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The land of milk and heroin

The politics of opiates in East Jerusalem

As the world focuses on the Gaza strip in continued but futile attempts to end Israel’s now seven-year-long blockade on the region, the social issues brought up by the Israel-Palestine conflict remain largely absent from news coverage.

Of these issues, the most pertinent seems to be the increasingly widespread occurrence of heroin addiction in East Jerusalem and throughout Israel, as poverty and vulnerability appear to have made people turn to the opiate in attempts to find stress release.

Drug abuse is often found burgeoning in regions facing political conflict, with rates of addiction rising during times of both physical and structural conflict – it is seen as being a defence strategy to cope with insecurity and violence.

Although Palestine has no explicit historic connection to the drug trade, once heroin was introduced to the area, it became massively popular. Before 1967, the number of Palestinian drug users was reported as being in the mere dozens, and the Global Report on Drugs’ statistics showed no narcotics production or trafficking in the region. After the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip, a different scenario emerged.

Life in occupied East Jerusalem is characterized by overcrowding, congestion, and unrelenting social tensions. Here, opiates can provide an escape from daily stresses while filling the void created by a lack of leisure activities.

Al Quds University estimates that there are now 6,000 people addicted to heroin in East Jerusalem alone, compared to 300 in 1986. During the Six-Day war, this region was recaptured by Israel, and the Palestine Authority was no longer allowed to intervene. Consequently, it severed ties with Arab social and legal infrastructure, resulting in a state of chaos.

In Israel-controlled territories, Arab residents specifically face a lack of employment, poor education, high poverty levels, and persistent political instability, all of which have played a part in promoting opiate abuse.

According to a report by Vice Magazine, East Jerusalem’s heroin addicts are concentrated in its Old City, a single square kilometer of land, home to about 35,000 people including Jews and Arabs. In this tight space, acrimonious relations between the two groups have the risk of intensifying quickly.

Al Ram is a town that was locked out by Israel’s Separation Barrier in 2006, disconnecting it from the city and consequently impacting its local economy. One third of the town’s businesses were forced to shut down, 70 per cent of youths under 24 were left unemployed, and the 62, 000 residents were denied required IDs to enter Jerusalem. With restricted mobility, an estimated 5,000 Palestinian children remain unable to attend school. This imposed lack of productive endeavors creates a context ripe for heroin addiction.

“These areas are suffering because we are not allowed to function, and Israel is neglecting them as a policy,” Palestinian Authority spokesperson Ghassan Khatib told Al Jazeera.

As government officials are unable or unwilling to tackle the issue, NGOs like Al Maqdese have stepped in. They promote drug awareness in schools, offer counselling services with trained psychiatrists, and distribute needles, straps, and condoms to addicts. Their harm-reduction policies aim to contain the spread of blood diseases, as a 2010 study by the World Health Organization found that 45 per cent of drug users in the region were infected with Hepatitis C. With thousands of residents living in close quarters in East Jerusalem, careful management of transmittable diseases is essential in preventing high mortality rates.

In 2007, Nihad Rajabi, once a drug user himself, opened a rehab center in Al Ram, the only one of its kind in Palestinian territory. The center receives no funding from the Palestine Authority ministries and is privately funded, limiting its scope and overall impact. “This is one per cent of what I want to do, but there are no resources,” Rajabi told Al Jazeera.

Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories made a statement to Haaretz, claiming,  “by dint of agreements there are no routine enforcement activities of the Israel Police…except in cases where Israeli citizens are involved in the crimes.”

According to Ajman Afghani, a doctor involved with Al Maqdese, Israel’s hesitancy to prosecute drug dealers in Al Ram has created a safe haven for the trade: the Middle East Monitor has reported that even when police are aware of dealer and addicts’ drug nests, they do not make attempts to raid them. In addition, Israel has also been accused of framing those addicted to drugs as being “sick and unemployed” and thereby eligible for a monthly allowance, which plays a role in promoting and feeding their addiction.

It is important to realize that Israel is fighting its own battle against heroin addiction. According to Al Jazeera, “the Israeli drug-authority [has] estimated that there are over 300,000 heroin users in the country, including 70,000 teenagers, in a market worth about US$2 billion a year.”

As comprehensive statistics documenting narcotics abuse in Palestinian Territory are not available, it is difficult to monitor whether the trend is still on the rise, has stabilized, or is being mitigated with the help of NGO-run rehabilitation services. Regardless of precise numbers, the issue of drug use in the region alludes to the need for conflict-resolution between Israel and Palestine. Conflict-laden territories have a history of heightened drug use, and it seems that the only significant hope for rehabilitating these individuals remains rooted in finding productive alternatives and a less vulnerable social context. This objective can only be achieved alongside political resolution.

Updated May 10, 2012: Anecdotal evidence removed