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The rise of psychological trauma in occupied Palestine

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On the morning of Monday 23rd November, Israeli forces raided Aida refugee camp and a children’s community centre and established a military outpost on the roof of an adjacent building. Once the military post was established, the soldiers also erected an Israeli flag, and didn’t vacate the rooftop until Tuesday in the early hours of the morning.

Inevitable clashes ensued Monday afternoon, and Palestinian youths who threw stones were met with a bombardment of tear gas, flash grenades, rubber bullets and according to local residents live ammunition. Local news agency Ma’an reported that a family of 18 suffered from excessive tear gas inhalation and a young male was hit with a rubber bullet.

Salah Ajarma, director of the Lajee center, spoke to Mondoweiss about the events. “They entered into the camp at 5:30am, then they bombed the door of the building next door”, he said, “We went up to the roof and they told us to go down, we said we didn’t want to because it is our home… an Israeli soldier told me “we can do what we want”.”

“So we stayed here until 3pm, and told the children not to come because it was dangerous. Everyday now you see a child hurt or killed – just now a 14-year-old boy was arrested outside in the street. Doing these things scares all the people, so they [the Israeli military] decide to do it”, he added.

The move to erect an Israeli flag in such an area hardly conforms to Israel’s usual claims of self-defense, and appears to be a direct and taunting provocation to the residents of the camp. On October 29th, less than a month prior, Israeli forces entered into Aida via a military jeep and issued disturbing messages through a loudspeaker in Arabic, threatening “we’re going to gas you until you die”.

Both incidents are extremely disconcerting, as it seems there is a lack of a clear motive other than to collectively punish, terrorize and exert psychological pressure on the Palestinian populace.

Shatha Alazzah, the director of the Environment Unit of the Lajee Center, was also present when the soldiers occupied both buildings on Monday.

“When I came to open the center there were more than 25 soldiers occupying the building”, she recounted, “the soldiers didn’t say anything, they just pointed their guns and stared at me. When I saw the flag I thought it means they will spend a long time in this place”.

Shatha spoke of how Lajee is now running a trauma workshop for children, to combat mental health issues. “First of all this is so bad for the body, there are bad health implications”, she said, “Inhaling tear gas inhaling may have long-term effects, and the same for the sewage and water. These are the physical effects, but then the psychological effects are so bad not just for the children but also for all the people here. Because when you are scared, everyday, it will affect your wellbeing”.

An increase of mental health patients

Considering events such as that which occurred on Monday, alongside raids of hospitals and schools and an increasingly heavy military presence, it is unsurprising that cases of psychological trauma in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) seem to have risen since the recent outbreak of violence.

MSF released a statement revealing that the number of patients struggling with mental health issues has increased fivefold in Hebron, which has been bearing the brunt of violence in the West Bank, and where it has been reported that schools are also having to provide psychological first aid for students.

“Under the current circumstances our patients are suffering from fear, anxiety, psychosomatic complaints, anger, frustration, and hopelessness. Children often suffer from bed-wetting; they are scared to leave their home and to go to school, they lack the energy to study and cannot concentrate,” explains Marcos Matias Moyano, MSF psychologist in Hebron.

“Many adults are facing sleeping and eating problems, crying, fear and despair. Although this is a protracted conflict, the level of acute stress we have seen among our patients in the past weeks is concerning. It will have a serious impact on people’s ability to cope,” he added.

However, it seems that it’s not just Israel’s military actions that are contributing to this worrying trend, but the lack of accountability for settlers whose violent attacks are rarely prosecuted and seem to operate in an environment of impunity. A report from Médecins du Monde France released last month assessed the psychological damage to 72 direct and indirect victims of the Duma arson, where a Palestinian family was burned alive inside their home. Their findings showed that 82% of the beneficiaries are at severe risk of developing PTSD, and 45% are unable to carry out daily activities such as cleaning and cooking.

Chronic conditions of instability

Souha Shehadeh, a child psychiatrist who works for the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation (BASR), spoke to Mondoweiss to explain why psychological wounds take so long to heal in Palestine. “Here we are not in a situation where there is a war and everything returns back to normal”, she explained, “instead we have a chronic situation where from time to time there are explosions [of violence] and acute things happen, and then it comes down again, with things being relatively stable, albeit with the threat that things could explode again.”

