Palestinian suffering: some personal, historical, and psychoanalytic reflections

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  • Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 197208 (2010)Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

    International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic StudiesInt. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7(3): 197208 (2010)Published online in Wiley Online Library( DOI: 10.1002/aps.252

    Palestinian Suffering: Some Personal, Historical, and Psychoanalytic Refl ections



    This paper reminds the share holders of the international psychoanalytical enterprise of their collective responsibility towards a major social, national and moral injustice that has been grasping the attention of the remaining world for many decades. This involves the suffering of the Palestinian people who are under a brutal siege of occupa-tion, intimidation, and disenfranchisement. Lacking a world-endorsed nationhood, threatened in the preservation of their culture, barred from travel, used and abused by Arab regimes, and, often ignored by the international community, the Palestinians strive to save their dignity sometimes by political praxis and at other times by violent resistance. This paper offers a description of this national/political/humanitarian tragedy in the hope of enhancing knowledge, engendering empathy, and mobilizing reparative action. Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Key words: Nakba, occupation, peace process, settlements, refugees

    The continuous suffering of the Palestinian people, their displacement, denigra-tion, humiliation, attacks on their identity and dignity deserve the attention of the psychoanalytic profession. A major cause of ongoing suffering for Palestinians, in the collective psyche as a nation and as individuals in their daily life, particu-larly in the occupied territories, is their recognition that both Israeli consecutive governments and institutions attempt to subjugate Palestinians to their will and force them willy-nilly to live and die accordingly in every aspect of their lives, which constitutes a constant struggle and war of confl icted wills and choices. Their quest for freedom from oppression, their hope for a better future, and their search for justice also demand notice. In indirect ways, these matters touch upon the role of politics, power and social objectivity in psychoanalysis. They pose a challenge to this discipline and ask whether it can dare to name, acknowledge and confront its masked biases, prejudices, and even what might be its disguised racism. This is both an intellectual and ethical challenge, addressing whether

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    Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 197208 (2010)Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

    this well respected community can tolerate revisiting its prevalent but ques-tionable basic assumptions about the nature of the PalestinianIsraeliArab confl ict.

    Before proceeding further, I alert the reader to the fact that I am not going to offer any magical solution to this continually unfolding and bloody cycle of hatred, violence and dehumanization. I am, however, authentically eager to convey a sense of hope in spite of all odds, diffi culties and obstacles. This approach partially stems from my perception that this very long, paranoid posi-tion is beginning to show signs of fatigue, and out of desire to move into the much needed depressive position (Klein, 1940) in light of the recognition that enough is more than enough. In this paper, I offer my own reading and percep-tion of this confl ict and some speculation for a potentially realistic resolution.

    The essence of the IsraeliPalestinian confl ict has never been religious. The confl ict is not between Muslims and Jews, as some tend to believe. It is not even a dispute over a territory. It is a protest against a post-modern colonialist project of creating an exclusive national entity for the Jewish people by eliminating and replacing the existence of Palestine. Many Israelis do not share this perception and believe that they need to have their national home and to build a Jewish and democratic state as a response to a long history of persecution and oppres-sion particularly in Europe.


    Allow me to begin with a brief review of some historical events to set up the context that keeps shaping daily reality both for Palestinians and Israelis alike. Although we cannot draw symmetrical lines of truth concerning the two peoples, we can say that they are both psychologically imprisoned for different reasons by their own narratives, memories, recollections, losses, pain, fears, anger, and perceptions of this confl ict. For Palestinians and to all Arabs to a certain degree, the loss of Palestine, fi guratively their own paradise, was both displacement and replacement by an invading hostile group; reversal of this trau-matic reality is very diffi cult, and currently unattainable (Awad, 2007).

