Israeli occupation leaves psychological not just physical scars

11 September 2013

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Israel’s occupation has a profound impact on Palestinian children’s psychological development.

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

Palestine is a nation shaped by its arid scenery and history as the holy land. However, since 1948, it has also been defined by the scar of occupation.

A separation wall, ugly and gray, now blights the land which many believe Jesus walked on. It is perhaps one of the most sacrilegious and grotesque structures existing today.

This wall is the very embodiment of the illegal occupation of the West Bank. It serves as a reminder every day, in every place, that Palestinians are not yet free, despite the promises made at Oslo in the mid ’90s and then later at Camp David.

Within the parameters of the wall, however, exists a more subtle (and perhaps more damaging) form of occupation.

The West Bank city of Nablus rests between two hills. The city center is perennially busy, with people going about their daily business, running mundane errands.

At first glance, there is nothing unusual about Nablus. In many ways it’s a great tourist destination; it has a bustling old city, friendly people and beautiful surroundings. It is easy to forget, or even to remain oblivious of, the fact that Nablus is occupied.

Constantly observed

In reality, occupation surrounds the city. On one side there is a settlement, inhabited by radical Zionists. On the other, there’s an Israeli military base, silently watching over the city. Nablus is constantly being observed.

While the impact of the occupation on the landscape is relatively subtle, its psychological impact on the residents of Nablus is significant. Many have lost friends and family to the settlers or army.

One resident, who we shall call N, described to me how his friend had been killed by the army on one of the hilltops. N and his friends had to wait for a whole day to pick up the body, and only then with the help of international activists, whose plaintive requests, screamed from megaphones, were arguably the only thing separating N and his friends from meeting the same fate as the body they were trying to collect.

The occupation by observation becomes a lot more visceral as night falls. At around midnight (although sometimes it can be as early as 10:30pm) the settlers (backed by the Israeli army) descend upon the city.

They are confronted by young Palestinian men, who throw stones. They are met with tear gas canisters, live ammunition and sound bombs.

It is an exercise in symbolically reclaiming and defending space. The army and settlers invade to remind the residents of Nablus that they are not secure.

As soon as night falls, Nablus becomes a contested space. During the nightly battles, no ground is lost or gained. The purpose is purely to violate. To assert control. To serve as a reminder that life continues as normal in the daylight only because the Israeli army allows it to be so.

The invasion of space is a form of humiliation, to replace checkpoints and the continuous presence of Israeli soldiers. It is like an assault, felt by everyone in Nablus — serving as a reminder of their subjugation.

Humiliation of this kind is present almost everywhere in the West Bank.

Nowhere, however, is this abasement more present than in the southern city of Hebron. Divided into two parts, the city is subjected to some of the most violent and radical settlers within the West Bank.

Profane

As a result, Hebron is notorious for extremely visible signs of apartheid; checkpoints, streets off-limits to Palestinians, houses which must have their doors open all day and all night in case Israeli soldiers need to enter onto the roof to gain a better vantage point.

Nonetheless, these are not the most profane symbols of the occupation. It is the everyday humiliations, carried out at the hands of the Israeli army, that are the most sickening aspect of the situation in Hebron.

To access the Ibrahimi Mosque, Palestinians must walk through a revolving gate. It is a de facto checkpoint.

People walk towards the jaws of this gate in single file, shuffling along like cattle, under the watchful eye of an impossibly young soldier. Occasionally the gate jams (or is purposefully turned off by the soldiers, depending on who you believe).

Everyone must wait for it to start working, held in a state of suspended animation. It is an incredibly dehumanizing experience. You are alone. You are watched.

The humiliation endured by the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is the ugliest form of structural violence. It reinforces the message, day in and day out, that they are a subjugated people.

It is completely deliberate, a tactic of psychological warfare which is being utilized by the Israeli army, rather than the unfortunate side-effect of necessary security measures. The ability of an 18-year-old Israeli soldier to disrupt the day of a Palestinian family reinforces the ethnic hierarchy which places Israelis above Palestinians. It reifies the power structures of the Israeli state.

Trauma

It should be more widely recognized that this is a form of psychological warfare — the occupation is an occupation of the mind as well as the land. The intention is to create a submissive populace by breaking its spirit.

There are signs of a cracked collective psyche in Hebron, particularly among the children. An 11-year-old boy recounted to me the story of how the Israeli soldiers at one of the town’s military checkpoints had delayed his mother getting through with his sick baby brother.

Five minutes before the soldiers let her through, the baby had died. He told the story in a tone of complete hopelessness.

He finished off by saying that nobody cared because his family were Palestinians.

In 2011, Médecins Sans Frontières and Palestinian mental health groups reported that in Nablus in particular, high levels of anxiety disorders among children are being attributed to chronic settler harrassment and Israeli military incursions. And elsewhere across the West Bank, children are “overwhelmingly” suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the groups stated.

Standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle necessitates more than going on a demonstration after Israel launches air strikes on Gaza, or attacks a refugee camp in the West Bank. There remains a need to draw attention to the structural violence of the Israeli occupation — it is indeed a form of violence, as morally reprehensible as the bombing of a civilian population.

We must not focus our fight solely on the physical salvaging of Palestine. This is not simply a battle for land, it is a battle against the oppression of the mind as well as the body.

Alia Al Ghussain is an Anglo-Arab who was born and raised in Dubai. She is pursuing a masters degree in human rights at the University of Sussex.

Comments

Israel is an Apartheid state. More and more, nations and people around the world see Israel's policies as racist and oppressive. As with South Africa, one hopes that the Palestinian call for a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement will some day prove successful. As Dr. King said, "the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice." Viva Palestina!

A very insightful article, focussing on an aspect of the occupation which is not often highlighted. I'd like to read more by this writer.