Mental health under occupation: When can Palestinians heal? | Opinions

For my colleague Mariam*, every morning is a prayer. After leaving her children at school in a suburb near Nablus, she hopes that nothing will hinder her way back to them when her work day ends.

“We live in an open-air prison, wherever we are, we never feel safe. We have no sense of freedom. We can’t go from one place to another without having this fear … the checkpoints, the soldiers. Even if you don’t see them on the way, you are always afraid that a settler will attack. I am always afraid for the safety of my family, that they would be hurt, or harmed in any way. It’s that constant fear, anxiety that you feel,” she told me recently upon arriving at work one morning.

Parents like Mariam live in constant fear because children are not spared in the occupation violence Palestinians face on a daily basis. The traumatic experience of another colleague, Mohammed*, also illustrates this point.

Last spring, Ali*, his 12-year-old son, was on his way to school in East Jerusalem when Israeli soldiers standing by the road asked him to stop and show his Palestinian ID. He asked why he had to do that since this was not a checkpoint and explained that he would be late for school.

One of the Israeli soldiers physically immobilised him, hurting him in the crotch. The child had the reflex to push the Israeli soldier away in response to the sudden acute pain. Ali was detained and put under house arrest for one week. His parents suddenly and forcibly became both caretakers and “law enforcers”, which profoundly affected family dynamics.

In East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians have not known “normal” in decades. The psychological effects of the occupation and of the relentless oppression reverberate through all aspects of Palestinian life.

From the control of access to water and food, to home demolitions, checkpoints, and dreadful arbitrary arrests, children, women, and men have been living under constant angst and fear of possible threats.

For Palestinians, humiliation at the hands of occupation forces is a daily brutality that has to be endured silently to avoid further violent escalation. This is having a particularly grave impact on men, fathers and young adolescents, who feel disempowered.

In the face of oppression, Palestinians have their humanity and experience constantly denied. The inflicted fear and helplessness from early childhood affect core beliefs and behaviours. Children learn that the world is not a safe place to be themselves, that they are constantly under threat for simply being who they are. This worldview forced on Palestinians shatters dreams and kills hope.

Furthermore, occupation violence – whether it is the targeting of children as the capital of Palestinian society or the burning of olive trees as the livelihood and symbol of Palestinian attachment to their land – produces trauma that is passed on from generation to generation.

This inevitably affects the Palestinian social fabric – within communities and even within families. It alters the ways people relate to one another, erodes trust and produces tension.

Many Palestinians describe life under occupation as constantly feeling “makhnouqeen” or “suffocating”; the past almost nine months have been even worse than that.

The current war on Gaza is shifting the goalposts of sheer, utter violence and terror. More than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 15,000 children, and more than 84,000 injured.

Behind these numbers are stories of unfathomable pain and loss. Mothers delivering babies under the dreadful sound of bombardments, children bearing the excruciating pain of amputations without anaesthesia, and health workers risking their own lives to treat patients in a collapsed medical system hanging by the last threads of Palestinians’ humbling perseverance. Generations of memories are buried under the rubble along with the bodies of loved ones that could not be taken out and given proper burial. Knowledge and learning accumulated over centuries is wiped out in burned-down universities, schools, libraries, and archives.

The West Bank and East Jerusalem are also witnessing unprecedented violence. Casualties are increasing at a frightening rate. Between October 7 and June 24, 536 Palestinians, including 130 children, have been killed and 5,370 injured. Daily arrests and arbitrary detentions have risen dramatically, including those of children who are often prosecuted in military court.

Military raids of homes have intensified, shattering sleep for families, terrorising children, and humiliating fathers, who too often, are robbed of their agency to protect their families.

Palestinians are often praised for their remarkable resilience and steadfastness. When faced with the threat of annihilation, they have repeatedly shown tremendous courage and determination. Homes, roads, holy sites, and hospitals may be shattered and destroyed forever, but not their spirit. Palestinians continue to persevere in the face of colossal human suffering.

Yet, the praise of Palestinian steadfastness should not normalise the ever-increasing violence against Palestinians. This must end. No people can or should be made to withstand this level of unprecedented brutality for so long.

Beyond international solidarity, the Palestinian people need concrete political actions that lead to moral and political accountability. The international community must not only stop the war on Gaza, but also put a definite and firm end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

There can be no healing without the acknowledgement of the profound collective and historical trauma inflicted upon the Palestinian people; and there can be no acknowledgement without tangible action and assumed responsibility.

*Names of people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identity out of concern for their safety.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.