The psychological and medical consequences of the Palestinian occupation

With the one-year anniversary of the latest (but likely not the last) war in Gaza, all countries–the United States and European Union members in particular–that condone and help extend the occupation of the Palestinian territories, whether by subsidizing it through humanitarian or military aid or by giving political cover to its policies and practices, must confront their responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians.

Stepping out of a car in the West Bank town of Kafr Qaddum, I was greeted by … the Abu Ehab family–whose two-story house is on a slope just below the road we drove in on. Their walls do little to protect them from the exchange of tear gas, burning tires, and hurled rocks. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops frequently move around the Abu Ehab family’s property during nighttime search operations; at times, they enter the house.

The smell comes from “skunk,” the sewage-smelling liquid that the IDF uses to soak Palestinians and foreign protesters who gather weekly on this ashen road. It is so pungent that the family’s eldest son now vomits at the sight of food. The military also uses flashbang grenades to counter the demonstrations. After one detonated too close to the family’s home, the eldest daughter lost hearing in one ear.

“She used to not be able to finish a sentence without crying,” the psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who has been counseling the girl’s mother tells me. “Now, she can talk about her fears without breaking down.”

This is how MSF, as a medical humanitarian organization, measures the progress of those we assist in the occupied Palestinian territories. For the past 15 years, our programs in the West Bank and Gaza have focused mainly on mental health, but my colleagues at times feel like they can only give patients a thicker coat of psychological armor against the daily trauma of their lives. These patients are parents of teenagers being held in Israeli or Palestinian prisons, children with one or both parents in detention, families on the front lines of settler-Palestinian violence or intra-Palestinian violence, and those affected by nighttime IDF search operations or other military actions.

What our staff sees, day in and day out, are the medical consequences of the occupation. But while we can treat some of our patients’ symptoms, we can’t alter the underlying causes of their suffering. And as the suffering has become normalized, we have been questioning the wisdom of our presence. This is the humanitarian’s dilemma: how to alleviate the suffering of a population while not enabling the powers at the root of the pain.

[Jason Cone writing in “Foreign Policy”]

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