    In writing about fantasies shared by members of a large group, (Kemberg, 1980; Anzieu, 1984) claim that large groups represent idealized mothers (good breast) who repair narcissistic injuries and that external processes which threaten the image held by group members of an idealized mother can lead to political and confl ictual processes. Palestinians hold the image of Palestine both as the lost Paradise and caring and loving mother. Palestinian and Arab poetry and novels refer to Palestine always with this kept image. It seems to me that Palestinians preserve unconsciously their mother land as idealized mother who is not capable of healing their wounds in spite of their displacement, oppression, humiliation, and deportation.

    In May 2010, both Israelis and Palestinians marked the 62nd anniversary of an experience which has adversely impacted both these peoples, the Middle East,

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    Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 197208 (2010)Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

    and the entire world: the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. This well designed though violent project brought on the ruin of the indigenous Palestinian people and created the Nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic), and the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem (Said, 1979; Khalidi, 1984; Morris, 1987, 1990/1999; Beit-Hallahmi, 1992).

    In order to avoid reference to the original sins committed in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century (by early Jewish immigrants) and since the Nakba (brought about by Israelis), Israeli politicians and lay people tend to focus upon recent actualities as if the confl ict began only yesterday. In contrast, Palestinians admit that they were nave in not realizing the profound threat posed to them by Theodore Herzls (18601904) vision. The founder of the Zionist movement, Herzl gave voice at the fi rst Zionist congress in Basil, Switzerland in 1897 to his dream of an exclusive national home for the Jewish people in a country without people for people without a country. Herzls statement followed by a well conceived and planned project, embraced by the Zionist movement and the state of Israel in a later stage, constituted a murderous fantasy, and later, actions taken to exterminate the Palestinians. Herzls ideology and the consequent mili-tary power of the State of Israel, and its creation of the Nakba, constitute and have embedded in them the psychological denial of the physical, national, social, and cultural existence of the indigenous Palestinian people. I believe (and many share this perception) that the seeds of this still unfolding bloody confl ict were planted in this 1897 Congress which denied the mere existence of the Palestinians as a people, without any empathy or concern for their own desires, hopes, struggles, fears, dreams and aspirations.

    Historically and until the beginning of the 20th century, Jews in Palestine were less than 5 percent of the total population. The 1948 war drastically trans-formed the demographic, cultural, and ethnic composition of the country. More than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled by force or fl ed in horror and terror to neighboring Arab countries seeking temporary refuge and safety. Only 116,000 of them (about 10 percent of Israels total population at the time), stayed under the Israeli military government till 1966; their living conditions were harsh even though they were offi cially granted citizenship of Israel (Morris, 1987; 1990/1999; Beit-Hallahmi, 1992/1993). The newly-born Israel took over 78 percent of historic Palestine. Jordan annexed the West Bank of the Jordan River, and Egypt administered the Gaza strip. Israel has never ceased until this very day its ethnic cleansing, and intensifi ed it after its victory in the 1967 war. Sixty-two years after the Palestinian Nakba, today there are 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, 2.5 million in the West Bank including East Jerusalem and 1.5 million in the Gaza Strip; a total of 5.3 million in addition to more than 4 million in the Arab countries and the Diasporas; while Israel has about 5.5 million Jews including a half million settlers in the Palestinian occu-pied territories.

    The Israeli policy of ethnic cleansing and expansion of settlements since 1948, during which more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages have been

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    Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 197208 (2010)Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

    destroyed, did not exclude their lands and orchards, particularly old olive trees. They were uprooted from their lands in front of sad and outraged eyes, and replanted in Israeli parks and gardens which are often named after Jewish-American and European donors and foundations. This act of aggression has had a profound economic impact on the families who depend on this source of income. In addition, it has had an emotional impact on them since olive trees have sacred symbolic signifi cance for the Palestinians representing attachment to their ancestral lands, their heritage and are the symbol of peace.

