consulted to ensure the security of volunteers. The call does not mention however that this man has been charged with crimes against humanity over the 2009 bombing of Gaza. Nor does it mention his genocidal threats to Gazan “will bring upon themselves a bigger Shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves,” using the Hebrew word normally reserved to refer to the Jewish Holocaust.

Staff and volunteers at the new medical centre will enter the camp from Israel and the patients from the Palestinian side through checkpoints controlled by Israeli occupation forces chosen according to Vilnai’s standards; so much for humanitarianism!

Israeli supported American policies have undermined the health sector especially in Gaza. There is a major shortage in health care, medicines and medical supplies that no one can deny. In appearance the health care camp looks like an effort to mitigate these deliberate circumstances but in fact it is a way to impose more control and dependency on the most vulnerable among Palestinians.

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Israel has negotiated with Palestinian patients hoping to leave the Gaza Strip for treatment turning them into informants against their people in exchange for exit permits to access medical care. It has also prevented parents from accompanying their very sick children out of Gaza, leaving minors to die alone in Jerusalem hospitals.

Israel has imposed a siege, damaged infrastructure and caused a terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza, leaving it starving for aid and dependent on foreign humanitarian offerings. This has left those managing Gaza blind to the definite psychological and moral harm of this project; which allows Israel to wash its hands after all the blood it has spilt in the Strip and be both the perpetrator and the healer in a very complex trauma dynamics.

An Israeli army guarded health centre is the antitheses of a safe place required for psychological care; a volunteer therapist who accepts the premises of the project to improve the security of “Israel” and control Palestinian “violence” lacks the necessary awareness and the required empathy to be a therapist for Gazans; in fact, and at best, this is a project of improving public relations for Israel and granting a sizzling professional adventure for volunteers in a trauma zone.

Read: Land in eastern Gaza declared a disaster zone due to Israel use of herbicides

Of course, there are other potential political and security risks of using this health complex; to tame the March or Return and wean genuine international solidarity that sends the Freedom Flotilla with a small amount of medical aid to Gaza. In a previous article I mentioned that “a report from the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) revealed that Israel has been collaborating with Salafi jihadi groups in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights; this collaboration was not restricted to offering medical aid to the injured members of Jabhat Al-Nusra. On the contrary, reports described the transfer of unspecified supplies from Israel to the Syrians, as well as incidents when Israeli soldiers allowed free passage to Syrians who were not injured.”

I’m afraid that this project will not only ship the material and equipment from the Syrian border to the Gaza border, but also the knowhow of using therapeutic rapport and medical intimacy to spy on the population, creating fractions and recruiting informants and collaborators.

On 11 November 2018 eight undercover Israeli agents disguised as members of a Palestinian family entered Gaza with the objective of planting listening devices on Hamas’ private communications system. Investigations found that the Israeli unit used spyware and drilling equipment that entered Gaza under the cover of international humanitarian organisation Humedica, a German based body which provides aid to Gaza.

Area Manager Joao Santos, who carries a Portuguese passport, fled Gaza a day after the operation failed. He is said to be a volunteer.

At a time when international politics is allowing Israel to have complete control over land and resources, humanitarianism is used to allow control of Palestinian minds. Humanitarianism can be a deceiving mask for sadistic intentions and maintaining the upper hand of Israelis over Palestinians. Promoting Palestinian self-sufficiency and ending the partition between Gaza and the West Bank immediately is the right response to this. Palestinian mental health professionals and services in the West Bank are eager to provide a response and meet the needs of those in Gaza as soon as our hands are freed.

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