Whilst the referral of mental health patients seems to have increased since the outbreak of the so-called ‘Third Intifada’, structural conditions that foster psychological fragility have been in place for years in the oPt, which has been under occupation since the 1960’s.

A recent report released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reveals there are currently over 11,000 ‘outstanding’ demolition orders against Palestinian-owned structures in Area C. However, from 1988 through to the end of 2014, of all of the demolition orders issued by Israel only 19.9% were carried out. Thus, home demolitions seem to be not only harnessed as a physical punishment and punitive deterrent, but the threat of a demolition order provides extensive psychological torment for the inhabitants, who live in constant dread that they will wake to an unannounced bulldozer on their doorstop every morning.

The application of administrative detention, where anyone can be arrested and detained without charge, is a method exploited especially to target children. Ayed Abu Eqtaish from Defence for Children International (DCI), told Mondoweiss about the treatment of Palestinian children in custody, stating, “Israel has moved from using physical methods of torture to psychological methods of torture… because they discovered using psychological torture is more efficient for extracting information.”

Night raids too, are a constant source of anxiety. Two videos released by Israeli rights-based organisation B’tselem in March this year, revealed harrowing scenes of fully armed Israeli soldiers holding rifles, invading a Palestinian home unannounced when the families were asleep, and raiding children’s bedrooms, with one child as young as four. According to DCI – Palestine, over half of Palestinian children detained were arrested in the middle of the night.

Thus, it appears that certain Israeli policies directly foster conditions in the oPt that make Palestinians particularly susceptible to mental health problems. The recent spate of violence has revealed burgeoning examples of the Israeli military flouting international standards, especially regarding what appear to be extra judicial executions, which prompted Amnesty International to claim that Israeli forces have “ripped up the rulebook and resorted to extreme and unlawful measures”.

Therefore, the repeated occurrence of unnecessary incidents such as those which occurred in Aida on Monday, raise grave concerns for the mental stability and wellbeing of Palestinians across the oPt, who have been suffering under an increasingly volatile and inequitable military occupation for almost half a century.

Megan Hanna

Megan Hanna is an independent freelance journalist and photographer, based in the occupied Palestinian territories. You can follow Megan on twitter via @Megan_Hanna_.

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14 Responses

  1. Citizen on November 30, 2015, 12:04 pm

    On Twitter, there’s always an immediate response to this type of criticism: a righteous declaration that nothing justifies thug Palestinians knifing innocent Jews going about their daily business. Any attempt at responding with context, such as the fifty years of belligerent occupation and land-grabbing is met with the same response & often a claim that Israel has a right to defend itself against thousands of haphazard Hamas rockets.

    • diasp0ra on November 30, 2015, 1:17 pm

      I wonder if we started responding that Palestinians have a right to defend themselves to those tweets how that would go down.

      It worked when Israel bombed hundreds of children to death.

  2. Ossinev on November 30, 2015, 3:53 pm

    Yup. They really did learn and are putting into practice the basic tactics of you know who.”Never again” unless we are the ones who are doing it.


  3. xanadou on November 30, 2015, 5:44 pm

    During WW2, in Warsaw, Poland, the few family members who had survived the war, most of whom had fought in the Resistance, passed on stories of children being taught at home, in small groups by teachers and tutors. This reduced the need of exposing them to a fair amount of the horror. I have passed on this idea on to Palestinan bloggers. Free Palestine needs those kids to be educated to carry on in a free country.

    Also, I don’t remember stories about the Nazis obsessing with children. If I’m wrong, correct me. With real, not fraudulent sources.

    • Susan A on December 1, 2015, 3:18 pm

      xanadou: Children were also educated at home during the second intifada when universities and schools were closed y the occupation.

      • xanadou on December 1, 2015, 6:40 pm

        Thanks, Susan.

        That is so good to know. Awesome! Perhaps expanding this option into a somewhat permanent basis, at least in the areas where the savagery is at its most intense, might be the way to go. Otherwise Free Palestine will find itself seriously hobbled.

