As Israeli tanks gear up to roll over Palestinian land in the Gaza strip in the wake of Hamas’ uprising against Israel, the world’s attention is riveted on the fear of a wider regional war, international diplomacy, and the power tussle of major political players. When retribution is hailed as the righteous remedy, approved by the high streets of Brussels and Washington DC, we are doomed to wait for deadly horrors.
When politicians, extremists, and their narratives run the show, why would one be bothered about human stories? The stories of deprivation, grief, and entire families being wiped out in a blaze of airstrikes often go unheard. The stories of the women of Palestine not being able to feed themselves and their families and the stories of traumas, of the harm this conflict is inflicting on the mental well-being of over 2 million Gazans are never acknowledged. All these human aspects of the conflict are lost in the abyss of realpolitik, warmongering, and a politics based on genocide.
The invisible suffering of Palestinian women
While every Palestinian has become a pawn in the current political battle, it is the women of occupied zones that have seen the most brutal reality of the occupation of Palestine and possess the most frightening scars of this deadly conflict. Living amid a daily fear of being killed, sexually abused or losing their children, Palestinian women are also highly vulnerable to severe mental illnesses that is often invisible amid the noise of political unrest. While media coverage about the conflict has sharply focused on polarising narratives dominated by men, women live the daily horrific realities, bearing the terrible consequences of shelling, raids and invasion.
Palestinian women who have faced discrimination and trauma due to their gender roles, are often subject to systemic exploitation and violence within an occupied society. For decades, Gazans have faced the daily reality of violence and surveillance under Israeli occupation. Well before the recent escalations, human rights groups and medical advocates have expressed deep concern over the abhorrent conditions for the mental health of Palestinian civilians, among whom women and children are most vulnerable. These reports emphasise that regular Israeli raids have been nothing less than a psychological terror those living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Such psychological warfare has been highlighted in a report by Israeli human rights organisations, A Life Exposed, which in 2020 described huge behavioural ramifications for civilians with rampant mental illnesses in the occupied territories. Palestinian people’s mental health traumas often go unreported and undiagnosed, due to the stigma attached to them. Women and children are the primary victims of the horrifying reality.
The report also considers Israeli raids on Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank as the biggest catalyst for this mental health disaster. While done under the umbrella of maintaining Israeli “security,” the report goes on to say that Israeli raids are in effect a tool for ‘creating deterrence and intimidation to increase military control over the population.” The people of these territories have long lived in constant fear and in a state of trauma. Unable to sleep under constant bombing, sirens, and threats of a ground invasion even though many have nowhere to go to escape, children, women and people who are severely ill are further traumatised and live in a more permanent state of fear, causing anxiety, isolation and a range of disorders.
The perils of statelessness haunts Palestinians day and night. The people of Palestine have been systematically denied statehood, equal citizenship, fair opportunities, and universal rights, causing not only political unrest but a dire health (and mental health) crisis. Fresh waves of turmoil and attacks are bolstering fresh cases of trauma, which was already at high levels in Palestinian territories. For example, the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among children living in the occupied West Bank ranged from 34.1 percent to 50.4 percent, significantly higher than the world average of 6.8 percent to 12.2 percent.
Siege of Palestinian territories: life under israeli occupation
Israel’s unlawful occupation of Palestinian territories has not left any aspect of Palestinian lives untouched. The occupation systematically discriminates against Arabs, arbitrarily determining accessibility, limiting services, imposing bans on movement, and even placing impositions on whom they can marry and forcing them to leave their households. Israeli authorities, as per UNOCHA, demolished at least 8,413 Palestinian houses between 2009 and 2022, making 12,491 people homeless refugees. Human rights groups have accused Israel of practicing racially discriminatory policies that are considered a de facto apartheid. According to Amnesty International, Israel has committed ‘crimes against humanity, a rule of apartheid in effect and systemic persecution of Palestinians.’
Human Rights Watch describes in detail the criminal behaviour of Israeli settlers that ranges from seizing Palestinian land with coercion to the horrific killings of Arab citizens. Illegal detention, torture and the denial of Universal rights or any recognition to Palestinians make up a sad reality of a ‘liberal’ international order which boasts of democratic values and universal values. These conditions are nothing more than a naked play of brute power.
No country for Palestinians
The roots for this crisis lie in a dark colonial legacy as promise of an independent Palestinian state was hung between the ugly geopolitics and naked interests of the Imperial powers such as Britain, United States and France. Israeli-Palestinian conflict saw a watershed moment in the year of 1948 when in a bloodshed Zionist settlers wreaked havoc on 530 Palestinian villages, killing 15,000 Palestinians, and leading to exodus of three-quarters of a million to become refugees for a lifetime.
An open abuse of state power, as gruesome as it may sound, is often unheeded in the power corridors of geopolitics which are often determined on one’s status in world stage. ‘Rules based international order’ has all but given its consent and turned its eyes away from this plight. Though the plight of the Palestinians does not seem to end, even in the foreseeable future, Palestinian struggle for an independent state and freedom from occupation continues.
The tactics of psychological warfare long used by Israel are designed to undermine the morale of Palestinian resistance to an occupation regime, inflicting lasting damage on both individuals and communities. Such tactics are violations of international laws such as United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as sudden, forced intrusion into the victims’ private space with a higher scope for physical assaults. Here arises another major question: How can we move forward with efforts to help and support the affected civilian population in Gaza when it is actively being shelled? Former Oxfam spokesman Karl Schembri once rightly said ‘How can you talk about post-traumatic stress interventions in Gaza when people are still in a constant state of trauma?‘
We need a politics of mental health in Palestine which will rise in opposition to the weaponisation of psychological trauma against innocent civilians. This warfare based on fear intends to mentally subjugate the people in occupied zones.
Now, the Israeli army is about to unleash even further devastation and potentially bomb Gaza in a way that will spill many more streams of blood. Many are fearful that this fresh wave of disturbances will cause immense loss of life in Gaza and will ensue in a prolonged human suffering.
We need a politics of healing, of emotional rehabilitation. In the place of the en vogue politics of rage, we desperately need a new political outlook based on rehabilitation, recognition of peoples seeking a homeland in a shared holy land, equal rights and justice, and redressal of long festering wounds. We need a ceasefire of the current war in Gaza. But that is only the beginning of what is needed to repair the physical and psychological wounds of decades of occupation.