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Assessing trauma in Gaza

THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE – By John Simmens – The Gaza Strip is not a place most world travelers would eagerly visit. But Olympia clinical psychologist John Van Eenwyk, 68, is not your typical world traveler. He founded the International Trauma Treatment Program in Olympia and has spent much of his professional career training trauma counselors and traveling to the war-town regions of the world, including Gaza for the first time in 1991, to assist victims of war, torture and trauma.

He was at it again last week, part of a nine-member medical team sponsored by Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has been sending medical delegations to Gaza since 1993, including eight since 2009.

When in Gaza, Van Eenwyk works with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, consulting with its staff and sharing the knowledge he’s gained about how to help traumatized victims of war.

There is no shortage of medical and psychological aid needed these days in Gaza, a Palestinian territory about twice the size of the District of Columbia, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Egypt to the southwest and Israel on the north and east. It is home to some 1.8 million people living under a strict Israeli blockade and governed by Hamas, an Islamist militant group that won a U.S.-backed election in 2006.

It’s also been bombed and invaded during a series of conflicts with Israeli forces, the most recent this past summer. As in the past, innocent people died on both sides of the border from bombings from both sides, and an Israeli Army ground invasion. As in the past, the death and injury toll was much higher in Gaza.

Since a cease-fire was negotiated in late August, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fallen out of the mainstream news cycle. But the images of suffering and destruction chronicled by the medical mission from Washington state serve as a reminder that it’s the civilians who bear the burden of wars.

Here are some excerpts from an email I received from Van Eenwyk on Friday:

“As today is the Muslim Holy Day, everything is closed. So the group went on a tour of Gaza. … Went to the northwestern part of Gaza, which has been totally destroyed. Every building — an entire neighborhood about 10 city blocks square — was attacked and reduced to rubble. Some inhabitants received warnings and survived. Others didn’t. All of the survivors were displaced. In a densely populated country like Gaza, this means severe overcrowding and the problems it brings: disease, stress, poverty, misery and so on.

“I had brought a small suitcase of toothbrushes, pens, pencils and various small toy, and began handing them out to children,” Van Eenwyk wrote. “Of course more immediately emerged from the ruins asking for gifts, too.”

The scene grew a little chaotic, and the medical group’s leader asked Van Eenwyk to stop doling out gifts before things grew out of hand.

Van Eenwyk questioned why the Israelis are so intent on leveling the border neighborhoods where many of the tunnels leading into Israel begin. Wouldn’t it be easier and cause much less collateral damage and death, if the tunnels were rendered impassable on the Israeli side of the border?

Later that day, the group drove south to Khan Younis, a city of 350,000 in the southern Gaza Strip and home to rich agricultural lands.

“Three years ago I was given a tour of the area by the head of the Gaza Community Health Programme facility in Khan Younis. He showed me that area as the most beautiful and most secure in all of Gaza. He told me that Israel would never attack here as there was no incentive.

“This time, they did,” Van Eenwyk continued. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, and all the farms, orchards and houses within 500 meters of the border were leveled. The destruction included the places of worship: the mosques.

“One can only wonder about the wisdom of that strategy,” said Van Eenwyk, who is also an ordained Episcopalian priest. “People tend to take it personally when their places of worship are destroyed by others.”

As the medical team, accompanied by four Palestinians, surveyed the damage, a shot from a “drone car,” a remote-controlled vehicle, was fired over their heads, warning them to leave the area, even though they were far from the 500-meter exclusion zone, Van Eenwyk said. They hurried back to their van.

“The warning shot would probably never have hit us,” Van Eenwyk said. “But as the saying goes: Nothing focuses the attention like a charging elephant — or live ammunition.”

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