The ongoing tyranny of the Israeli occupation has been devastating to the Palestinian community’s wellbeing. One of its most debilitating effects is the internalisation of oppression and the undermining of Palestinians’ collective self-image. Since the free and fair 2006 elections in Palestine—followed by Israel’s arrest of elected parliamentarians and an international boycott of the elected government—I have observed that the vigorous spirit of the Palestinian community that evolved during long years of resistance has finally been reduced to a state of demoralisation.
The undermining of that election represented an additional bitter blow, following as it did on the more subtle impact of the Oslo accords, originally promoted as a step on the road to Palestinian liberation. Reports published on the twentieth anniversary of the accords, however, revealed that during those two decades the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank had doubled and the area controlled by settlements had expanded to 42 percent of Palestinian land. Israel’s systematic restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade continues to divide Palestinian families and decimate the economy. The infamous collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli security forces has further secured for Israelis a profitable tourism trade through bed and breakfast hotels overlooking the magnificent hills of the West Bank; a dismantled Palestinian resistance; and more Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons.
Over years of occupation, young Palestinians have seen their fathers dragged from homes by Israeli soldiers, humiliated at checkpoints, and rendered unable to provide for their families’ safety and basic needs. In reaction to their feelings of shame, such vulnerable children came to identify with the oppressor, with a self-loathing which some expressed by oppressing weaker members of their own community. So I have been told by one Palestinian Jerusalemite, “On holidays I don’t go to Eilat because it will be full of Arabs!”
Some Palestinians shop for their clothing in Israeli boutiques, have their hair done in Israeli salons, and listen to loud Hebrew music on their car radios. More than one Palestinian patient suffering a relapse of manic illness has spoken to me in Hebrew as an expression of grandiosity. Meanwhile, the dismal lack of job opportunities and the miserable conditions in the West Bank have made many labourers eager to work for Israelis, even if they must work in settlements or participate in projects such as building the apartheid wall.
Their Israeli employers often treat them as sub-human. A few months ago Ahsan Abu-Srur, a 54-year-old unauthorised Palestinian construction worker from Askar refugee camp, was seriously injured while doing renovation work in Tel Aviv. Realising that he was critically injured, the Israeli contractor and two of his workers dragged the man to the sidewalk across the street from the workplace and left him there to die.
Oppression makes people selfish and greedy, prone to infighting and competition over scarce resources—the scraps of opportunities left over from the oppressor. Oppressed people easily become resentful and envious of one another, creating an atmosphere of mutual distrust.
This is a vicious cycle. Treated as inferior—and in the absence of resistance, resilience and self-defense—we internalise belief in our own inferiority. We come to assume that we indeed are less capable and less worthy than others. Palestinians begin to distrust and devalue our own educational and medical systems. Other manifestations of our internalised oppression include a spiteful oppression of women, contempt toward people of a lower socioeconomic class, and an exclusionary and intolerant attitude towards political opposition.
Nowadays, there is such a widespread, corrupt system of influence and cronyism in Palestine that most people are government employees. As a result, our agriculture is suffering, small independent businesses are crushed, and only a small minority of enterprises, closely allied to the government, are able to flourish. Young people are trapped in a cycle of consumerism, with new apartments, cars and big loans from banks resulting in a lifetime of debt. The result is decreased social interaction and productivity, along with rising rates of crime and addiction.
Community leaders and politicians fail to take any steps to breaking this vicious cycle. Rather than restoring our national dignity and pride by promoting instead resilience, productivity, authenticity and steadfastness, recall the submissive words of President Mahmoud Abbas following the western boycott of the 2006 election results: “If we have to choose between bread and democracy, we choose bread.”
Our officials have assumed the role of the oppressor, condemning spontaneous Palestinian reactions to Israeli violations and promoting meek submission to Israeli oppression. They cast the Palestinian people in the roles of suspect and offender. Such attitudes only feed into the occupier’s spin on reality, casting us as us evil perpetrators while the occupier claims the role of victim.
