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.

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