Turning Palestinians into the basket cases of the world

The ‘friends of Palestine’ in the West have reduced Palestinians to the status of children, incapable of running their own lives much less an independent state.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

There was a time when something like the Israeli army’s incursions into Gaza would have been slammed by left-wing activists and commentators on the basis that they undermine Palestinians’ democratic rights. Following the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants, Israel has launched air attacks on Gaza’s infrastructure and has prepared a ground force to go over the border; it has also arrested various ministers of the ruling Hamas party. Such military antics would have been slated for making a mockery of Palestinian statehood and for treating Palestinians, not as citizens with rights, but as a mass threat who must be policed.

Likewise, something like the international community’s current sanctions on Palestine, following the election of Hamas in January, would have been attacked as an attempt by powerful nations to punish Palestinians for daring to elect the ‘wrong’ government. In May the US House of Representatives voted 361-37 to stop giving aid to non-governmental organisations that provide assistance in the Palestinian territories; Israel, meanwhile, is withholding Palestinian revenues and tax receipts that amount to around $60million a month. Activists and writers who consider themselves ‘friends of Palestine’ would have described such measures as an affront to the idea of Palestinian self-determination.

Today, however, these interventions are more likely to be challenged on the grounds that they ‘traumatise’ Palestinians. The focus of pro-Palestinian activists seems to be shifting, from campaigning for Palestinians’ democratic rights to campaigning for them to be protected from the psychological harm and post-traumatic stress disorder apparently brought about by Israel’s military actions and international sanctions. Describing the sanctions as an attempt to ‘starve Palestinians’, one left-wing journalist recently claimed that the ‘vulnerable people’ of Gaza are ‘suffering the worst acute mental and physical trauma as a result of Israel’s actions’ (1). Following this week’s air attacks on Gaza, one report accused Israel of ‘heaping further trauma’ on the people of Gaza, where children are already suffering ‘unrelenting nightmares’ (2).

From the media to Palestine solidarity groups to the higher echelons of the World Health Organisation, Palestine is increasingly discussed in therapeutic terms: the debate has moved from being about rights and statehood to focusing on individual wellbeing and mental health. Palestinians are viewed, not so much as a people denied their full national rights, but as a vulnerable community potentially suffering long-term stress and harm as a consequence of the actions of others. They are seen less as citizens who would be more than capable of running their own affairs if given the chance, and more as basket cases, ‘damaged goods’, the vulnerable children of the world who need the help and protection of the UN, NGOs and armies of therapists from the West.

A central tenet of today’s ‘therapy culture’ is the idea that people are emotionally fragile and can easily be traumatised, sometimes for life, by witnessing distressing events. This is now being cut-and-pasted on to the debate about Palestine. And such a view of Palestinian fragility, which is widespread among solidarity campaigners in the West and increasingly informs the work of NGOs on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, is likely to be having a far more detrimental impact on the case for Palestinian freedom than the occasional Israeli incursion into Gaza. After all, how can a damaged people be expected to determine their own destinies? What the Palestinians really need, it seems, is not freedom, but therapy.

No report from the Middle East is complete these days without estimations about the extent of trauma suffered by Palestinians, and especially Palestinian children. In an article headlined ‘The war on children’, veteran left-wing writer John Pilger recently referred to people in Gaza as ‘vulnerable’ and claimed they were suffering ‘acute mental trauma’. He cited the work of Dr Khalid Dahlan, a psychiatrist who runs a children’s community health project in Gaza, who claims that 99.4 per cent of the children he has studied ‘suffer trauma’. Pilger said these children may be damaged for life, and that many have ‘an apocalyptic vision of themselves as the next generation of suicide bombers’ (3).

In the West Bank and Gaza, NGOs and some Palestinian academics devote their energies to uncovering just how traumatised the Palestinian people really are. Rita Giacaman, director of the Community Health Programme at Birzeit University in Ramallah in the West Bank, claims that Israeli actions threaten to give rise to a damaged future generation: ‘The repeated destruction of Palestinian society and history, displacement, and the continued and cumulative exposure, especially for children, to a variety of traumatic events, daily stress and the inability to lead normal daily lives can only negatively influence mental health status and wellbeing.’ (4) A study of the West Bank during the Israeli forces’ occupation, produced by Birzeit University and which again focused on children, found that many young people ‘experienced various symptoms of psychological trauma’. Yet the study seems to have cast a wide net in its search for evidence of psychological trauma – the symptoms can apparently include ‘crying and fears of loneliness, darkness and loud noises…sleep disorders, nervousness, decreased eating and decreased weight, feelings of hopelessness and frustrations, as well as thoughts of death.’ (5)

