Shortly following the February 2 death of a of 17-year-old Israa Zourob in an exorcism conducted in front of her family, Sheiku Abu Khalil al-Zamili is facing an investigation by Gaza City police over his role in her death. Harith, whose only qualification is a Master's degree in "Sharia science" runs one of the numerous Islamic medicine clinics that have become increasingly popular in Gaza. The clniic offers a range of Islamic prayer services to treat disease, including conducting exorcisms to drive out "djinn"and break magic spells. Djinn are well-known in Arabian and Middle Eastern folklore (more commonly known as genies in Western countries). Possession by mischievous djinn is a common explanation for many mental and physical illnesses and exorcists are in strong demand due to the stigma attached to mental illness in Middle Eastern cultures.
According to members of Israa Zourob's family, Abu Khalil al-Zamili forced her to drink a litre of water mixed with half a kilogram of salt to drive out the djinn believed to be possessing her. In describing her daughter's death, Israa Zourob's mother told local news reporters:
“I do not know whether my daughter died of asphyxiation when [Zamili] was trying to make her drink salt water, or of salt poisoning. All I saw was that my daughter’s face turned blue as he shoved water and salt down her throat." “We bought him half a kilo of salt, which he dissolved in a liter of water in front of us after reading some verses. I do not think they were from the Quran, since he was talking in a fast and incomprehensible manner. He then asked her to drink the solution. When Israa complained of the salinity, he forced her to drink it with the help of her brother, and then she stopped moving," she then added. Weeping during the interview, she said, "“My daughter had many dreams. She wanted to become a doctor.”
According to a study by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, deaths linked to spiritual therapy are hardly uncommon. In 1998, another woman died following an attempt to exorcise the djinn out of her. During the course of the exorcism, the sheikh conducting the ceremony inflicted a severe beating that left her in a coma before succumbing to her injuries. Quranic therapic clinics offering spiritual healing and herbal medicine have spread throughout the Gaza strip and are often more popular than psychiatric medicine. Local ordinances often do not require a formal license to operate these clinics despite Article 3 of the Health Practitioners Act which states: “It is prohibited for any person to practice, pretend to or show readiness to practice medicine, whether directly or implicitly, unless authorized to do so.”
Conventional medical practitioners often report dealing with patients recovering from the severe beatings inflicted on them by sheikhs attempt to exorcise the djinns out of them. According to one doctor in an interview with local media, "Every disease, whether psychological or physical, needs to be diagnosed first before the patient receives any treatment or drinks anything. This phenomenon is rampant in the Gaza Strip, because of the failure of concerned parties to control it. Add to that the lack of health education, which makes the patient go to the sheikh before even heading to the hospital." Despite calls for the Ministries of Health and the Interior for better education to prevent further tragedies, the demand for exorcism services remains as strong as ever.
In the meantime, the sheikh responsible for Israa Zohoub's death remains in custody although it remains unclear what penalty he will receive.