    • DavidDaoud on December 2, 2015, 1:05 pm

      Xanadou, I was in Nablus during the 2nd Intifada, until end of June 2003. At times public schools were closed by the Israeli army during the major invasion of the West Bank in April of 2002. Under those circumstances, university students whom I knew conducted classes for younger children. They used space above my favorite bakery.

      This same bakery, run by a gentle young Palestinian man by the name of Thamer was broken into in the middle of the night by the IDF. Thamer was awakened from a sound sleep, terrified of course. The soldiers shot up the place including all the bags of flour and I saw the resulting mess the next day. Thamer was roughed up, but fortunately he was not shot. Right there is an example of an incident that would be so disturbing as to cause PTSD.

  4. JLewisDickerson on November 30, 2015, 10:20 pm

    RE: “Night raids too, are a constant source of anxiety. Two videos released by Israeli rights-based organisation B’tselem in March this year, revealed harrowing scenes of fully armed Israeli soldiers holding rifles, invading a Palestinian home unannounced when the families were asleep, and raiding children’s bedrooms, with one child as young as four.” ~ Megan Hanna

    Night search of Sameeh and Mai D’ana’s home, Hebron, 24 February 2015

    Night search of Nayef and Dalal D’ana’s home, Hebron, 24 February 2015

    • DavidDaoud on December 2, 2015, 1:08 pm

      The Israeli army makes a habit of coming in the middle of the night, 2 or 3am when people are sleeping and most vulnerable.

  5. gingershot on November 30, 2015, 10:21 pm

    Israelis are subjecting Palestinian children as a whole to ‘Complex Trauma’ generation by the 100s of thousands – Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), also known as Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD)[1] or ‘Complex Trauma’

    Coming soon to a DSM near you…

    I wrote and blogged about this intensively during Protective Edge with good effect – this is the coming cutting edge diagnoses of the results of wartime trauma on Palestinian children
    lots of good references

    Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), also known as Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD)[1] or complex trauma,[2] is a proposed diagnostic term for a set of symptoms resulting from prolonged stress of a social and/or interpersonal nature, especially in the context of interpersonal dependence. Subjects displaying traits associated with C-PTSD include victims of chronic maltreatment by caregivers, as well as hostages, prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, and survivors of some religious cults.

    Situations causing the kind of traumatic stress that can lead to C-PTSD-like symptoms include captivity or entrapment (a situation lacking a viable escape route for the victim), as well as psychological manipulation (gaslighting and/or false accusations), which can result in a prolonged sense of helplessness and deformation of one’s identity and sense of self. [3] C-PTSD is distinct from, but similar to, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), somatization disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and borderline personality disorder.[4]

    (Complex Trauma can result from a number of severe and withering psychological developmental stressors besides war, ‘even’ such as longterm emotional battering, severe neglect, alcoholic Parents, Borderline/Other major mental illness parents, etc)

    • gingershot on December 1, 2015, 7:25 am

      Cost of reparations for psychological support of these victims of this still ongoing crime against humanity (and the human mind) of Israeli Apartheid, this Complex Trauma inflicted by Jews/Israelis on generations of Palestinian children, once the continuance of this travesty is actually STOPPED by 1P1V1S? – obviously priceless

      This is an eternal shame. It’s sadomasochism ( which is where the Complex Trauma comes from) having seized for itself free license and cover – and it ends now. 1P1V1S

      Being a Zionist bully is just not cool on SO many developmental levels

  6. Ossinev on December 1, 2015, 11:58 am

    My overwhelming reaction on watching these videos ( excuse the language ) was “cowardly Nazi c***s ). It also gave me a sense of how how terrified , helpless and humiliated Jewish parents in Europe must have felt when the predecessors of Israeli Zionists ” visited “their homes in the middle of the night.


  7. Susan A on December 1, 2015, 3:36 pm

    Not only was it an exercise in intimidation, but, particularly in the first video, a training exercise for newbies as well. Yes, despite the polite ‘goodnight’ at the end of the second video: ugly.

    • xanadou on December 1, 2015, 6:47 pm

      I don’t think it was politeness, but rather a shrewd psycho gimmick intended for the benefit of the soldiers to allow them to think of themselves as the civilised ones, as opposed to their victims. It doesn’t work, if/when one considers the biggest killer of the Israeli soldiers, i.e., suicide.

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