The Psychological Implications of Israel’s Separation Wall on Palestinians

Israeli ‘shoot to kill’-style warning sign on part of the separation barrier. As expected, the Hebrew word for the barrier is gader (“fence”). However, the Arabic word used is jidar, which — while related at its root to the Hebrew word gader actually means “wall” in Arabic. (ISM)


The Separation Wall that the Israeli government is said to be building for security reasons stands at 8 meters (25feet) high. This wall will approximately affect 90,700 Palestinian residents of 32 villages in the Qalqilya area and will isolate and thus effectively confiscate 47,020 dunums of land (11,755 acres) and will destroy another 7,750 dunums (1,937 acres). Six of the villages, with approximately 1,000 residents, will be completely trapped between the Wall and the 1967 Green Line; isolating them from the West Bank and effectively annexing them to Israel without being granted citizenship or legal rights. Land, which is the base of the economic lifeline of this area, is being taken away as it’s people watch helplessly.

In community psychology there are three main factors that constitute the highest stressors which affect people psychologically. These are:

  • Lack of social support systems
  • Limited social relations as people are confined to their homes – every town and village is cut off from the other and completely isolated. There is disintegration of family and social relationships
  • Unemployment and poverty

    In the village of Ras al-Tira, Palestinian Counseling Center (PCC) staff and fieldworkers spoke with many residents who left their homes in the Qalqiliya area to come back to this village. This village in particular is completely cut off from the rest of the surrounding area. Originally, most left this area because work was scarce but now they are forced to come back in order to show claim to the land. In some cases if the residents are not physically on the land, the Israeli forces can claim there is no one living there and occupying apparatus then takes control.

    There is an electric fence that has encircled this community with one military checkpoint/gate for entrance and exists. The gate is opened at scheduled times throughout the day. There is a school on the other side of the fence, which most of the children in Ras al-Tira attend. So, if a child is late and misses the scheduled time of the gate opening she/he misses a full day of school. And if a child misses school that day and many other days due this interruption we can assume that academic achievement will be hindered. With a hindered education process, illiteracy rate increases and a feeling of helplessness will give way, which will make many stop attending school altogether. With children dropping out of schools and not feeling adequate enough to achieve, social problems arise, including difficulty in relating to others and the world. This was seen as the children in this village choose to stay indoors rather then go out and play with the other children. Some said that staying in helped them cope with the situation because they couldn’t see the electric fence that separated them from the world.

    Israel’s apartheid wall under construction (Photo: AEF, 2003)


    According to PENGON, agricultural production accounted for 22% of the town of Qalqilya’s economy before the Intifada began in September 2000. This number has risen to 45% since residents have lost business with the closure of the commercial area and the inability to travel outside the city for employment; people have become more dependent on their land, which Israel in turn is increasing the difficulty of accessing through outright confiscation, or barriers leading to an eventual confiscation; many who have land on the other side of the Apartheid Wall are unable to gain entrance to it. Those who do have access, or who have moved back to their village as in Ras al-Tira, still have problems as harvesting and selling of goods is hampered. According to PENGON, 1,500 dunums of greenhouses will be separated from communities by the Wall. Prior to the Intifada, Qalqilya was the market center for over 85,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Israel per week. The Wall and continual closure have caused the market to almost completely shut down; most merchants have relocated to nearby villages (In the past two years, 4500 Qalqilya residents have left the town for surrounding villages due the hardship.). In conducting the pilot phase of a study concerning psychological effects of the Wall on Qalqilya and surrounding village residents, PCC found that unemployment among study participants who were able to work is 72%.

    What is happening to the residents of Qalqiliya can only be described as the ghettoization, oppression, and displacement of a people. In the next following paragraphs what is a ghetto, oppression, and displacement will explained. Then, we will discuss the troubling psychological affects associated with these traumas.

    What is a ghetto? Ghettos have been systematically created in the past, and in other regions of the world, marginalizing communities and establishing two tiers of society. According to Allan Spear (1967) the term ghetto was most commonly used to describe the areas where Jews were forced to live in pre WWII Germany. In 1915 American Society, the ghetto had taken shape in the form of a large, mostly poor, African-American enclave on the South Side of New York, with a similar offshoot on the West Side.

