by Ambra Visentin
Seventy-five years have passed since the violent events of 1948, when two thirds of the Palestinian population were driven from their land and homes by Israeli forces. Since then, the violence has not stopped, but has increased on several occasions: a few months ago there were more attacks, including those in Turmus Aya and in Jenin. The strikes on the Jenin refugee camp, an occupied town in the north of the West Bank, claimed the lives of 12 of the 11,000 refugees living there and reopened a major wound in a town that was the scene of one of the worst clashes of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of the 2000s. Operation Home and Garden by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is the largest in 20 years. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has condemned Israel’s ‘excessive use of force’ in the operation which left more than 100 civilians injured, forced thousands to flee, damaged schools and hospitals, and cut water and electricity supplies. He criticised Israel for preventing medical care and aid workers from reaching those in need and reminded Israel that ‘as an occupying power, it has a responsibility to ensure that civilians are protected from all acts of violence.’ Meanwhile, internal protests continue in Israel against the judicial reform, which limits the power of the Supreme Court to rule against the legislature and executive. A moment of national pause, but one that does not lessen the military pressure in the West Bank and Gaza.
More than half of the Palestinian population shows symptoms of depression, according to a recent World Bank study. Dr. Samah Jabr, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and head of the Mental Health Department at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, explains how the trauma inflicted on the population has always been on the political agenda of the occupying power, and warns against the data in the report, highlighting the political significance of pathologising the occupied as a further strategy of elimination.
Dr. Jabr, a World Bank study on Palestinian mental health was recently published. It paints an alarming picture, with 50 per cent of the West Bank population suffering from depression, and as much as 70 per cent in Gaza. What do you think?
‘Like other colonisers and occupiers in the world, Israelis treat the colonised as either barbaric and savage or sick and inferior. One way of making them inferior is to portray them as psychologically inadequate, to pathologise them. That is why we have to be wary of all these reports that pathologise the Palestinian experience and portray Palestinians as having psychological disorders rather than pointing to the real cause of psychological suffering. The study done by the World Bank and the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics says that Palestinians have depression, but in fact Palestinians have immense levels of psychological suffering. The problem with this study is that it does not distinguish between emotional distress and mental disorder on the one hand, and depression as a mental health problem on the other. They used the World Health Organisation’s WHO-5 questionnaire, which indicates that people who score positive on the questionnaire need further assessment. It doesn’t identify people with depression. There is a problem with the interpretation of this survey. A more serious study in 2019 suggests that in countries suffering from political violence, the prevalence of mental health disorders is 22.1 per cent.’
How can we describe the situation?
‘The Western world knows very little about what is happening here, but you probably remember how Daesh, the militancy of the Islamic State, dispossessed and expelled certain minorities from their villages. This is how Palestine was evacuated, in acts similar to what happened when the militants of the Islamic State evicted people from villages in Iraq. This is how towns were expelled in Palestine in 1948, and until today we see Israeli gangsters attacking and terrifying people, so that the traumatic history of Palestine is repeated and there is continuity. That is why I argue that we do not have PTSD in Palestine. We have an ongoing, repetitive, historical, collective trauma that is passed on from one generation to the next, and the Israelis make sure that they traumatise every generation. Most of the victims in Jenin were very young. They were born after the great traumatic event of 2002. The oldest are 21, maybe 23. So they make sure that every generation is exposed to at least one major traumatic event.’
How can therapy help people?
‘Man-made trauma aims to make us helpless and hopeless, and we try to generate hope and maintain our ability to act despite all the difficulties. This is how we survive. We also know that taking care of people psychologically, supporting them and freeing them from the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness caused by traumatic events is also a contribution to the national liberation struggle.’
President Abu Mazen has asked the UN and the international community to intervene urgently to force Israel to stop the evacuation in Jenin. What is the expected reaction?
‘The Palestinians have always experienced that the international community is unable or uninterested in protecting them, including the Palestinian leadership. The inability of the United Nations and the Palestinian leadership to protect the Palestinians creates a void that can be filled by the actions of some young people who are so angry about what is happening. They take on the responsibility to act on behalf of the group and try to do something to liberate Palestine, to force Israel to pay a price for its actions.’
What do you think of the protests in Israel against judicial reform? Do these internal disturbances take pressure off the offensive against the Palestinians?
‘Every time there is a lack of consensus, they attack the Palestinians in order to create more cohesion within the Israeli community.
As for the protests, I think an occupation that looks like a democracy is worse for the Palestinians than an occupation that looks like an autocracy. It annoys me that the international community is more interested in Israel’s internal politics than in what Israel is doing for the Palestinians. It ignores reporting important news about Palestine and how Palestinians are treated by the occupation and shows more interest and focus on the details of Israeli domestic politics.’
Have mental health professionals around the world supported you so far?
‘As I developed my career as a mental health professional, I wanted to believe that mental health professionals would be more sensitive to justice, equality and liberation. This is true, except in Palestine. Mental health institutions were vocal about Ukraine, but when we talked about Palestine they were silent. Every time we talked about Palestine, they reminded us of the principles of neutrality and impartiality. They completely forgot about them when it came to Ukraine. I was at the Global Mental Health Summit, where Olena Zelenska was given the space to open the summit and to talk about her country.
There is this underlying support. Palestinians have a different tan and colour, a different physiology to the global north and they are Muslims and there is also racism and islamophobia which makes support for Palestine less likely. But there are good-hearted people and we have set up networks with international organisations, including the UK-Palestine Mental Health Network and the US-Palestine Mental Health Network, and we are setting up another network in Italy. These are networks of mental health professionals, representing individual mental health professionals, who are trying to educate themselves and others around them about the Palestinian situation and the impact of the occupation on the mental health of Palestinians, and they are trying to challenge the occupiers from a mental health point of view.’
Samah Jabr is a Palestinian psychiatrist, psychotherapist and writer from Jerusalem. Since 2016, she has chaired the Mental Health Department at the Palestinian Ministry of Health and has written columns on the psychological consequences of the Israeli occupation in Palestine since the 2000s. Her publications include the books ‘Beyond the Frontlines: Stories of Resistance and Resilience in Palestine” (in French) and “Sumud. Resistere all’oppressione” (in Italian).
To learn more, read our Israel/Palestine conflict factsheet
Cover image by Abed Rahim Khatib on Shutterstock