The submissiveness urged on us by our leaders goes beyond condemning armed resistance to include the trivialising of such nonviolent measures as the imposition of boycotts and the use of international law to hold Israel accountable for its actions—as illustrated by the official Palestinian position on the Goldstone report on Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.
We should not be deceived by the exaggerated festivities surrounding the UN General Assembly’s change of Palestine's status as “entity” to that of “non-member observer state.” The change in status was just a smokescreen to distract us from the revolutions taking place within the Arab world.
We may have added the words “State of Palestine” to our postage stamps, but we have yet to take a single war criminal to The Hague or pursue our legal right to our own land, waters or airspace—as any sovereign state recognised by the UN surely would. Instead, “secretive” negotiations continue behind closed doors, while Israel continues to approve the construction of more settlement homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and the demolition of ever more Palestinian homes.
Internalised oppression is driven by several engines, the first of which is the media. Anger and dissatisfaction create the momentum for social change, but a superficial leisure and entertainment industry will blind and distract a frustrated public from the reality around them, creating a false consciousness. Local media bombardment dulls our critical faculties and weakens our ability to protest, resist or revolt.
A good example is Mohammad Assaf, the Palestinian who won last year’s “Arab Idol” competition—a charming, sincere young man with a beautiful voice. But the media promoted his triumph as symbolising “the Palestinian plight,” encouraging the public to become consumers of a simplistic, reductionist and deceptive exploitation of his charm. One might ask why the local media has failed to make an equal effort to mobilise against Israel’s siege on Gaza, the Prawer plan, or on behalf of transparency regarding the ongoing negotiations—matters which directly affect most Palestinians and their plight!
A seeming paradox
International donations are the second engine behind internalised oppression. On the face of it, it seems paradoxical that oppression can result from such efforts to do good. However, in her study “Promoting Democracy in Palestine: Donation and the Democratisation of the West Bank and Gaza,” Dr. Leila Farsakh concludes that international aid projects serve to promote the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority rather than empowering the Palestinian public to challenge the PA’s dominance or critique its definition of the national liberation project.
Donor-driven projects fail to devote sufficient attention to such important institutions central to democracy as parliament, political parties, and the electoral process. In the end, these projects tend to entrench the occupation rather than help Palestinians create the conditions for national liberation; rather than strengthening independent channels they tend instead to intensify the Authority’s grip.
The third engine is education and institutionalised religion. This year, five Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem replaced their Palestinian curriculum with the Israeli one. The Jerusalem municipality went on to award the administration of these five schools by increasing their principals’ salaries and paying them 2000 NIS for every student registered at their schools.
A mere glance at the Israeli curriculum reveals how it distorts history, religion, geography and eventually the mindset and the national culture of its pupils. In one textbook, two young people discuss how Israel brought electricity to their village and granted national insurance to children and their elders, and conclude that they should join the celebration of “Israel’s Independence Day.”
And while some of our children are being fed this dose of Israeli indoctrination, others are anaesthetised by some misleading religious leaders who form an unholy alliance with political and financial power elites. The “teachings” of these leaders promote a fatalistic, mystical frame of mind, and the “fatwas” they issue promote compliance and conformity. By encouraging people to pin their hopes on the afterlife rather than dealing with the misery of the here and now, these religious figures promote the status quo, with all its agony and injustice, and inhibit people from embracing genuine reform and social change.
In the face of such inadequate leadership, which must result in internalised oppression, it becomes the social responsibility of ordinary people to work actively to recognise and alleviate this threat to our wellbeing, in order to prevent the demise of the Palestinian spirit and cause.
Bearing witness, calling for empowering economic development, resisting consumerism, connecting Palestinians with our own history and community, and thereby helping to analyse reality—these are just a few tools that can help liberate Palestinians from internalised oppression.
So much has been done to efface, harm and eradicate the Palestinian nation, or to disfigure it forever. We cannot simply wait for justice to happen—justice is something we must work hard to realise. Sacrifices must be made and risks taken at times. Commitment, awareness, wisdom and planning are required for the recovery and salvation of this injured life—as we want a decent life, not just any life. Our work for healing and recovery cannot be separated from our work for liberation.
The full version of this article was published on The Palestine Chronicle on 23 March 2014.