Overview April 2018 | The mental health of Palestinians under occupation
In the month of April 2018 Staat van Beleg could list 807 human rights violations and 220 reports. (see our archive)
Every month we are highlighting another aspect of the occupation of Palestine. This month we will focus on the mental health of Palestinians under occupation.
After the March of Return events in Gaza on the 30th March we read an update of a Palestinian youngster who participated in the march. He surely must have witnessed a lot of violence that day since 19 Palestinians lost their lives and more than 1400 people were injured. He wrote that he could not sleep. Not specifically because of the horrors of that day but because he couldn’t make a choice which funeral he should attend the next day. Let that just sink in for a moment. People in Palestine are becoming practical if it comes to dealing with loss.
When you are part of a reality full of every day horror most people are not even aware they are being traumatized. It is a continued state of being alert and scared. Palestinians not only have to deal with what they are facing every day and what they already have been through but also about what comes next. The most stressful experience is the one of fear in which people know anything terrible can happen at any moment. The knowledge that they can loose a family member any moment, their house can be destroyed or raided any moment or they can be arrested at any given time is an extremely stressful state of being. It is not an unfounded fear and moreover people have to deal with it. There is no way out. Although it seems to the outside world Palestinians have become masters in overcoming their fears and dealing with stress and grief, we have to realize that we are all humans. In fact, Palestinians will never fully heal from the scars of occupation, oppression, violence and wars which they experienced and still are experiencing under tight Israeli control.
Exposure to violence and quality of life under occupation
Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is a British organization which over the last 30 years has been reaching out to Palestinian communities, striving to deliver health and medical care to those worst affected by conflict, occupation and displacement. Chapter 3 from MAP’s report “Health under Occupation 2017” focuses on the mental health of Palestinians. Here you can read how huge the impact is for the Palestinian people to live under occupation and about the effects of trauma’s that are caused by Israeli violence.
“It is clear that the painful experiences of families, including those who have suffered loss or trauma or have had their houses destroyed, as well as the sense of humiliation, lack of security and persistent fear are all integrally linked to the violence of the occupation. There are often long-term feelings of frustration, lack of opportunity and crushed dreams. Indeed, the indirect consequences of the occupation and the restrictions placed on the lives of Palestinians have a huge effect on mental health and amount to much more than simple psychological disturbances.”
Dr Jawad Awwad, Minister of Health, 2016
Israel’s role in the health and welfare of the Palestinian population
Israel is responsible for the health and welfare of the Palestinian population. Israel, as a State Party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), has recognized “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” and committed to take steps to achieve the full realization of this right. As the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, the Government of Israel is obligated to protect and promote this right among the Palestinian population under it’s control in international humanitarian law. However, there are many indications that Israel does not live up to these responsibilities. We could already read about the impact of the daily exposures to violence and the restrictions in movement in the MAP report, but there is much more.
(source: MAP report “Health under Occupation 2017”)
Mourning the death’s
Take for example the right for relatives of mourning the victims that were killed by Israel. Most people in the world take the right of mourning for granted but in Occupied Palestine people sometimes have to wait for month’s and even in some cases for years until bodies of their relatives will be returned by Israel. Israel continues to withhold the bodies of 250 Palestinians who were killed, including 24 bodies of Palestinians who were killed during the First Intifada 30 years ago. Last March the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, approved a law that allows the Israeli police to hold the bodies of Palestinians killed by the police or other security forces until families agree to preconditions on funeral arrangements. Israel is the only country in the world that withholds the bodies of slain people for bargaining purposes or sets conditions on funerals for releasing them to their families. How Palestinian relatives of victims can ever overcome a loss when they can’t say goodbye to their loved ones?
Restrictions on Palestinian leisure
What we often hear from Palestinians under occupation is that they are dreaming of traveling. They feel imprisoned by the occupation and this feeling adds to their already desperate situation they have to deal with every single day. Most of them already stopped dreaming about traveling abroad, but even the dream for Palestinians who live in the West Bank to go to the sea or for people living in Gaza to visit a relative in the West Bank is for many an impossibility. This means that Palestinians must find a way to experience the small pleasures of life within their own limited spaces. But what if those little pleasures are also taken away from them?
Very recently Israeli forces demolished a children’s park near occupied Jerusalem, which is definitely not the first time.
And perhaps you can still remember the Israeli Border Police officer who threw the bike of a Palestinian child into the bushes for playing on a street reserved for settlers in Hebron.
