The Psychoanalytic Reporter

Is there a new Palestinian psychology based on hope over despair and victimization?

The author contributes a shift in increased personal confidence and optimism to the recent growth in the Palestinian infrastructure and economy, and social renewal programs

By Warren Spielberg, PhD

Twelve years ago, as a consultant to Israel’s Peace Now movement, I witnessed the following exchange during a dialogue that the movement had organized in the West Bank town of Ramallah between Israeli and Palestinian students.

One of the Israeli participants, Shaul, had been lecturing the Palestinians in the room on how they should conduct themselves to “earn peace.” He went further, drawing on the famed sarcasm of Abba Eban: “You Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to make final peace.” In reply, Taisir, a Palestinian, angrily shouted, “You Israelis think you are so smart—you brag that you created a state out of nothing... yet you have had the money of the rich Jews around the whole world who have helped you.”

This exchange occurred within a larger psychological struggle that had erupted earlier, reflecting Israeli disrespect of Palestinian competence and Palestinian resentment over Israeli claims of intellectual and moral superiority. I have termed these particular impediments to dialogue "identity enactments." Embedded in this particular enactment, I thought, was an expression of felt Palestinian inferiority and shame.

Twelve years later, as I traveled the land, I heard no such "bitter lemons" from Palestinian youth living on the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem and excluding Gaza. I was not allowed to travel to Gaza; the situation there is completely different and requires its own article.) Instead, I observed a new generation of young people displaying cautious confidence and optimism. Take, for example, some students I met in Nablus. This group of 15–20-year-olds is busy setting up their own Internet company that will provide advanced technical tutoring.

Maha, a keen 15-year-old girl whose eyes conveyed a strong sense of purpose, remarked, “I do not know when there will be peace. This will be up to our leaders and Allah. But I don’t care in the long run; I am intent on educating myself and developing our minds to build a new state.”

Faisal, a 17-year-old honors student who has experienced the harshness of the Israeli occupation, echoed similar sentiments. Both he and his father have been taken from their home several times in the cold of winter to stand all night for interrogation. He was never arrested. But the humiliation of having their hands tied behind their backs and being forced to stand all night embittered Faisal. “Still,” he asserted, “I can only fight through education, through bettering my people.”

To be sure, the changes in the Palestinian infrastructure and economy have increased confidence and optimism. Increased tax revenues and growth in investment, both privately and by donor countries, have spurred the economy. Productivity grew by 9% in 2009. The stock market average grew by 11%. New schools, more trained police, new roads, new health centers have been built and improvements were made to the water systems. According to Ghasam Khatib, a spokesman for Prime Minister Fayyad, a calculated psychological message of self-empowerment spread by governmental and religious authorities has also been a vital part of the overall economic program.

But other factors are spurring self-reliance and optimism. Cairo Arafat, a psychologist and advisor to the Palestinian Authority, told me: “The separation wall (built by Israel to shield Israel from the Palestinians) has had unintended effects. The separation wall has changed our focus; we now look more inward. We compare ourselves less with Israelis, more to other Arabs. Before the wall we felt "we can’t do"; now, we focus on our "successes."

However the challenges that remain are great. More than 53% of Palestinians are below the age of 18, and close to one quarter of all Palestinian children live below the poverty line. Almost 90% of Palestinian families do not have a computer at home. Most alarming, however, is the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among these children—close to 40% in many areas of the West Bank. Trauma in children undermines their ability to learn, feel, and ultimately think. The young men of East Jerusalem, once the elite both economically and socially, are now among the most traumatized of the Palestinian populations. Under total Israeli sovereignty, outside the reach of the Palestinian Authority, and harassed daily by Israeli soldiers and police, they are suffering a loss of identity. They face invidious comparisons with Israelis and the corruption of their own culture.

The legacy of problematic national identifications is also an impediment to hope and social renewal. National identifications are slow to change. Modern Palestine has been dominated by numerous foreign powers. Palestinians have experienced repeated displacements, including 50% of their population in 1948, and over forty years of harsh occupation by Israel. These traumas and their legacy of helplessness, despair, and rage are deeply imbedded in the young Palestinians of today. Facts on the grounds, like the checkpoints, exacerbate these wounds and undermine Palestinian growth and resilience.

A new generation of educated elite is attempting to establish a more positive sense of Palestinian identity, but it will take time. Real successes and the recognition and appreciation by the world community of their accomplishments under the harshest of circumstances will surely help. So will a fair peace deal. But many do not expect it. An October 2010 survey conducted by the Near East Consulting Group placed optimism about a future Palestinian state among West Bank residents at only 20%. Nevertheless, over 60% of those polled approve of the current Fayyad government, and note optimism about their own futures.

Whether negotiations succeed or not, this trajectory of self-reliance is leading to hope and confidence, inspiring imagination, critical thinking and innovation. This movement is small at the moment, but it will activate and be activated by a prime minister who calls for an independent declaration of statehood whether or not the Israelis come to the table. If and when that happens, at least 130 other countries are likely to recognize the new state of Palestine. Then it will be Israel’s and the United States’ turn to confront the roots of their own national identity.

Contact the author: Warren Spielberg, PhD