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Israel’s psychological warfare - the only thing that is certain is fear

Israel is fostering an environment of fear and widespread psychological trauma amongst the Palestinian population

“I am so scared at the moment; I have nightmares and cannot sleep. I keep thinking I can hear soldiers in the camp and they are coming to get the kids”, Nada* sighed matter-of-factly, before she strapped on a rubber gas mask to go and collect her children from school.

After she left, I couldn’t stop mentally replaying the offhand remark. It wasn’t the content of Nada’s comment that caught me; it was the manner in which it was said. Worn, almost banal with routine, as one might recount a rather dull and commonplace anecdote of having been stuck on the motorway in a traffic jam.

Nada is just one of many Palestinians who are subjected to extensive psychological torment stemming from a volatile military occupation. Because of the chronic nature of the situation, psychological wounds are not healing, but are instead normalised in an environment where the only thing that is certain is the instability of life.

However, it appears that psychological trauma isn’t just an inadvertent symptom of Israeli policy, but a direct result of otherwise-unnecessary actions, seemingly designed to subjugate the population. 

Just this morning, Nada’s 11-year-old daughter ran back into the house, terrified and crying, after stepping out to buy bread and being confronted by fully armed Israeli soldiers in the street. A few hours later, the soldiers positioned themselves on the roof of the children’s community centre, and flew an Israeli flag in the middle of Aida refugee camp; a taunting provocation.

Aida is a place that assumes all the hallmarks of psychological control and repression. With large searchlights glaring down 24 hours a day from the 25ft wall that borders the camp, and a circuit of watchtowers and drones flying overhead, the camp is the true embodiment of the infamous panopticon, described by the philosopher Michael Foucault as a "cruel, ingenious cage".

Outside Adia’s entrance on 6 November, Israeli operatives disguised themselves as Palestinian protestors before carrying out arrests that seemed to have little strategic benefit. The time and investment that goes into sending undercover operatives to arrest a couple of young Palestinian stone-throwers is not an indication that Israel’s military elite is at a loose end.

Instead it could be surmised that the sporadic use of undercover agents is aimed at planting fear and suspicion in the minds of protestors, who are no longer able to assume a keffiyeh is a sign of allegiance amongst their counterparts.

This incident came days after soldiers raided Aida, angrily proclaiming through a loudspeaker in Arabic, "We’re going to gas you until you die… the children, the youth, and the old people, all of you – we won’t spare any of you," before they proceeded to smother the whole camp with tear gas. Whilst the attack was allegedly in response to youths throwing stones, the response was relatively unprovoked and the severity certainly disproportionate. No other reason clearly presents itself for such a spontaneous eruption of hate speech, other than the intention of instilling widespread terror and fear amongst the population.

No safe haven

Another common feature of Palestinian life in the West Bank is night raids – the primary subject of Nada’s haunting nightmares. According to Defence for Children – Palestine, over half of Palestinian children detained in the West Bank were taken from their homes in the middle of the night.

The penetration of military aggression into the domestic sphere is not only a violation of physical space, but it also has significant psychological effects on the family unit who no longer feel secure in their home, which should be a refuge of privacy and intimacy.

Alongside houses, schools and hospitals have been raided over the past month, in a repeated incursion of what are usually perceived as "safe spaces", such as the Al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem which was raided three times at the start of this month.  

A particularly distressing example is the undercover dawn raid on the hospital in Hebron on 12 November – when an elite Israeli military force disguised themselves as Palestinians wearing keffiyehs, accompanying a woman who was pretending to be pregnant – and fatally shot Abdullah Azzam Shalaldah, alongside detaining a patient.

Also in Hebron, a teacher filmed Israeli soldiers storming classrooms of al-Hajj Ziad Jaber School last month, looking for any evidence that the schoolchildren had been throwing stones. A few days before, some of the students had to be transferred to a nearby hospital after the school was exposed to excessive tear gas.

The wider picture

Whilst these incidents have increased since the beginning of October, such occurrences are only a few cogs in a larger machine of systematic psychological torment, which was in place long before the outbreak of the so-called "Third Intifada".

For example, the malicious humiliation of Palestinians by border guards has long been documented - one particularly distressing video reveals a Palestinian being made to slap himself for the enjoyment of his Israeli tormentors – and has prompted Desmond Tutu to compare the treatment of Palestinians to that which was endured under South African apartheid.

These practises, alongside arbitrary and unannounced home demolitions, the unpredictability of the permit system, a lack of accountability for settler violence, the widespread use of administrative detainment, but most of all the unpredictability of Israeli soldiers who are fostering their own environment of impunity - all contribute to Israel’s systematic implementation of Ariel Sharon's philosophy of "maintained uncertainty", where the antithetical permanency of temporariness is designed to wear down the psyche of the Palestinian consciousness.

Security measures?

A common kneejerk assertion of Israel is that such "security measures" are justified due to Palestinian terror threats. But when do these policies and practises overstep the boundaries of self-defence? Did the detainment of a hospital patient really require an undercover team of 20 elite operatives? Does the presence of a few stone-throwers against a fully armed military base now necessitate the terrorising of residents in the area by shouting "we will blind your eyes with gas until you die”?

Surveillance, disciplining and punishment seem to have moved indiscriminately outwards from focusing upon individuals towards the collective Palestinian population. True, the recent spate of violence has seen a rise of apparent stabbing attacks that target Israeli citizens, settlers and military personnel. But it is equally true, is that it is unethical and unlawful for measures to be taken to "protect" Israeli citizens at the expense of the rights of the occupied Palestinian populace as a whole.

As argued by Dr Mego Terzian, president of MSF France, “trying to create a false equivalence in terms of responsibility for the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza simply obscures the reality of responsibility for the violence in the Occupied Territories… Employing the rhetoric of self-defence to seize territory and continue a brutalising occupation, Israel and its international backers have sought to codify a system that is wounding Palestinians day after day, smothering life and hope, and guaranteeing more of the same in the future.”

Through humiliation, demoralisation and the spread of fear, Israel is engaging in psychological warfare, which is perhaps more sinister than the frank, open and - dare I say "honest" - use of military force. Widespread psychological torment, characterised by an extremely unbalanced power relationship between Palestine and Israel, is not going to aide Israel’s plight. If anything, the increase of psychological trauma among Palestinians is just going to exacerbate the already fragile situation.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of sources.

-Megan Hanna is an independent freelance journalist and photographer, based in the occupied Palestinian territories. You can follow Megan on twitter via @Megan_Hanna_

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinian women mourn for Mahmud Ulyan, 22, who was killed by the Israeli soldiers during clashes with Palestinians at the entrance of al-Bireh town, during a funeral ceremony in Ramallah, West Bank on 20 November, 2015 (AA).