At dawn, Abbas lights a cigarette and looks into the distance, at the rugged West Bank landscape. He hasn’t slept all night: he spent it thinking of his family under the bombs in Gaza, over one hundred kilometres away. His only objective for the day is the same as any other day: to be able to talk to them.
“All my family is in Gaza, scattered between the north, and Khan Yunis and Rafah in the south. My wife and kids are living in a tent: they have already been displaced four times since the start of the war. At times they slept in the street, in mosques or in abandoned buildings. My four children are between five and 14 years old, can you imagine?” says Abbas clearing his throat. “Every morning at dawn, I try to reach them by phone to know if they survived the night. Some days, communications are cut off and I have to wait for days to hear from them.”
Abbas is a so-called ‘Gazan worker’: a Palestinian from Gaza who used to commute to Israel for work. Every month, he would cross the border from the north of the Strip, where his home was, to go to work in an iron factory for a few weeks and return home for a three-day break. Since his dad passed away, as the oldest surviving family member, he has also been responsible for the rest of his family, including his brothers and sisters.
On 7th October, when Hamas launched its attack in Israel, Abbas was at work. The next day, Israeli soldiers turned up at the factory and began to harass the Palestinian workers, threatening to shoot them if they did not flee to the West Bank. Abbas sought refuge in the mountains for two days, before finally reaching the West Bank – one of over 6,000 Gaza residents to do so, according to the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Labour. When he passed the Israeli checkpoint, the soldiers took his money and belongings, except his phone. “I consider myself lucky because I managed to keep my phone. Others were not that lucky: they were arrested, beaten or even made to disappear” explains Abbas. “I don’t have any family here in the West Bank, so I found refuge in a community with other workers. We live in terrible conditions, sleeping on the ground with no mattresses, blankets or heating, but it is nothing compared to the horrific conditions of Gaza.”
While Gaza is being crushed by the Israeli army’s relentless bombing, the West Bank is experiencing a bloody ordeal of its own. Violence and harassment against Palestinians by settlers and the Israeli forces alike was already rife before 7 October and 2023 saw a new record in the number of Palestinians killed in this area according to the United Nations, continuing the shocking trend of the past few years. After that watershed date, the number of attacks on Palestinians soared even further. To be attacked by settlers or arrested and beaten by the Israeli forces has become a daily occurrence for Palestinians in the West Bank, while Israeli military operations in the Jenin and Tulkarem refugee camps have resulted in many being killed.
In the Nablus area, Abbas met a team of MSF social workers who referred him to their colleagues offering psychological consultations as part of a mental health programme that has been running for over two decades, branching out over time to the nearby towns of Qalqiliya and Tubas. By the end of November, psychologists and psychiatrists working in the programme had offered over 2,600 consultations in 2023.
This is Abbas’s first experience with therapy and he says it’s helping. He knew MSF from back in Gaza: his father had been a patient a few years ago.
“I am desperately trying to go to Gaza and join my family, but it is impossible” he says. “At some point the Israeli authorities said they would allow Gazan workers to return to Gaza, but the ones who tried were arrested, robbed, interrogated and beaten. If I get arrested, I will lose contact with my family.”
Still, Abbas is determined to find a way to return. “My wife wants me to go so we can die together” he adds. “It is hard for her to take care of the children. The more weeks go by, the more surviving is a miracle. There is no drinking water and they can barely find food. Some days they drink the salty water from the sea. If they get sick they can’t go to the hospital, as it is overcrowded with trauma patients and not safe.”
He continues in a sobbing voice: “My five-year-old asked me the other day ‘Dad, why do you let me starve? Dad, other kids, their father died with them, so don’t let us die alone'. I don’t know what to reply so I strive to find comforting words but he replies 'Don’t lie to me dad’. Come now, so we die together.”
“Because of the constant bombing, it has become customary in Gaza to make people identifiable, in case they are killed, by writing their names on their bodies: a hand, an arm, a leg or the neck. My wife and three of my kids wrote their names on themselves but she could not do it on the youngest. It was too painful.”
“What will our lives be like after they have finished bombing? Streets, hospitals, universities and schools are all destroyed. This is not right, I am a good citizen, I work, I pay my taxes and so on. I should have basic human rights. Stop the suffering” concludes Abbas.
* Not the real name
Note: MSF teams in Nablus first started offering mental health consultations in 1988. MSF teams in the West Bank are also running mental health activities and emergency preparedness in Hebron and supporting the emergency medical response in Jenin, particularly at Khalil Suleiman hospital, and in Tulkarem refugee camp.