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Fighting a Modern Plague

As young Palestinians escape into drugs, scarce relief services take aim

text by Ben Cramer
photographs by Peter Lemieux


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Hilda Ajrab peers warily out her front door and down the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. It is from this street – the street down which Christ carried his cross – that narcotics first entered her home and consumed her world.

Mrs. Ajrab steps back into the house, checks her watch and asks her husband, Emil, “Shouldn’t he have called by now?”

The couple are waiting for their regular Friday afternoon call from their son, Johnny, a heroin addict who is spending a year as an inpatient at a rehabilitation center.

It is the only chance they get to speak to him these days.

Johnny is one of the few addicts to have the opportunity to try to get clean in a place far away from the drug playground the Old City has become in recent years.

A study of drug abuse among Palestinians in Jerusalem has found what Mrs. Ajrab and the community at large have long known – drug abuse is rising precipitously.

While hashish has been readily available in Jerusalem’s Arab population centers since before 1980, the far more addictive heroin (here known as “coke”) has become an easily obtained drug of choice in the last 20 years.

Many blame this uptick in drug abuse on a society weakened by years of conflict with Israel.

The strains of these past three years – since the start of the current Palestinian intifada – have caused fissures in family and community structures and resulted in a lack of educational, professional and recreational opportunities for Palestinians. Making matters worse are the limited resources to combat drug abuse in the Holy Land, though some efforts are finding success in East Jerusalem.

A recent study by the Arab Thought Forum is the only in-depth examination of drug abuse among Arabs in Jerusalem. The study finds that in 1999 some 5,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem (2.4 percent of the city’s Arab population) were addicts and 10,500 (5.5 percent) had used illegal drugs.

These numbers represent a large percentage of the population, considering the stigma in Arab culture surrounding the use of alcohol and drugs. Jerusalem’s Palestinian population, in fact, is more afflicted by drugs than Palestinian refugees in other Middle Eastern countries.

No thorough study of drug abuse has been conducted in the West Bank and Gaza. Researchers estimate that in each of those regions – far larger than East Jerusalem – there are roughly as many addicts, some 5,000 in each area. The rate of drug use among Arabs in Jerusalem is also higher than that of Jewish Israelis.

Most people familiar with drug use in Jerusalem agree abuse is substantially higher among the city’s Christians than its Muslims, probably because the Christian community permits the drinking of alcohol, while the Muslim community forbids use of all inebriating substances.

The nature of Arab society makes measuring drug abuse among women virtually impossible. Estimates are that some 800 women in the area abuse drugs.

A lack of data has made it impossible to pinpoint the rate of increase of drug abuse, says sociologist Michel Sayegh, who conducted the study for the Arab Thought Forum. He is certain, however, the rate is climbing.

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Tags: Palestine Alcoholism Substance Abuse