in Motion

Samah Jabr:
A Palestinian struggle against oppression

A trained psychiatrist, Samah Jabr treats countless personal and collective traumas daily in Palestine.


I did not choose to be Palestinian.

When I was born into a Palestinian Jerusalemite family, I was born into a culture, a history, a tradition, and a people. I was also exposed to the many traumas my family and community at large have experienced. Each of these factors has shaped my path.

I would not have chosen to be at the scene of a crime, but I just happened to find myself there. I refuse to be treated as a suspect, and instead, I have tried to do what I can to be a faithful eyewitness.

It's no wonder then that I chose to become a psychiatrist, a profession that allowed me to delve deeper into the root causes of the despair and hardships we as Palestinians face every day.

It's also my way to offer solutions or, at the very least, ways of coping.

Individual and collective trauma

As one of very few psychiatrists in Palestine, I currently serve as the director of the governmental mental health unit that supervises mental health services in the entire West Bank.

My studies in medicine expanded my sense of social responsibility, and my work has since brought me into close proximity to human pain and suffering. But my practice goes beyond clinical consultation, training, and routine, administrative work; it touches on the wider Palestinian community's suffering from the ills of Israeli oppression and occupation.

My work is twofold: I build mental health services, while also labouring to reconstruct the damage these longstanding, historical wrongs have inflicted on Palestinian identity.

The Israeli occupation is not only a political issue, but indeed a mental health problem. The injustice, daily humiliations, and trauma each and every Palestinian experiences have caused a repetitive injury, both to the individual and collective minds of my people. In Palestine, abuse and trauma are ongoing, enduring, and they affect every aspect of Palestinian life. Individual personalities are impacted, as is the value system of the community as a whole.

Q:What is resolution 242?

Read the answer

A: United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (S/RES/242) was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council on November 22, 1967, in the aftermath of the 1967 war. It was adopted under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. Its preamble refers to the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security". Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

But so long as these conditions persist, are our mental health tools merely palliative? I have reasoned that until the occupation ends, I must promote the independence and freedom of peoples' minds. And the mental health strategies I employ must go deeper to dig at the root causes of our pain.

When I treat a woman who is depressed due to gender-based violence, I can't simply give her an antidepressant; I must engage her so that she can decide what to do about the central cause of that depression. When I meet an abused child, I have an ethical responsibility to inform the authorities of the abuse and bring it to an end, just as I must treat the child's trauma.

Like in other colonised nations, when Palestinians fail to stand up to the violence coming from the occupying power, this violence is most often expressed as internal conflict, social regression, or domestic violence.

Through the lens of Palestine, I learned to look at psychiatry and mental health differently. I know that I cannot take the same approach to a science developed in a Western society while working within a chronically occupied nation, where the core of each individual has been damaged. To work in Palestine, one must understand the context and just how injustice impairs the mind.

Conversely, I have grown to view life and politics in Palestine from the angle of mental health. When I hear US President Donald Trump reducing the Palestinian struggle against the occupation to a cliche; when I see Palestinians leaders attending the funeral of Shimon Peres, one of the fathers of the Israeli occupation, despite Palestinian protests; when Israel speaks of normalising relations with Dubai and allowing Emiratis to visit occupied Palestine without a visa, while Palestinians abroad are denied any visit to the land from which they were expelled; in all of these moments, I appreciate the immense psychological damage political acts have inflicted upon the collective, Palestinian psyche.

Q:Why are Palestinians from Occupied East Jerusalem considered "stateless"?

Read the answer

A: People the world over want to be free and do not like living under a foreign, military occupation. What is more troubling is that Israel’s is not a temporary occupation, but one with colonial ambitions and claims that Palestinian lands were given by God to the Jewish people exclusively. Opposing the occupation can take many forms. International law permits resistance to a foreign occupying power, but places clear restrictions on what the occupying power can do and what kind of resistance is allowed. The problem gets muddy when violence is carried out against civilians by the occupying power who come to live in occupied territories in violation of the laws of war.
Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

Like individuals, groups may lose an authentic sense of identity in the face of trauma and oppression. Traumatic experiences can stir up collective transformations: a loss of trust in others, shrinking morals and values, a loss of culture, and fractured relationships. If individual trauma damages the tissue of the mind, collective trauma damages the social fabric.


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A heaviness hung over our home

That is not to minimise the impact the occupation has had on individuals or families. On the contrary, not a single home in Palestine has escaped internal turmoil.

I grew up in a Jerusalemite home filled with warmth and openness, yet it was a home with a secret, a home where one story had been hushed and swept under the rug.

One of my uncles had been sentenced to life in prison at age 18, when he was accused of aiding in a 1968 bombing at the central bus station in Tel Aviv. Though he turned out to be luckier than many of his comrades, and he was released in a prisoner exchange deal more than a decade later, the pain and grief of his story were felt strongly, but left unspoken, within my family for many years.