And then there’s also settler intimidation and violence. Often a nice springtime outing was disturbed by settler violence. On the 19th of April at least hundred Israeli settlers under heavy protection of Israeli forces broke into Solomon’s Pools south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem to carry out Talmudic rituals at the site.
For children it is of great importance for their well being and development to play and express themselves freely. For children living a stressful and fearful life under occupation it’s even more important to have a sanctuary where they can be themselves even if it’s just for a little moment. The Palestinian Circus School in Jenin is such a place. It’s there where traumatized and disabled children can regain some trust in others and in themselves. But even the trust these children had put in their circus trainer was taken away by Israel. Mohammed Abu Sakha was seized by Israeli occupation forces on 14 December 2015 at the Zaatara military checkpoint, as he attempted to cross while traveling from his home to his workplace in Bir Zeit. Only twenty month’s later he was being released from his administrative detention. A circus trainer, a clown, allegedly posed a threat to the security of the state… The children of the Circus School were devastated.
Banning a documentary film in Israel on trauma counseling
“Shivering in Gaza” is a Dutch production documenting the work of trauma treatment expert Jan Andreae, who meets with Gaza-based aid workers after the 2014 Israel-Gaza war and helps them to cope with fear, trauma and grief.
The movie was planned to be shown in Tel Aviv, Sderot, Beersheba and Gaza, followed by Q&A with Andreae and the film’s director, Geert Van Kesteren.
Pressure from right-wing activists led two mayors in southern Israel to cancel the screenings of the documentary. This documentary could have made people in Israel to learn more about the tremendous impact of violence and the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian people. Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev later responded on the documentary with the following words : “Whoever wants to slander this country will do it alone. We will not be partners to it, and we will not fund it.”
In this article from Middle East Monitor from September 2017 titled ‘Unlivable: Gaza’s rising suicide rates’ we can learn more about the many suicide cases in Palestine.
Reports of suicide in Gaza have grown increasingly common; whilst there are no official statistics on the issue, health officials in the Gaza Strip say they are aware of 200 to 300 suicides taking place in the past two years. Other data considers that a conservative estimate, with contributors to grassroots NGO We Are Not Numbers (WANN) noting 80 suicides per month in January and February 2016, an increase of 160 per cent compared to previous years. In some neighborhoods, suicides have become a weekly occurrence.
Suicide across the Palestinian territories more generally has been documented in previous years, and whilst not every death has been a result of the socioeconomic situation imposed by the Israeli occupation, it has always compounded other problems present in society.
In an environment where people are seven days a week, 24 hours a day under pressure mental support is highly necessary. We must realize that people who are under a lot of stress themselves are not really in the position to give the needed mental support to each other and to their children. When your house is demolished, you are living in poverty and you can hardly provide in food and education for your children, mental support will be something of less priority. The question is whether people can afford and reach professional mental support and more important whether there are sufficient services. In a study from 2016 by The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) we can find some answers. The outcome in summary: mental disorders in Palestine remain under-reported, under-resourced, under-treated, and mental health services underfunded. These services are unable to meet the burden of need. There is a severe lack of human and infrastructure resources. For example, the total number of psychiatrists is only 20 in the West Bank. Each community mental health center or clinic employs mostly one psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker in addition to one not well-trained or specialized mental health nurse. The total number of nurses who work in community mental health workplaces in the West Bank is only 17 on a total population of nearly three million Palestinians.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) provides psychosocial support to children and training for teachers through its Better Learning Programme (BLP), developed in partnership with University of Tromsø in Norway. Part of the programme involves screening schoolchildren for nightmares, which are one of the most pertinent signs of psychological deterioration. The activities include training children to do breathing exercises and drawing their dreams. In a recent report it is mentioned that six out of ten children in Gaza surveyed experiencing traumatic nightmares. “The continuous violence children witness in Gaza is disastrous for their mental well-being. A girl of 11 years has lived her whole life under blockade or siege, and seen three wars with massive loss of life and housing,” said NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland. “Now children are again faced with the horrifying prospect of losing family and friends, as many are killed and injured every week.”
We would like to end with commemorating the death of a young Palestinian boy. During the March of Return event in the Gazastrook on the 20th April the 14-year-old Palestinian child Mohammad Ayyoub was killed by a bullet in his head from an Israeli sniper. The reaction of the father while he mourned his son’s death captures all the grief and trauma of Palestinians. He told him: “Forgive me, my son, because for the last month of your life I could not provide food for you.”