Three-year-old Ramzy Qasyieh follows his mother around their property in the Makhrour valley near the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Together they sift through their possessions, sprawled about in the open air, to show little Ramzy that his toys and clothes are just fine.
In late August, Israeli forces demolished the Qasyieh family home and adjoining restaurant.
“We told him it was an airplane crash,” his mother Michelle said to me. “But he is smart. He’s already asking questions like, ‘Where are the pieces of the plane?’”
The questions of a three-year-old can be challenging to answer for any parent. But parenting in Palestine comes with its own set of obstacles that extend far beyond answering tough questions. The Qasyiehs live in Area C of the West Bank, where Israeli authorities rarely approve any form of Palestinian construction forcing many to build or re-build under constant threat of home and business demolition.
From 2006 to 2019, Israel demolished nearly 1,500 Palestinian homes in the West Bank, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. The practice has skyrocketed in Jerusalem over the last year, leaving around a third of the city’s Palestinian population venerable to demolition. Palestinians often cite demolitions as a violation of the Geneva convention.
Daily realities of occupation – checkpoints, demolitions, arrests, killings – cause a great deal of psycho-social suffering that tugs at the seams holding individuals and families together.
“There is a lot of loss in the Palestinian experience,” Dr. Samah Jabr, head of the mental health unit in the Ministry of Health, told Mondoweiss. The loss of homes, of loved ones, of entire geographical locations which affect parenting and normal authoritative roles, Jabr said.
Realities are sometimes kept secret from children when parents are traumatized or grieving. “They feel like they want to protect their children from knowledge, [so] they might keep their own trauma for themselves,” explained Jabr. “But it will be felt heavily. The secret is not healthy for the family system.”
The opposite is equally as detrimental, Jabr said, who hears a wide spectrum of stories come into her office through people seeking help. Trauma can be passed on to younger generations through an openly grieving or psychologically absent parent, for example. This can translate into physical symptoms.
Jabr describes a young patient who had panic attacks. “But when you listen to the story of the family you understand that the father who came out of prison after 15 years of absence, she perceives him as a strange man. He is screaming in his sleep, he is traumatized and she is afraid and breathless.”
This is why when providing psychological programs for children, proper care should also be given to parents. “Caring for the wellbeing of the parents is essential to [taking] care of younger children,” Jabr said.
‘I am afraid for my children because of the occupation’
Boshra Jabr (no relation to Samah Jabr) is a 30-year-old mother of five. She is raising her young children – three boys and two girls – in the only urban environment in the West Bank under full Israeli security and civil control, H2 inside of Hebron. The area is a tense flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians. The neighborhood is home to 35,000 Palestinians, 500 settlers and access in and around is controlled by army checkpoints and around 2,000 soldiers.
Jabr has chronic migraines and joint pain which she said is caused by raising a family under such harsh conditions. Her husband lives and works in Tel Aviv six days out of the week, leaving her alone to care for their small children.
“[When] my head hurts, I feel like I want to kick them out,” Jabr said exhaustedly. “They must go outside and play. But I am afraid for my children because of the occupation.”
Jabr added the lack of green or open spaces also contributes to the degradation of her and her children’s well-being. “The children here are angry because there is no outlet, there is no place to play.”
“Of course there is a very big negative impact on the children,” explained Zleikha Muhtaseb, 57, who runs a women’s support and cooking group as well as kindergarten in Hebron’s Old City, also located in H2.
Muhtaseb has observed aggressive behavior in the children she looks after, which she attributes to their everyday exposure to violence, including harassment from setters during walks to and from school.
“Sometimes I hear from women in the support group that their children wet their beds, or they can’t concentrate in the school,” Muhtaseb described. Almost always, after speaking seriously with the child, “we discover that they have experienced an incident with the soldiers or with the settlers. Or sometimes they hear stories from their friends so they are scared.”
Muhtaseb’s women support group, in partnership with the local YMCA, focuses on psycho-social development and offers tools to help parents support mental health at home. When more traumatic experiences occur – like the arrest or detention of a child- parents often turn to more in-depth help.
According to Defense for Children International, 500-700 Palestinian children are, “arrested, detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system each year.” The United Nations has further reported over 400 cases of abuses and torture during the arrest, interrogation and detention of Palestinian children over the last decade.
“[Children] have high resistance against counseling. It’s not easy to express feelings or to say what exactly happened to them,” Khawla Azraq, director of the Psycho-Social Counseling Center for Women (PSCCW), told Mondoweiss.
In 2018, PSCCW worked with a group of 50 teenagers from Hebron who were in Israeli prisons. “The torture affected their personality and self-esteem and they can’t trust anyone. They can’t build trust with others,” Azraq continued. “All the time they are afraid to return back to prison.”
At the same time, traumatic encounters with the military prison system often led to children being regarded as social heroes, said Jabr, from the ministry of health. This changes the child’s status in the home, affecting the parents’ authority.
“The experience of arresting minors is an experience that weakens the parenting of both the mother and the father because they feel guilty about what happened to their child,” Jabr said, noting when children are arrested, it is often at night while they are sleeping in their bed and Israeli soldiers aggressively force them out of the home as the parents standing idly by unable to intervene.
“If kids throw a stone, soldiers will come knocking on the door of the kid’s house in the middle of the night to arrest him,” Boshra Jabr echoed.
“Life is terrible in this area,” she expressed tiredly. “I want to go live in the mountain. I am tired of this, the occupation.”