The world of narcotics in the Gaza Strip differs from any other place in the world. Whether it is the means of smuggling the substances, from cannabis to amphetamines, in and out of the strip, or the surveys pointing to ballooning numbers of addicts, Gazans’ experiences with drugs are unmatched.
A panic has swept the Palestinian territories since the World Health Organization issued a report indicating that there are over 100,000 people suffering from addiction in Gaza. This compares to a total population in the strip amounting to no more than 2 million, according to the most recent census in 2016, suggesting that Gazans have an alarming problem with drug abuse.
In light of the bleak social, economic, and political situation in the strip due to internal polarization, the siege, and the Israeli government’s practices, drug addiction has become a phenomenon permeating every corner of society.
This phenomenon is threatening the foundations of Gazan society; its youth. Amid reports from the United Nations classifying the strip as a “disaster area”, Gaza has also recorded one of the fastest-increasing unemployment rate.
According to a UN report, approximately 80% of Gazans are reliant on humanitarian aid to secure their basic needs, such as education, healthcare, nutrition, and housing, while some are even unable to secure blankets and stoves.
Despite the Egyptian authorities’ destruction of approximately 90% of the underground tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula by pumping large amounts of water on the border, narcotics nonetheless continue to flow into the strip. The tunnels used to be the main gateway for smuggling drugs, particularly tramadol, which became highly popular due to the ease in obtaining it, as well as its low cost compared to other drugs.
Dr Yousef Awadallah, a specialist in addiction treatment, says that the proliferation of drugs, particularly tramadol, has led to a major peak in the number of individuals with addictions.
Awadallah pointed to “the lack of prospects at all levels over the past years and the spread of unemployment among youth, as well as the Israeli strikes that have destroyed the strip’s infrastructure, and the semi-permanent closure of crossings. These conditions, along with other factors, have caused many young people to resort to drug abuse as a form of escapism from their reality, preventing them from making any achievements. Drugs affect people’s mental and physical capacities, and noticeably limit their ability to make achievements. Additionally, drug abuse leads to an increase in crime rates, as well as suicide rates.”
With a population of just 2 million, 100,000 Gazans are reported to have drug abuse issues
Drug abuse: the only form of escape from life in Gaza
Suicide rates in the Palestinian Territories have seen a notable increase compared to previous years, particularly in Gaza. A report issued by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor indicated that suicide rates had increased from 30% to 40% during 2016, compared to the same period of time in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
Psychiatric specialists contend that the Gazan social make-up has recently been afflicted with psychological complications, based on reports from rights organizations. These reports have confirmed that the siege, and the attendant polarization and rise in poverty and unemployment rates, as well as the lack of basic necessities all contribute to the rise in crimes and adverse phenomena, including murder crimes and suicides.
The UN states that drugs have proliferated at an alarming rate, and traders have allied with armed groups in conflict zones.
Meanwhile, Hamas, which controls the strip, has refused to assume responsibility for eliminating this phenomenon, despite the fact that the smuggling tunnels all fall under the control of the movement.
Ten years have passed since a report by the Public Administration to Combat Drug Use which stated: “It is not necessary to pinpoint a specific entity that is directly responsible for the spread of drugs in the strip… Everyone is responsible at varying degrees, and each person knows where their responsibility lies. However, what is certain is that no entity can be exempted from responsibility.” However, in actuality, there have been no efforts to attempt to find solutions for the widespread addiction in Gaza.
Rather, Hamas and other factions habitually defer the blame onto Israel for the aggravation of this phenomenon. The movement previously stated that there is a network of agents attempting to flood the strip with substances and different types of narcotics through various means, most prominently through the border crossings to Israel. They claimed that this was part of a Zionist plan “in order to blackmail youths and trick them into becoming collaborators with Israeli intelligence”.
In the framework of the legal treatment of the drug crisis, members of Hamas’ legislative council decreed a new anti-drug law in January 2013. The legislators viewed that, despite the lack of quorum in the council due to internal divisions, the law was a sufficient deterrent for the plague of drugs in the strip.
Conversely, many viewed the law as unjust, particularly as it turned drug abuse, particularly the use of tramadol, from a misdemeanor to a felony, translating to a penalty ranging from three years imprisonment to life and death sentences.
However, the law allowed one loophole, whereby it stipulated that a convict could be exempt from the penalty if a member of his/her family requested that he undergo rehabilitation. However, the absence of any rehabilitation or treatment facilities in Gaza rendered the clause obsolete.
Moreover, even the legal entities that were due to be formed in accordance with this law have yet to be activated. Thus, the only aspect of the law that has been implemented is the penalty, which treats addicts as criminals who must be thrown in jail, rather than patients requiring treatment and rehabilitation to reintegrate them into society.