They made an incongruous sight, piled on to trestle tables in the car park outside a government office. Long bundles of dried marijuana branches – known as Bango here – the chocolate bar-shaped slabs of hashish, a few still half-covered with the blue Action cheese wrapping used to smuggle them in, and the smaller grubby blocks of off-white cocaine. Beside them were huge transparent plastic bags stuffed with packets containing nearly half a million painkillers, Gaza's psychotropic pills of choice – Tramadol, and a smaller selection of drugs on display not because they were banned in themselves but because they had been smuggled illegally from Egypt and Israel: the nasal decongestant Clarinase, a so-called "traditional chinese medicine" named Tiger King, and the inevitable sexual-enhancement drugs: Cialis, Levitra and something unconvincingly called Marcin Sexual Gum.
It was worth looking because within minutes they would be going up – literally – in smoke. Not for the first time, the Hamas authorities in Gaza were staging a well-publicised burning of a multimillion-dollar stash of illegal drugs – this week's outside the Nasser Children's Hospital in the heart of Gaza City. The thick black smoke rising from the hospital's incinerator was the latest testament to the Hamas de facto government's zero-tolerance policy towards drugs and intoxicants of all kinds. And a reminder, if one was needed, that the Islamic faction is the sole and energetic enforcer of law and order in this territory of 1.5 million people.
The high-profile drug campaign has been an uphill struggle in Gaza, where Tramadol use in particular had reached near-epidemic proportions as many Gazans turned to the drug as a way of coping with depression and anxiety caused by the economic siege, Palestinian divisions, joblessness and warfare. But the de facto government's attorney general, Mohammed Abed, the man in overall charge of the campaign, is confident that it is now "well-advanced". In an interview with The Independent this week, he said it had two primary objectives. The first was to contain drug use "through all the geographical areas of the Gaza Strip and to clean the society of drugs by the generations, especially youngsters in schools and universities". And secondly to act against organised networks making rich rewards from smuggling and dealing drugs here. According to Mr Abed, drugs siezed so far have a street value of between $20m and $30m (£12m and £18m).
If a primary driver for the campaign is religious, Mr Abed does not choose to emphasise it. Instead, he uses language some of which would not be out of place coming from a hawkish conservative Western politician, emphasising the need for the toughest penalties to be imposed on those who peddle the banned substances to Gaza's young – who can ill afford the costs of their habit. Saying that some 200 offenders are currently held in police stations and jails on charges ranging from smuggling and dealing to mere possession, Mr Abed made it clear he would be seeking the death penalty for the worst offenders in coming trials. "In each case, we will demand the maximum penalty. If it is 13 years in prison, we will ask for 13 years." And asked the standard liberal question of whether it is sensible to incarcerate – rather than use social agencies to rehabilitate – individual users suffering from psychological problems, Mr Abed says crisply: "They can go to prison and have rehabilitation." Softening slightly, he says one option is for sentences requiring users to be in jail for a few days a month.
Although no dealers have yet been executed, the possibility has arisen because of a change in the law instituted last year by the Hamas authorities. Mr Abed explains that from the Six Day War and Israel's occupation of Gaza, until 1997, when it was changed by Yasser Arafat's Oslo Accords-created Palestinian Authority, drugs law rested with an Israeli military order providing a maximum penalty of six years in jail. For three years, the old Egyptian law – which provides more draconian sentences for "trading and importing", including the death penalty – prevailed. But in 2000, because of "pressure" which Mr Abed declines to specify, the then Palestinian president reverted to the Israeli order. This remained after Hamas's parliamentary election victory in 2006. But having siezed full internal control by force after the collapse of its coalition with Fatah in 2007, Hamas decided two years later that stiffer penalties were needed. "We weren't under pressure, so we changed the law back again," he says.
Although Mr Abed says that the Hamas-controlled civil police has a substantial anti-drugs unit, he says it faces obstacles that enforcement agencies elsewhere do not: the lack of trained sniffer dogs for detection, for example, and the fact that because of the presence of hostile Israeli forces on the other side, police cannot safely penetrate close to the border areas in the south-east corner of the Strip, through which he insists drugs are infiltrated from Israel as well as Egypt. At the same time, he says, close surveillance and the authorities' information networks help them to "follow" suspected dealers.
Perhaps inevitably, enforcement officers in Gaza claim that "corrupt" and exiled Fatah figures opposed to the regime are behind some of the drug trafficking, and even that a few of those detained for importing drugs have alleged under interrogation a connection to the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet. To underline the former point, Mr Abed flicks through his mobile phone to locate a recent text message saying that a former police chief in Jabalya, under the old Fatah regime, has been detained for unspecified drug offences. "Breaking news," he exclaims, with a smile of satisfaction.
Although such drugs are the primary target, Mr Abed makes no secret of his intention to move on to tobacco, following Western (and Israeli) practice by banning smoking – a habit unknown among Hamas officials though widespread among many other Gazans – in public places. And as for alcohol, there appears to be little significance in the temporary absence this week of the Ministry of Interior sign at the Hamas entry checkpoint, which has warned visitors for more than a year that "all forms of liquor are confiscated immediately [and are] to be seized and destroyed in front of their owners". Mr Abed confirms that alcohol remains wholly banned in Gaza.
Hasan Shaban Zeyada, a senior psychologist at the reputable and independent Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, agrees that both law enforcement and rehabilitation are necessary to combat Gaza's drug problem, though he lays greater emphasis on the second. But while saying the present campaign is "concerned more about legislation and about punishment", his view is that Hamas's drive is "not just for show". He confirms that government ministries are sending outreach workers into schools to discourage drug-taking, says that religious and socially conservative cultural factors can be deployed in such campaigns, and welcomes a plan to incorporate mental health into primary and hospital care. But he would like the authorities to commit to specialist drug treatment centres, so far unavailable in Gaza. And he warns of the problem of "treating the manifestations without dealing with the root causes", among which he lists "unemployment [exacerbated by the Israeli-imposed economic siege], internal division and fear of the future".
"Take a university graduate with excellent grades [who] cannot find a job, and with it become independent. Or a man with six to eight children who cannot protect his children or find work to feed them. Without dealing with the causes, there is still a section of the population that will look to drugs to ease their suffering."
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