Gaza: Where There is No Escape

If there is one constant in the political history of Gaza over the 61 years since the Arab-Israeali war of 1948, it is that whenever it is thought that the situation can’t get any worse, it usually does. The Israeli-Hamas war that ended three months ago left many hundreds dead, thousands of others robbed of their livlihoods and the political divisions within Palestinian society just as deeply fissured as before.

Last week 18 journalists from Gaza met with Dart Centre Europe in the Egyptian capitol, Cairo, to discuss the strains of reporting in a constricted enclave, hemmed in between the sea, the Egyptian border and an Israeli wall. They were attending a security training workshop organised jointly by the International News Safety Institute, the International Federation of Journalists, the Federation of Arab Journalists and International Media Support.

Along with vital tuition in how to deal with potentially catastrophic battlefield injury — applying tourniquets to stem arterial bleeds, administering CPR and treating the deep-tissue burns generated by white phosphorous — the attendees spoke of their own attempts to manage the psychological trauma of working in a stateless zone where four journalists have died in disparate circumstances during the last three months alone.

When the Dart Centre leads trauma awareness sessions, it can take time to explain the various physiological and psychological reactions that attend exposure to trauma. The journalists from Gaza were able to rattle off common responses — numbing, muscular spasms, disrupted sleep, flashbacks and more — as automatically as clinicians. They pass for the everyday in Gaza.

The participants wondered if outsiders could fully comprehend how resilient they and their families had already proved themselves to be. Gaza, they said, is like a prison camp but with a twist: the sentence has no limit — one never knows if it will end.  

The journalists tended to worry less for themselves than the children around them. One described how his six-year-old daughter had recently fallen into the habit of packing her things into a bag and then announcing: “Right. That’s it. We are going away now.”

But when there is no chance of exit, how does one find a sense of security?  Dr Ehsan Fahmy, head of Neuropsychiatry Department at Zagazig University taught the group about the physiology of arousal. Fear, she explained, is a natural response in a dangerous situation, one that helps steel the body against violence. The issue, then, is how to manage it rather than how to eliminate it entirely.

Dr Fahmy taught the group a simple breathing exercise that she felt accorded well with Islamic practice. One focuses on a green plant, breathing to a precise rhythm for a minimum of ten minutes each day. Although it is hard to master and often uncomfortable at first, with practice one learns how to call back the image of the plant when anxiety re-intrudes. The technique is similar to ones traditionally taught in Far Eastern martial arts.

In a situation where life feels provisional and dependent on political decisions beyond one’s control, maintaining hope and optimism requires substantial fortitude and daily effort. Research suggests that people who practice active coping strategies prove to be more resilient than those who are more passive. 

In this sense, both the trauma discussion and the first aid and security training were of one piece. During the medical training the journalists practised working together to help injured colleagues. The journalists also debated how mutual support might help partially alleviate the impact of psychological trauma.

Lapses in concentration, unconsidered risk-taking and missed deadlines, the participants suggested, often occurred during periods in which individuals were finding it harder than usual to digest traumatic experiences. The group felt that more explicit recognition of this issue by both local and foreign editors, and mutual support, where journalists kept an eye on each other, would help minimise additional strain in the newsroom and safeguard the quality of their work. 

Life in Gaza is not how anybody would wish it to be, but it does go on. The journalists attending the workshop in Cairo, who take huge personal risks in bringing the news to their compatriots and the wider world, have learnt that, even in extremis, there is still room to live and work with dignity.