The trauma of Israel’s attacks on Gaza is unimaginable

The trauma of Israel’s attacks on Gaza is unimaginable
The mental health impacts of Israel’s apartheid regime has already been detrimental to the Palestinian people. But the recent violent attacks on Gaza will lead to further unimaginable generational trauma, writes psychologist Nasreen Hanifi.
6 min read
31 Oct, 2023
Aftermath of a building that was hit by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on October 31, 2023. [GETTY]

I work in healthcare, I’m a psychologist. I’m used to dealing with emotions but the ongoing atrocities in Palestine leave me at a loss for words. I feel the urge to write something, but I struggle to articulate my thoughts in a way that accurately reflects the magnitude of what the Palestinian people are enduring in Gaza, the West Bank, and in the diaspora.

So many of us feel distressed and helpless bystanders, caught between the need to bear witness and the instinct to look away from the horror and for some, a kind of survivor’s guilt. I myself feel totally overwhelmed by the aftermath of what this war will have on those who have experienced trauma previously and will continue to.

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have been expelled from their homes. This displacement remains an ongoing crisis. For most of us, it is unimaginable. Though over the years many have become immune to the struggle of ordinary Palestinians, accepting that it is a sad and ongoing reality.

''Even as mental health professionals, it remains challenging to fully grasp the detrimental psychological consequences that the experiences of terror, death, and loss will impose on the children growing up in Palestine, both in the present and for generations to come.''

However, Israel’s attacks on Gaza today are waking some up to the most appalling violence. Raw video footage shows the devastating aftermath of attacks on innocent civilians and children, which feel impossible to watch. There are reports of families losing as many as 21 members in a single day. Palestinians in the diaspora are unable to contact their loved ones, anxiously waiting and dreading news that they are dead.

Imagining loss on that scale in my own family, despite our roots in Afghanistan, is unfathomable.

The tragic bombing of Al Ahli - Baptist hospital, a refuge for many, claimed the lives of more than 500 civilians, including medical professionals. Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a surgeon at Al Shifa Hospital who travelled from his Harley Street Practice in London to volunteer support to medical staff and patients, revealed the devastating aftermath surrounded by lifeless bodies. In an interview with The New Arab, he explained the incredibly difficult circumstances, stating that there are many people laying on the floors of the emergency department waiting for an operation, but as doctors they have to be selective as to what surgeries they can perform with the limited resources available.

As the stark realities continue to unfold in Gaza, there is still a hesitation when it comes to critiquing Israel. Here in Australia, a significant number of people including many politicians, and those within healthcare, like the Australian Psychological Society, continue to endorse  Israel’s apartheid regime.

As a healthcare practitioner, I have a responsibility to shed light on the long-lasting mental health consequences Palestinians have had to contend with since the Nakba in 1948. This is a land with a history of severe ethnical cleansing, colonial violence, and institutional racism towards the indigenous population. This violence has persisted and institutional oppression is found within Australia's various services, including healthcare.

For decades, the Israeli military occupation has limited the availability, reach, and quality of healthcare especially mental services for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The restrictions on freedom of movement, imposed through checkpoints, the separation wall, restrictive permit regulations, and the Gaza blockade, make it significantly challenging for patients throughout the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) to access necessary treatment and support.

Living under this prolonged state of occupation has left the 4.8 million oPt residents in a constant state of danger, from incidents involving illegal Israeli settlers, to injuries (at times fatal) during protests, arbitrary arrests and mistreatment in prisons, to the recurrent destruction of homes and critical infrastructure.

In Gaza, a population of just over 2 million has been living in one of the most densely populated area in the world. In 2021, the United Nations reported that 1.45 million Palestinians required humanitarian assistance. That’s around 30% of the Palestinian population. Imagine what those numbers look like following Israel’s recent bombardment.

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This all has a huge and long-term impact on people’s mental health.

A report from the World Health Organisation published in May this year emphasised the increased need for trauma and emergency care, as well as mental health and psychosocial support. However, with the recent events in Gaza, as well as the persistence of the occupation, Palestinians may not be able to access vital mental health care services for months or years to come.

Even as mental health professionals, it remains challenging to fully grasp the detrimental psychological consequences that the experiences of terror, death, and loss will impose on the children growing up in Palestine, both in the present and for generations to come.

As the occupying state, Israel bears the responsibility for ensuring Palestinian access to healthcare, but this has not been the case given the decades of severe underfunding and dependence on aid. Not to mention, Israel’s policy of segregating East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza presents a significant hurdle to establishing an integrated healthcare system for Palestinians, with mental health support services taking a particular hit.

Israel’s demand following 7 October, that 1.1 million individuals residing in the northern region of Gaza relocate to the south, has likely instilled considerable fear and anxiety amongst the people. It will also no doubt severe long-term humanitarian and mental health repercussions.

Furthermore, the choices that people have been given feel impossible. Residents in the north of Gaza can either remain in their homes with heightened risks of deadly violence, or attempt to flee south where Israel’s bombs have also been dropped.

Observing these events as they unfold, I remain astounded that the Australian Prime Minister, along with numerous other politicians, continues to endorse an apartheid and now seemingly genocidal regime. Through any lens, this colonial power has subjected Palestinians to torment, discrimination, and widespread upheaval. Supporting Israel, while fully aware of its capacity to obliterate an entire population, by extension signifies the endorsement of injustice, despotism, and apartheid.

It is disconcerting to observe the Australian Prime Minister and political leaders normalise the struggles of the Palestinians by endorsing an apartheid regime. However, just as the Australian Psychological Society’s support for Israel doesn’t represent the views of all those within the profession, instead of measuring humanity through our leaders, we must look to the many across society who are opposed to the crimes being committed against the Palestinian people.

As the heart-wrenching scenes in Gaza continue, it remains crucial that we do not become apathetic to their suffering. Instead, we must consistently strive to raise awareness, oppose the normalisation of their oppression, and hold our politicians and institutional representatives accountable for their failure to endorse an end to the oppression.

Nasreen Hanifi is a psychologist based in Sydney, Australia. She is the founder of The Mindset Project - a local project trying to destigmatize mental health and raise awareness. She specialises in trauma and is currently completing her PhD on compassion.

Follow her on Twitter: @NasreenHanifi

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.