Israeli violence is central to Palestine’s mental health crisis
Last May, Israel launched a 15-day assault on the Gaza Strip, killing 256 Palestinians, injuring 2,000, and bombing 232 high-rise buildings, forcing over 70,000 to flee their homes. Since then, Israeli violence against Palestinians has not relented. Continuous deterioration in infrastructure due to a blockade by Israel, in place since 2007, has rendered 97 per cent of Gaza’s water undrinkable. Palestinians in Gaza get 12 to 13 hours a day of electricity. 53 per cent of Gazans live under the poverty line. Meanwhile, Israel presses forward with plans to dispossess Palestinians of their homes and land across colonised Palestine, including in the Jordan Valley, Beita, Jerusalem, Masafer Yatta, and the Naqab. Israeli settlers in the West Bank are attacking Palestinians with increasing intensity, with the complete complicity of the Israeli state.
It is, unfortunately, not a surprise to see a raging mental health crisis among Palestinians. Many Palestinians are constantly plagued with fears of violence. Mohammed, a 23-year-old from the Gaza Strip, reports being preoccupied with thoughts about war instead of a bright future, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which provides a range of medical and psychological services to Palestinians. Adel, a resident of a village that has been frequently targeted by settler attacks against Palestinians, told MSF: “We live in a state of constant fear. Everyone feels stressed for himself, for his brothers, for his children and friends.”
These stories are representative of a wider pattern. After the May 2021 Israeli attacks on Palestine, a World Bank team conducted a Facebook-based survey, in which they found that “70 per cent of Gazans and 57 per cent of West Bank residents surveyed reported symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder”.
Most organisations working in the mental health space respond by providing individual psychological services to reach an ever-increasing number of people who exhibit symptoms of mental ill-health and seek help for them. The undue focus on this model of care is rooted in healthcare paradigms from the Global North, which neglect the environments that determine people’s health and wellbeing, instead, placing an exaggerated focus on individualistic and over-medicalised services that deal with what are perceived to be diseased minds. This individualised model of care is incapable of diagnosing or treating the mental health crisis in Palestine.
The basic idea of a “disease” is that of an individual experiencing disruption to their lives due to something that affects them personally. But a Palestinian experiencing stress, lack of hope, or persistent negative thoughts in response to a settler colony aiming to erase them is not necessarily a sign of disease. As Dr. Samah Jabr, chair of the mental health unit at the Palestinian Ministry of Health points out, many symptoms of mental ill-health “are a normal reaction to a pathogenic context”. Colonial violence – killing, maiming, incarcerating, and dispossessing Palestinians – is the disease.