Magazine article New Internationalist

Occupation and the Mind

Magazine article New Internationalist

Occupation and the Mind

Article excerpt

Ahmad, a 46-year-old man from Ramallah, was doing well, until his last detention.. But this time he just could not tolerate the long incarceration in a tiny cell, with complete visual and auditory deprivation. First, he lost his orientation to time. Then he became over-attentive to the movement of his gut and started thinking that he was 'artificial inside his body'. Later, he developed paranoid thinking, started hearing voices and seeing people in his isolated cell. Today, Ahmad is out of his detention, but still imprisoned by the idea that everyone is spying on him.

Fatima spent several years doctor-shopping for a combination of severe headaches, stomach-aches, joint pain and various dermatological complaints. There was no evidence of any organic cause. Finally, Fatima showed up at our psychiatric clinic and spoke of how all her symptoms started after she saw the skull of her murdered son, open on the stairs of her house, during the Israeli invasion of her village of Beit Rima on 24 October 2001.

Such are the cases I see in my clinic. The traumatic events of war have always been a major source of psychological damage. In Palestine the kind of war being waged needs to be understood in order to appreciate the psychological impact on this long-occupied population. The war is chronic and continuous, over the lifetime of at least two generations. It pits an ethnically, religiously and culturally foreign state against a stateless civilian population. In addition to daily oppression and exploitation, it involves periodic military operations of usually moderate intensity. These provoke occasional Palestinian factional and individual responses. The vast majority of people are never consulted about such actions. While their opinion does not matter, it is they who must endure preemptive Israeli strikes or collective punishment in retaliation for acts of Palestinian resistance.


Demographic factors complicate the picture. Those living in the occupied territories make up just a third of Palestinians; the rest are scattered around the region in a Diaspora, many in refugee camps. Almost every Palestinian family has experiences of displacement or major painful separation. Even inside Palestine, people are refugees, expelled in 1948 to live in refugee camps. The massive displacement of 70 per cent of the people, and the destruction of over 400 of their villages, are referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba or Catastrophe. This remains a trans-generational psychological trauma, scarring Palestinian collective memory. Very often, you will encounter young Palestinians who introduce themselves as residents of towns and villages their grandparents were evacuated from. These places are frequently no longer on the map, either razed entirely, or now inhabited by Israelis.

Palestinians perceive Israel's war against them as a national genocide, and to resist it they give birth to many children. The fertility rate among Palestinians is 5.8 - the highest in the region. This leads to a very young population (53 per cent under the age of 17) - a vulnerable majority, at a crucial stage of physical and mental development. The geographical enclosure of Palestinians in very small neighbourhoods, with the separation wall and a system of checkpoints, encourages consanguineous marriages, increasing a genetic predisposition to mental illness. Walling off friends and neighbours from each other also has a debilitating effect on the cohesion of Palestinian society.

But it is the violent environment in which they live which most undermines the mental health of Palestinians. Population density, especially in Gaza - with 3,823 persons per square kilometre - is very high. Elevated levels of poverty and unemployment - 67 per cent and 40 per cent respectively - undermine hope and deform personality. The war has left us with a huge community of prisoners and ex-prisoners, estimated at 650,000, or some 20 per cent of the population. …

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