    The wall in Abu Dis cuts off thousands of residents from Jerusalem and dividing the village itself (Photo: Musa Al-Shaer, 2004)


    The American ghetto is describe by Walter Thabit (2003) as a location designed to house, contain, and thin out entire groups of people deemed unwanted and parasitic by the powers that be, by isolating the people and giving them no jobs, education, and hope to move forward in life. Thabit also states “ghettos are created by the apartheid policies of white society.” By gaining a better comprehension of a ghetto we can better understand what is happening to the Palestinians in Qalqilya today. Qalqilya and the surrounding villages, which were once a very productive and economically established area, now have the characteristics of a ghetto (since the building of the Apartheid Wall).

    Spear states “the development of a physical ghetto was not the result chiefly of poverty; nor did African-American cluster out of choice to these project housing but instead the ghetto was primarily the product of white hostility. What is a striking feature of these project housings in America are not the existence of slum condition, but the difficulty of escaping the slum. European immigrants needed only to prosper to be able to move to a more desirable neighborhood. African-Americans, on the other hand, suffered from economic deprivation, psychology warfare and systematic racial discrimination.” Making their struggle to move forward much more difficult.

    Israeli military roadblock preventing Palestinian movement in and out of Qalqilya (Photo: AEF, 2003)


    The same development can be seen in the Qalqilya area where the results are not due to poverty but has become the product of Israeli policy to segregate the Palestinians. The Palestinians in this area are not given the opportunity to try and get themselves out of this ghetto. High unemployment, school drop out rates, a lack of security and a sense of hopelessness has kept the residents of Qalqilya just trying to tend to their basic needs, which for many living outside of the ghetto is easily attained. Those living in the ghetto are preoccupied with putting food on the table and finding a sense of security.

    The routine closure and curfew imposed on the Palestinian residents by the Israel occupation forces only add to this isolation, which breeds frustration, anger and insecurity. The “institutional ghetto” or segregation of Palestinians has left people thinking not too highly of themselves and thus these people are unable to advance socially and psychologically. With low self-esteem, people feel humiliated and unworthy, which brings inner conflict and psychologically threatening symptoms like depression, suicide and disassociation.

    It can be said that when a society is unable to advance itself because of their insecurities than the development of a group is put on hold as seen in Qalqilya. Feeling insecure and having a ghetto mentality is what the Apartheid Wall is creating in the Qalqilya area. Therefore, the residents of Qalqilya are underdeveloped in many areas of living, meaning that life is just about surviving and getting through the day, like living in a prison. At the end of the day, the Palestinians are paying the cost of housing themselves in this open prison.

    Living in ghetto brings with it oppression. According to Nicky Yuen, “oppression can be defined as the systematic, institutionalized, and socially condoned (elite sanctioned) mistreatment of a group in society by another group or by people acting as agents of the society as a whole,” for example the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. Oppression thus has many characteristics, for instance mistreatment which means the practice of treating someone or something badly. Oppression can also be defined as the act of subjugating by cruelty “the act of oppressing, or state of being oppressed.” In the case of the Palestinians in the Qalqilya area we can see that denying them access to work, to travel freely and to have a “normal life” is a form of oppression. Schools closing, economic deprivation, health care access denied and a continual subjection to humiliation are all deliberate acts of psychological oppression, which can be detrimental and life threatening to oneself. This form of oppression leaves Palestinians with no control over their lives and, as stated above, can cause serious psychological repercussions and trauma.

    Displacement also comes with oppression. Displacement occurs when a specific cultural population is moved from its original homeland or bioregion and relocated to a different setting. This is happening to the residents of the Qalqilya area. They are being pushed into a ghetto fashion of living and are also physically being removed from their original land in order to build the Apartheid Wall. Most of the people in this area are being pushed inward, making the prison style housing easier to manage for the Israeli forces. Displacement comes with an array of social problems that cause many psychological issues and traumas, problems that can be avoided if this human made disasters didn’t occur. Some issues that arise are related to the social environment, such as death or loss of someone and inadequate support.

    Discrimination, feeling alone, isolated with no support, no education, academic problems including illiteracy, occupational problems including unemployment, and housing issues such as inadequate and unsafe homes are a result of displacement and oppression. With these social problems comes psychological trauma and symptoms.

