My good friend and comrade Patricia Campbell (below left) of Belfast just returned from a trip to Palestine in her capacity as a psychiatric nurse. Patricia is also President of the Independent Workers Union and a co-editor of the Irish journal Fourthwrite. Here’s what she wrote:
Not even the little birds are free in Palestine – a personal account by Patricia Campbell
The journey from Tel Aviv was intriguing and full of unknown expectation. It was in the middle of the night as the taxi driver drove along the unlit barren roads to Ramallah.
As we approached the city of Ramallah I noticed the familiar sight of a prison which stretched alongside the road. I asked the taxi driver “Is this a prison?” In perfect English he told me it was Atranout Prison. I later learned it was a place which also holds those who dare to cross the many borders without permission to try and make a living.
As we entered Ramallah City we were stopped at a checkpoint, no hassle though, a military style figure shone the torch into the taxi, viewed the two Western women in the back and signaled for us to proceed. It was a Palestinian military police checkpoint.
My colleague and I were here in a professional capacity to attend a conference organized by Gaza Community mental health Programme (GCMHP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The theme, Siege and Mental Health Walls v Bridges. As mental health clinicians we were presenting a paper to the conference highlighting how siege has impacted on the mental health of a number of individuals in Belfast.
The Israeli authorities denied hundreds of international clinicians, medics and academics entry to Gaza to participate in the conference. The day before the conference was scheduled to begin many of the conference participants assembled at Erez/Gaza Crossing to protest Israel’s denial of academic expression, freedom of speech and the entry of health care professionals from all over the world to Gaza.
I feel overwhelmed by the whole experience of Palestine, a place I could only read about and be privy to images on our TV screens. ‘Seeing is believing’ I noticed that the work force in this social and economic deprived country were predominantly male. In the hotel where I stayed, waiters and cleaners were male, a job mainly reserved for women here in Ireland and more recently migrant workers. I was struck by the heavily fortified concrete wall which separates and imprisons the people of Gaza. I wanted to see beyond that wall. One must ask what are the Israelis trying to hide?
As we were protesting a small number of people and children were waiting to get back in to Gaza. They had been given special permission to leave. One man had been given leave for medical treatment. I saw a woman sitting on a concrete slab just looking ahead with no expression in her eyes. One of the most moving aspects for me personally was the sight of little children playing like children in any other part of the world but without the colour and facilities that awakens the young imagination. As they waited with their mother in grey concrete surroundings in a Middle East landscape they were oblivious to the draconian measures imposed on them because they know nothing else.
Attracting much international media attention conference organizers had a plan B and the conference went ahead as planned by video link from Ramallah City in the West Bank with Gaza
The conference itself was a huge success. The thought provoking workshops and art exhibition leads the way to maintain and build the strong bonds established between the international delegates who were participating on common ground, health, peace and human rights. The way is clear for us to exchange knowledge, experiences and ideas for the future. I believe this is a new beginning.
From Gaza a 15 year old girl gave a moving account of how she was taking on role as mother to her young siblings, her mother imprisoned in appalling conditions and gave birth there. They long for the day when they will reunite and get to know their little brother. There was another account of how the Israeli authorities continue their dehumanization policy by imposing closed prison visits, which means there is no human contact between the prisoner and their loved ones. Colour is being added to the screen which separates the prisoner and visitor so that the prisoner appears the same colour as the screen.
At another workshop the plight of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and those who are electronically tagged and under house arrest in England was heard. The impact of torture and imprisonment on their mental health was addressed. I made the point that of the small number of patients from Belfast my colleague and I were presenting, all of whom have serious mental illness post conflict, the majority of them were imprisoned and report similar experiences to those prisoners mentioned.
Powerful concluding remarks from two Psychiatrists, Gaza based Dr Ahmad Abu Tawahina and London based Dr Derek Summerfield speaking from Ramallah were heard by all delegates. Dr Ahmad’s address, ‘Besieging Hatred’ was significant. He spoke of the need for health care professionals to promote the empowerment of people. He gave an analytical account of how the superiority complex of the Israeli regime influences Palestinians. He explained, there is a constant attempt to frustrate and humiliate Palestinians and a total disrespect for Palestinian Ministers who are kept waiting at checkpoints. Palestinians may internalize this and unconsciously adopt the inferior role. For me this was poignant. I have always shared the view it is absolutely imperative to empower our young people because they are the future negotiators in every aspect of conflict and life. If one negotiates from a position of weakness and inferiority then one is more likely to compromise and produce bad outcomes.
Dr Summerfield spoke about ethics in conflict zones. He described how doctors were bound by ethics of responsibility and ethics of conviction. The former being accountable and responsible, the latter a version of deeply held personal values. He highlighted how some doctors ignored and colluded with practices of torture and how their ethics of conviction overrule their ethics of responsibility.
My colleague and I visited Jerusalem. Palestinians must have permission to enter this beautiful City with its eight gates. A checkpoint controlled by Israeli soldiers enforces Israeli policy. As we sat waiting in traffic at the check point I couldn’t help but compare it with Aughnacloy Checkpoint which was situated on the Tyrone and Monaghan border in Ireland, separating the British controlled part of Ireland from the Republic.
Brought up in Northern Ireland, waiting at check points is not a new experience for me. I continued to observe. To my right were large rocks surrounded by garbage, empty drinks cans and food wrappings, an indication of people’s disdain for this restricted area, The rocks were topped with winding and tangled razor wire. A little bird flew into the wire and got caught. As it tried to escape I looked away to avoid witnessing its inevitable fate. I thought, not even the little birds are free in Palestine.
The walls and military presence in Palestine were all too familiar, many of the stories and experiences too. I realize just how besieged the people of Palestine are. Their movement and choices restricted and their human rights constantly abused
Before departing from Ben Gurion Airport we spent an evening in Tel Aviv. In a short space of time I learned so much about the Israeli way of life. We met an Israeli of duty solider and heard his story. We met young men who had just completed their three years military service. They all shared the same view, “Palestinians are terrorists and we need to protect ourselves”. We visited Jaffa and saw the church which was under siege, making news headlines around the world in 2003.
The Ben Gorian experience was shocking. It’s the place were many are strip searched, interrogated and kept waiting for hours. My colleague and I are registering a complaint with our perspective Embassies. We were subjected to harassment, interrogation, theft of personal belongings and excessive security measures. We were asked to produce our conference badges which they referred to as a ‘peace conference’ and then a ‘human rights’ conference, one could be forgiven for believing they are threatened by both peace and human rights. We were escorted to flight check in and then separated. We were only able to find each other in their Maze of systems and security because we were both fortunate to have roaming network mobile phones otherwise we would have missed our flight.
The airport is staffed by a mainly young work force. They appeared programmed and robotic as they performed their duties. At the impressionable age of 18 young men and women of Israel embark on a 3 year compulsory military service. The regimented youth of Israel then join the workforce.
This was a very important journey for me, personally and professionally. Earlier when I addressed my fellow delegates at Erez Border I made the point, “I am here in a professional capacity. I am bound by a code of ethics. There is nothing more ethical that being here today. This is my opportunity to express my humanity”. After listening to Dr Summerfield I am confident that I not only exercised ethics of responsibility but also the ethics of conviction. I call on all health care professionals to do likewise. We have a responsibility to do what is right.