The changing meanings of the Israeli occupation to different generations of Palestinians, by Hanan Abubasheer
The author’s and the editorial board’s idea in publishing this article here is not to normalize the occupation, apartheid or colonial relations. Our idea, rather, is to strengthen the movement of joint resistance that seeks full equality for all.
Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, neither Palestine nor the occupation itself have remained the same. How the policies and faces of the occupation have changed from one decade to the next, how names on the map have been erased and replaced with others, how, more generally, Palestine has gradually become Israel – all these questions belong in the domain of the historians. What we mental health professionals can contribute to this discussion is a reflection on the changing psychological effects of the occupation on Palestinians and the changing ways in which Palestinians of different generations make sense of their personal and collective experiences.
I would like to speak here from my personal experience. My grandma used to tell stories about the old beautiful Palestine that she knew. The key moment of her story, for me, was when she began to define the occupation that she lived under. What struck me as I listened to her stories, was the realization that she saw an altogether different face of the occupation than the one I know! Clearly, the ideas that were linked to the word “occupation” in her mind were very different from mine. It seems to me that we are not just experiencing a different Palestine, but also a different occupation. In my grandma's eyes, the Israeli occupation was a militia who took her people's land by committing massacres throughout the country, whereas the Palestinian parties were quite simply popular movements born from anger – the anger of people who had been kicked out of their homes and who felt betrayed by the British. Grandma used to say that fearmongering and spreading rumors were two main psychological techniques that the occupation then used to take control of the land. She would also talk about how, back then, most people were deceived and manipulated by such simple psychological strategies. Both the geographical and the mental policies together formed the first steps of occupying Palestine.
My father's generation, raised by traumatized, wounded parents, was probably primarily driven to survive and to ensure that their and their families’ basic needs would be met. During the 1970s and 1980s, Palestinians were allowed to work throughout their country, under the control of the Israeli occupation forces. During these decades, connections were established between Palestinians and Israelis – connections that were not possible in the earlier decades, marked by the two major wars (the ones that took place in 1948 and in 1967), nor in the latter decades, the 1990s and the 2000s. Still, even during those decades, when contact was more easily possible, the occupiers’ policy was to use Palestinian workers to build a country in which there would be no room for them, a classical colonial policy aimed at exploiting these Palestinian workers’ basic needs while dissipating their anger, by offering them what they were secretly dreaming of: "a job in Israel with excellent salary”. Back then the occupation was still a nameless trauma, and its dimensions and costs were not yet fully comprehended.
After the Oslo accords, a new, more draconic shape of the occupation fatefully impacted our people, while Israel gained more power than ever before.
In my own mind, the occupation is something that keeps moving within me wherever I go. It is both the truth/real and an illusion. It is about the land of our dreams that I have never seen before, but that has continuously defined me. For me and my peers, the occupation operates intellectually and psychologically, not only physically or geographically. The occupation lives in us, not with us! It is rooted in us! We, in my example, the youth of Gaza, are locked inside a small city and left behind to struggle to survive, forgotten by the world.
So, the same occupation grew in our minds in different ways, in some ways bringing the Palestinian generations together and in other ways creating gaps between them. We often focus more on the geographical split, as it is the most common and noticeable effect of the Israeli occupation, but generational splits are equally important. Our grandparents did not have any background knowledge about the Israeli occupation – instead, they lived it. Our fathers heard a story full of anger, defense and remorse from our grandfathers, whereas we, young people, heard our fathers’ stories about the times when they were allowed to work, study and communicate with Israeli communities, while we are being denied that and left to dream of the chance to get Israelis’ permission to work in Israel, envying our fathers for the opportunities that they had.
When asked "what are you fighting for?", the people in my family gave very different answers – yet another expression of the generational differences.
Grandma said: “To return to my village home”.
Dad said: “To see one united identity”. His wish was to repair the catastrophic post-1967 split of the Palestinian people into multiple populations, that were then incited against each other.
Me and my peers say: "We are quite simply looking for better living conditions, meaning to be able to cross borders whenever we plan to, without any humiliation on crossing, to look for job opportunities and ways to meet other basic life needs".
We share the same fate of living under the occupation, yet the specifics of its impact on our minds and the damage that it has caused us separates us from each other. I think that the occupation has affected our personalities in ways far more catastrophic than the land. For example, I see our current leaders' tendencies to overcontrol the people as an outcome of the control that they have experienced themselves. As for the ordinary people, their love of bragging over small things comes from the frustrated ambition to glorify their land, Palestine. The heightened sensitivity to being humiliated by each other is based in the objective helplessness to restore one’s dignity when one goes through a checkpoint or a crossing.
I will now touch briefly on issues of clinical work. How does the patient picture the threats and to what extent does he or she feel they can manage them, and how does feeling helpless and out of control affect their lives? The therapist should hold the notion that the occupation lies deep in peoples' minds and therefore, while evaluating patients and treating them, special attention should be paid to the story that has been passed to the patient through generations and to the political events that happened in his/her city during his/her childhood and teenage years.
This has to do with assessing to what extent the threat that the occupation presents, influences peoples' mental health. If the person recognizes that threat as long-term, this might cause them to experience life as permanently on the edge, while if the person denies that, then could be more vulnerable to emotional instability and may be psychologically fragile in facing any new event
The traumatic events facing the Palestinians continue with every new offensive happening on the ground. For instance, people in Gaza were experiencing the escape of the six captives from the Israeli jail similarly to how they experienced the last attack on the Strip, in May 2021 watching news every hour, and feeling intense emotions, including the triumph of the sense of victory and a sense of being united and powerful, to be immediately followed by the feeling of heartbreak, tears and anger. The attack and the escape are only a few of the episodes from the long series of events that have been deepening the trauma and making it part of our minds and bodies. Personally, I think this is what the occupation wants to achieve. The psychological suffering of being hit in our weak spots – which the occupation knows well because it has created them.
The injustices facing my generation of Palestinians are not limited to the armed attacks. One face of that injustice are all the barriers we face when we consider traveling. Many countries think of us, not as of young people wishing to see the world, but as of potential refugees. When applying for student’s or visitor’s visas, we will be asked to prove our plans to return home, but sometimes even that proof will not help one to obtain the visa. Once a friend of mine said to me, “I am so fascinated about Greece but no one would believe that I am visiting it for just a vacation”. That we are escapees has become another stereotype about us that we have to challenge.
We could say that colonialism has never left us - rather, it has changed its mask. Its contemporary barbaric mask uses psychological tools alongside other, more conventional, weapons.