Q:Does Israel arrest Palestinian children without charge?

Read the answer

A: At the end of August 2016, 319 Palestinian minors were held in Israeli prisons as security detainees and prisoners, including 10 administrative detainees. Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

This heaviness at home resurfaced every time we heard about a young Palestinian activist who was captured or killed by the Israelis. Whenever the news of these events broke, we felt as though they were happening to one of us in the family all over again.

The weight of this burden was also clear by my parents' attitudes. Every time I had a spontaneous reaction to the news, I was scolded. "This is not our business; concentrate on your studies!" they would say.

Treated like a suspect

Things outside of my home were not any easier.

As a Palestinian Jerusalemite, I reside without citizenship in the city of my parents and grandparents. My status as a permanent resident can be revoked easily, and for myriad reasons. A series of laws and regulations regarding marriage, construction, home demolition, and more have been designed to suffocate the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem. They are harshly applied to me and my family, but not to the Jewish Jerusalemites who occupy my land.

Q:Who are the Israeli settlers?

Read the answer

A: Israeli settlers are Jewish Israelis who live in settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Unlike Palestinians, who live under military rule in the West Bank, Israelis in the West Bank live under civil law, creating a de facto apartheid reality of two legal systems.
Source: B’Tselem

My Israeli travel document, a so-called "laissez passer," refers to me as a person without an identity. This, too, is designed to make an alien out of me, even as I travel outside my occupied homeland.

Q:Are settlements illegal?

Read the answer

A: The Fourth Geneva Convention outlines protections for civilians in war zones and forbids states from transferring their citizens into the land it occupies. This is to ensure that the occupation is temporary; to prevent the occupying state from establishing a long-term presence; to protect the occupied civilians from the theft of resources, and to prevent apartheid and changes to the demographic makeup of the territory.
Source: B’Tselem

Alongside my countrymen and women, I am regularly treated like a distrustful suspect.

My first vivid memory of this routine mistreatment was seeing my parents undergoing an inspection at an Israeli institution. They were being handled like they were thieves. Embarrassed, but lacking any political power, they could not protest or put an end to the injustice.

The system of Israeli checkpoints was established when I was a teenager, and since that time, invasive body searches and interrogations of Palestinians have become the rule.

In my own travels, I have had my computer confiscated "for security reasons" on several occasions, and the gifts that I hoped to bring to friends abroad were destroyed. My personal planner, my private notes, and the contact list on my mobile phone are routinely inspected. At the Israeli airport, I cannot hide my appearance as a Muslim woman, and I do not try to mitigate my Arab identity behind a fake, American accent. Racism is everywhere, as I make my way to the gate or to the business lounge.

Q:How many checkpoints are there in the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Where are they?

Read the answer

A: The number of checkpoints varies. It can sometimes reach as many as 500, while it generally averages between 300-400. The major, permanent checkpoints are around the borders of Jerusalem. Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

When I observe this immense industrialised system - all of the manpower, and all of the fear that has been invested in intimidating and policing people like me - I understand that a ferocious crime is being committed. I want to scream at the security officials, the men and women who search me. "Just look in the mirror, and you will find the real perpetrator!"

Valuing our humanity

In the face of such oppression, Palestinians have had our humanity and our experiences denied. Yet as Palestinians, we must find ways to use our history and culture to heal the damage done to our minds and identity.

If the Israeli occupation views me as a suspect, I will insist on being a witness instead.

My work as a physician, therapist, writer, and teacher has helped me avoid falling into a sense of inferiority and meaninglessness. And while this path has not been easy, I know it is worthwhile.


in Motion

Read Raed's story

Raed al-Sakakini and Ayda Addas made a painstaking decision: leave Lebanon in search of safety for their children.

In fact, it reminds me of a story I first heard as a child.

A boisterous rooster crowed loudly every morning at the break of dawn, alerting the entire area that a new day had begun. One day, a new owner took over the farm, and he was less than pleased by the rooster's wake-up call. "Don't crow again, or I will wring your neck!" he threatened.

The rooster realised that if he wanted to survive, he had better stop crowing. Besides, the rooster thought to himself, there are other roosters on the farm that can do the job. The next day, though the rooster had stopped crowing, the farmer came back with another threat. "You are still acting like a rooster," he exclaimed. "I only want chicken on my farm!" Using the same logic, the rooster began walking and talking like a chicken.

On the third day, the farmer came back again. "If you're a chicken, you must give me an egg every day," he shouted. "Or I'll slaughter you tomorrow!" That's when the rooster finally realised that his survival strategy was of no use, and he wished he had stood his ground as a rooster from the very beginning.

While I may not have chosen to be Palestinian, this is who I am. Unlike the rooster, I will never try to be something I'm not.


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