03/21 – The West Bank Fainting Epidemic

A West Bank school like the one where the 1983 Fainting Epidemic began. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

On this day in 1983, a group of Palestinian children were attending class in Arraba, a town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Suddenly, at about 8 AM, a girl jumped up from her desk and ran to the window, choking and sobbing in pain. Soon, a number of other students began complaining of the same symptoms and falling to the ground. Within weeks, hundreds of people – Palestinians and Israelis alike – were hospitalized for fainting fits. As the toll climbed higher, Palestinian authorities feared the mass fainting epidemic was a “planned and systematic [Israeli] crime against our people“, a ploy to clear out the West Bank and enable further Israeli settlement there. Conversely, Israeli authorities accused the Palestinians of carrying out a mass gas attack to cause infertility in young girls.

IDF medics treat a patient. Many IDF soldiers who assisted Palestinian authorities during the epidemic fell ill as well. (Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of March, the two main waves of fainting were over and 900 people were in hospital. Albert Hefez, an Israeli public health official, noticed something strange about the fainting epidemic: cases spiked dramatically on March 26th, the same day as newspapers declared “mass poisoning” from chemical weapons. A thorough investigation determined that there had likely never been any poison gas present in the West Bank at all – or in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where the epidemic spread. Eventually, public health officials were forced to acknowledge that the fainting epidemic had been entirely psychosomatic. The causes of this peculiar case of mass hysteria – which brought Palestinian and Israeli forces dangerously close to armed confrontation – are still unknown to this day.

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