No doubt life was very unpleasant for many children in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, and it will still be difficult for some of them today, as the security situation remains volatile and Palestine feels the pinch of sanctions. Yet if every child who cries or is scared of the dark and loud noises, or even who is nervous or feels hopeless, was described as being psychologically traumatised, then we might as well say that children everywhere are mentally damaged. Other studies indicate that, in fact, children being children, they are often less affected by war or displacement than adults are. Research has suggested that children under the age of eight are ‘minimally affected [by war] because they do not fully understand what is happening around them’ (6).

Vanessa Pupavac, author of the study ‘Therapeutic Governance: The Politics of Psychosocial Intervention and Trauma Risk Management’ and a researcher in the School of Politics at Nottingham University, points out that the tendency for international trauma practitioners to focus on war’s impact on women and children misses the point that the effects of war are usually far worse for men than for their wives or their kids – especially if families are forced to become refugees, as many Palestinians are, or lose their livelihoods as a result of conflict. ‘[The bias in trauma work] ignores how women and children are usually better able to adapt to life as refugees’, writes Pupavac. ‘Women may maintain purposefulness in their traditional role as primary family carer. Children can escape into play in even the most adverse situations or, in more fortunate circumstances, may become integrated into new communities through schooling. Men, however, may find it harder to adapt if they lose their traditional status as the primary economic provider in the family.’ (7)

The understanding of Palestine in terms of mental harm and emotional damage shows how contemporary prejudices about human fragility, which have their origins in the West, are being projected on to the Middle East. Ask yourself this: why should Palestinians be more likely to be emotionally scarred by the present-day, relatively small-scale Israeli incursions into Gaza or the West Bank than they were by more serious upheavals in the past – such as the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, the Six-Day War of 1967, or the conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the 1970s and 80s, which included the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 during which many Palestinians were massacred and the Palestine Liberation Organisation was expelled? There was little talk of Palestinian women and children needing ‘trauma management’ in the 1940s, the 1960s or the 1980s. It is not that Palestinians face a worse situation today, or that they are mentally weaker than they were in the past; the problem is that their predicament is interpreted and debated through the very contemporary prism of therapy culture, which means they are increasingly seen as damaged goods who require therapeutic intervention rather than as an oppressed group who need liberty and self-determination.

The idea that the Palestinian people, and children in particular, will potentially be scarred for life by their experiences now informs much pro-Palestinian commentary and campaigning. Following the publication of a report which claimed that 89 per cent of respondents in Jenin, 93 per cent in Ramallah and 70 per cent in Nablus reported a ‘variety of mental health problems’ (and again it was a wide net, with the list of mental health problems including having low self-esteem, and so on), one Palestinian academic said that ‘trauma management should become a priority’ in Palestinian territories (8). For some Palestinian-friendly NGOs and campaign groups, it already has. One British charity supports a ‘mobile therapy centre’ in the West Bank, which moves from village to village ‘offering psychological tests and support, play and speech therapy, physiotherapy and drug therapy’ to traumatised children (9).

The Canadian Council for International Cooperation sponsors ‘play-therapy projects’ in the West Bank and Gaza. The American Center for Mind-Body Medicine supports trauma counsellors in Gaza, who treat children with ‘emotional and behavioural disorders, anxiety, depression and PTSD’. Its aim, it says, is to ‘bring our scientifically-validated model of self-care to Palestinians in an attempt to help them relieve some of their suffering and alleviate their trauma’ (10). Who needs self-determination when you have ‘self-care’? Many NGOs focus not only on bringing aid, such as food and shelter, to Palestinians, but also theories about their mental wellbeing and solutions for how to improve their self-esteem. Other groups offering trauma counselling to Palestinians include the Palestinian Women’s Empowerment Group, the Trauma Counselling Project and the Empowerment of Survivors of Human Rights Violations. Meanwhile, Palestine solidarity supporters talk about the ‘unending psychological trauma’ for Palestinians (11).

All of this chimes well with the attitudes of the World Health Organisation to Palestinians’ problems. A WHO spokesperson has said that Palestinian children ‘might not be able to ever forget [their traumas]. Any minor trigger can set off the whole mental experience again. They relive their previous traumatic experience as though of the original magnitude.’ The solution, says WHO, is for more health campaigns that seek to ‘improve Palestinians’ self-esteem’ and their ability to self-manage their emotions (12).