    Another obstacle preventing the Palestinians from working through the confl ict is that hostility continues to be directed at them by different Israeli governments as well as by many Israeli political and ideological groups. The Israelis are supported in their stance by (i) the American administrations, (ii) the lack of tangible impact of the international community and, (iii) the pas-sivity and collusion of the Arab world. In spite of strong public sentiment for solidarity and identifi cation with Palestinians, most Arab governments have been using and abusing the Palestinian issue for their own interest. While they often support Palestinians fi nancially, their fi erce determination to prevent dem-ocratic developments in their own countries results in only lip-service political solidarity with the Palestinian political cause. Palestinians experience the fl ash-back of their original traumas through the prism of the current frequent acts of killing, torture, physical and emotional harm, oppression, imprisonment, domi-nation and occupation, confi scation of lands and properties, and house demoli-tions. Their dehumanization (Akhtar, 2003) at the hands of Israelis has been profoundly traumatic indeed. Continued threats (real and imagined) of displace-ment by the Israelis reinforce their existing fears and the unresolved memories of 1948 and the events that followed (Awad, 2007).

    Perhaps the most major secondary trauma among these after the Arab defeat of 1967, was constituted by the hostility and aggression endured by Palestinians during the fi rst Intifada or Palestinian popular uprising (19871993) that was ended by the Oslo accords of 1993. They brought a state of elation, hope, dreams of prosperity on both sides after a long time, during which both Palestinians and Israelis were blinded by the enormity of their own bereavement without the recognition of the others torment. Soon the bubble of enthusiasm burst and bit by bit matters returned to the usual state of affairs. More political deadlocks occurred leading to the second Intifada (20002003) that cost numerous lives which overwhelmingly were those of Palestinians. Matters kept worsening. General elections among Palestinians were held in 2006 but when Hamas won, the results were declared void by outside forces. Violence followed when Israel totally blocked the Gaza Strip from the external world since 2007, making a big and open prison. The proportion of the Israeli population supporting violence against Palestinians steadily increased. The recent 2008 war in Gaza with 13 Israeli and 1400 Palestinian casualties revealed that 85 percent of Israelis sup-ported the atrocities committed against Palestinian civilians, explaining their stance on the basis of fear of annihilation by the Hamas rockets. The public and

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    Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 7: 197208 (2010)Copyright 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd DOI: 10.1002/aps

    the media rallied around and watched the massive destruction of the Gaza strip with a justifi ed sense of gratifi cation and joy. Tragically, it seems that many Israelis jump with enthusiasm as the tanks attack and fi re upon Palestinian civilians including children and women. Then they want to provide heart-breaking accounts about their suffering and run to the media to white wash their atrocities.

    After 19 years of dead-end negotiations and bloody skirmishes, there is an increasing sense among Palestinians and Israelis alike of losing belief in the power of both peace and war to solve the PalestinianIsraeli confl ict. They seem blocked. The Palestinians doubt if the international community will truly have an impact in their favor. The Israelis are loathe to relinquish their domination and control while keeping talk of peace. Both sides are in a state of disillusion-ment in which nationalism, socialism, religious fundamentalism and other ide-ologies have betrayed the faith people had put into efforts for a better life. The daily life of Palestinians has deteriorated with more check-points, and more than double the number of Israeli settlers from 100,000 to 500,000 in the occupied Palestinian territories. Further confi scations of Palestinian land and the putting of facts on the ground into irreversible reality, e.g., the settlements, have increased the despair and rage of all Palestinians. This painful process has culminated in the notorious siege of the Gaza Strip since 2007, and the collective punishment imposed by Israel with brutal consequences to the well being of Palestinians. However, Israel has enjoyed economic growth by the return of foreign investors and the development of the tourism industry, while still suffering from a lack of safety and national security.

    Palestinian citizens of Israel are also suffering increasingly. A recent annual report by the Israeli Association for Civil Rights (2007) reveals that racist inci-dents against Arab citizens by Israeli Jews rose 26 percent in 2006. The change of attitudes (from 2005 to 2006) of Israeli Jews toward their fellow Palestinian citi...