    Qalqilya area residents do not have adequate access to work, education and healthcare and are not able to travel freely to gain this access. This has been the experience of many Palestinians affected by the Wall, and continues to be in the heightened example of Qalqilya. The devestating economic and social hardships have increasingly heightened the vacuum of psychological problems for the Palestinian people who live in Qalqilya, and its neighboring villages. The hardships can be defined as human-made perpetrated trauma, according to Dr. Khaleel Isa’s article for the PCC, using Horrowitz’s definition[2]. It has been proven that these traumas (chronic/acute, collective/individual, witnessed/interpersonal, primary/secondary stressors) can create a spectrum of inter-related psychological responses such as general anxiety, personality disorders, psychosomatic states, disassociation states, depressive states, and psychosis. Multiple psychological problems can cause distress and dysfunction in the individual, making life impossible and more difficult to cope with stressors outside of their control (2003).

    Main Findings:

    Mental Health Effects of the Israeli Wall on Palestinians in the Qalqilya District, A Pilot Questionnaire by the Palestinian Counseling Center, October 2003

    (At present, the PCC is undertaking the phases of full research through the generous financial assistance of DIAKONIA)

    Presently there are no specific epidemiological studies of how the Israeli Wall is affecting the Palestinian people psychologically. In September of 2003, the PCC developed a pilot questionnaire to begin a preliminary study on the mental health effects of the Israeli Wall in the Qalqilya District. The questionnaire was filled out by 44 adult Palestinian (ages 20 to 55) residents of villages in the Qalqilya District (Ras Attiya, Ras Attira, Dab´a and Azzum Atma) as a step in preparation for conducting the main research (which is taking place at the time of writing). Although the sample can be considered small, the answers to the questions posed for five mental health scales (Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, Somatization and Coping Scales) give some indication of the mental health of Qalqilya District residents.

    As PCC’s preliminary results from the pilot phase of studying the psychological effects of the Wall show, high percentages of residents in the Qalqilya area are depressed, feeling anxiety and hopelessness, have suicidal thoughts and exhibit symptoms of PTSD. The condition imposed on the Palestinian people and its psychological affects has gone unnoticed by the world, making this horrific situation even harder to tolerate. For example, area residents spoke much about how they felt alone and isolated because the international community has forgotten them. There was a sense of disappointment and pain in their voices.

    The age range of respondents is 20 – 55 years old with the highest percentage (54%) below forty. 90% of respondents are married and 50% have 7 – 10 children. 71% of the respondents have some school education with 32% having completed secondary level education.

    Presently there are no specific epidemiological studies of how the Israeli Separation Wall is affecting the Palestinian people psychologically. However, preliminary findings of the PCC study indicate that there is high prevalence of depressive factors apparent in sleeping and eating disorders as well as psycho-somatic symptoms among adults and children.

    In questions regarding Depression, 96% of the respondents indicated that they sometimes or always have no interest in doing anything along with 92% having stated that they sometimes or always have hopelessness for the future. The lowest percentage for the Depression Scale was 52%, which reflected thoughts of the respondents ending their life.

    For Anxiety questions, the highest percentage (100%) of respondents indicated that they are sometimes or always stressed followed by 98% indicating that they sometimes or always are irritated with life hassles. The lowest symptom on the Anxiety Scale is 82% which indicated sudden spells of panic among respondents.

    For the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) questions, 91% of the respondents indicated that they sometimes or always suffer from vivid and distractive intrusive memories while the same percentage of respondents indicated that they have trouble controlling their temper. The lowest percentage on the PTSD Scale is 75%, where respondents indicated that they feel detached from their bodies.

    For the Somatization questions, 87% of the respondents indicated that they sometimes or always have headaches followed by 82% that stated that they sometimes or always feel numbness and tingling sensations. The lowest percentage for the Somatization Scale, (70%) respondents said that they sometimes or always have trouble breathing with an equal number saying that they have heart and chest pains.

    Finally, for the Coping questions, 82% of the respondents indicated that they sometimes or always took active measures to resist the building of the Israeli Separation Wall followed by 81% that stated that they sometimes or always feel helpless to destruction of private and/or community property in their village. The lowest percentage on the Coping Scale is 16% where respondents indicated that they sometimes or always wanted to leave their village.

    To read the full report click here.

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