Even the Psychiatric Times, describing itself as ‘the most widely read publication in the field of psychiatry’, now publishes articles about the ‘national trauma’ of Palestine (13). So now, it seems, an entire nation can be traumatised, not just the individuals who live in it. People used to talk about the national oppression of the Palestinians; now they talk about the national trauma of the Palestinians. The growth of trauma counselling in the West Bank and Gaza is not likely to help Palestinians very much. Indeed, such counselling can make things worse rather than better, by convincing people that they are fragile and powerless and that the things they witnessed will probably live with them forever (perhaps continually coming back to haunt them with all of the ‘original magnitude’, in the words of WHO). As Simon Wessely, professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, has argued on spiked, studies show that individuals who receive such counselling after an accident or some other trauma can actually have an ‘increased rate of later psychological problems’ (14).

The ‘friends of Palestine’ in the West once offered Palestinians solidarity – now they give them pity. They once said the Palestinian people should be freed from tyranny and occupation – now they say individual Palestinians need therapy and counselling. They have moved from talking about the national rights of Palestinians to talking about their individual emotional needs. Here, we can glimpse the demise of old ideas about national liberation and sovereignty and the rise of contemporary prejudices about human fragility and trauma, which have resulted in a patronising view of Palestinians as needing the West’s continual therapeutic assistance rather than their own independent and grown-up democratic state.

What we might call the psychologisation of Palestine is a logical consequence of international campaigning over the past few years. Palestinians have been redefined as the poor little basket cases of international affairs. Almost everyone is a ‘friend of Palestine’ these days: in the West, numerous commentators, student groups, playwrights and left-wing activists have adopted Palestinians as cuddly little victims whom they can coo over and empathise with. ‘Palestine’ has become a kind of blank slate on to which you can project your own angst and anger. This is a kind of empathy the Palestinians can well do without. The end result of such degraded international patronage is that Palestinians are seen – and no doubt increasingly see themselves – as fragile creatures who require better-minded and more secure individuals to look after them. That is why so much of the discussion of Palestine focuses on its children. They are seen as the archetypal Palestinian: innocent, wide-eyed, confused and in need of some mothering and direction.

The transformation of Palestinians into children and Palestine into a ‘national trauma’ undermines every old argument for Palestinian liberation. Indeed, it now seems to be widely believed that Palestinians are incapable of self-determination: if they cannot even conduct their own personal lives without the help of a network of trauma counsellors and NGOs, how can we trust them to run an independent nation? In such circumstances, it may not be surprising that some Palestinians resort to suicide bombings: if they are continually told that they’re damaged and may never recover, and encouraged to define themselves as ‘hopeless’, then turning themselves into human bombs as an expression of fury and angst against Israel makes some kind of perverse sense. In a situation where Palestinians have been transformed from political citizens into lost children, suicide bombings can be seen as the military equivalent of a temper tantrum.

Israel only ever occupied Palestinian territory; today’s army of pro-Palestinian empathisers and counsellors look set to occupy Palestinian minds, too, in an effort to ‘manage’ their traumas and develop their emotions. With ‘friends’ like these, Palestinians don’t need any more enemies.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) The war on children, John Pilger, New Statesman, 19 June 2006

(2) The war on children, John Pilger, New Statesman, 19 June 2006

(3) The war on children, John Pilger, New Statesman, 19 June 2006

(4) Redefining collateral damage, Al-Ahram Weekly, 23 October 2003

(5) Redefining collateral damage, Al-Ahram Weekly, 23 October 2003

(6) See Scared or scarred for life?, by Chris Gilligan

(7) Therapeutic Governance: The Politics of Psychosocial Intervention and Trauma Risk Management, Vanessa Pupavac

(8) Redefining collateral damage, Al-Ahram Weekly, 23 October 2003

(9) Help on the move, SOS Children’s Villages, UK

(10) Professional training to heal trauma in Gaza, American Center for Mind-Body Medicine

(11) See The non-debate over suicide bombing, Arab Media Watch, January 2004

(12) Redefining collateral damage, Al-Ahram Weekly, 23 October 2003

(13) National trauma, Psychiatric Times, October 2003

(14) The bombs made enough victims – let’s not make any more, by Simon Wessely

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Topics Politics


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