This complex subject is presented with meticulous research by Lara Sheehi and Stephen Sheehi in Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practising Resistance in Palestine (Routledge, 2022). The book goes beyond the 1948 Nakba to portray how Israel’s settler-colonial violence cannot be removed from the Palestinian experience and its psychological impact, and the importance of a decolonial approach by clinicians towards their Palestinian patients in order to understand their psychological trauma as well as contribute towards the collective goal of liberation.
“Psychoanalysis provides a theoretical framework for Palestinian clinicians and for ourselves to understand the experiences of Palestinians and the conditions of Zionist settler colonialism and military occupation under which they live,” write the authors in their introduction.
The book presents ample feedback from in-depth interviews with Palestinian mental health professionals; draws upon decolonial writers such as Frantz Fanon; and presents case studies of Palestinian patients.
The authors affirm their interest “in witnessing how Palestinian psychologists and activists map the psychic structures that govern the relationship between Palestinians, and how Israeli structures of occupation attempt to break or mediate those social and political relations.” As the book’s title reflects, putting the Palestinian psychological experience at the helm, while refuting the usual practices of speaking on behalf of, or for, Palestinians, creates a space for psychoanalysis practice to be seen in its specific socio-political conditions of violence as a result of Israel’s settler-colonial presence in Palestine. The authors are Lebanese and so their positioning is imperative to reading the book as bringing the Palestinian narratives to the fore.
With settler-colonialism affecting Palestinian lives, the authors note how David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, intended Israel’s colonial violence to be psychological. The same extension of violence applies to the restrictions placed upon and closure of Palestinian space, through illegal settlement expansion and other impediments to free movement. The authors affirm the need to clarify Zionism as a settler-colonial ideology and illustrate how the Palestinian psychoanalytical practice is also targeted with the disruption which Israel’s violence inflicts upon the entire population. Furthermore, given that the history of psychoanalysis in Palestine is also dominated by the Zionist colonial narrative and state-building on colonised Palestinian land, it is important to note the politics of erasure and its impact on clinical practice. Despite the notable history of psychoanalysis in the Arab world and in Palestine, its narrative is also dominated by the settler-colonial discourse.
Against such a backdrop, therefore, the book asserts that psychoanalytical practice in Palestine incorporates the political, as Palestinian patients struggle with mental heath issues within the settler-colonial context and experience. It is, therefore, a practice which engages with the entire spectrum of colonial violence. As the authors assert, clinicians encounter several obstacles in their practices which all stem from the settler-colonial context and which can also obstruct the Palestinian narrative of mental health, where the use of language is paramount for accurate expression and depiction. “Connecting to language,” state the authors, “is so pivotal, especially when the political forces, whether that of the Israeli settler-colonial state, the international aid community, or the [Palestinian Authority], work to vacate and reengineer the language that describes political and social conditions.”
The book also describes how Israel enhances the erasure of Palestinians by employing Palestinian citizens of Israel who are mental health professionals to work in its mental health institutions, where their employment is used by the settler-colonial state to strengthen its legitimacy. In turn, this erasure places extra burdens upon Palestinian psychoanalysts, notably the requirement to work from within a settler-colonial institution to provide treatment for the colonised.
The legitimacy which Israel craves, as well as normalisation of violence in clinical practice, is another issue which the book discusses in detail. One chapter deals with dialogue and misconceptions which, the authors state, “function as an extension of the Israeli asphyxiatory closure system and, especially in the contemporary moment, work to naturalise settler-colonial society and structures that consider settlers as ‘native’, entitled to the land that they have colonised.” As in other aspects related to settler-colonial politics, mental health is no exception when it comes to normalising colonialism through dialogue, which becomes another form of coercion for both Palestinian practitioners and patients.
Within this context of violence and erasure, Palestinian clinicians are going beyond the Western interpretation of the practice to provide the space for the Palestinian patients to connect and resolve their trauma within their immediate contexts and their history. Yet it is difficult to escape the web which settler-colonial politics weaves among the colonised to suffocate their space. The conditioning of financial aid for Palestinian mental health practices is one such example which illustrates subjugation to the settler-colonial narrative and its allies. Palestinian mental health trainees who attend training provided by Israel also find themselves indirectly normalising Israel’s settler-colonial narrative, where Israel appears as the entity offering Palestinian clinicians the opportunity to help Palestinian patients.
While keeping in mind that Palestinian mental health patients have their own particular and unique psychopathology, the backdrop to individual manifestations of psychological disorders is Israel’s settler-colonial politics and violence. The final chapter deals with suicide and its manifestations in political discourse as well as how this applies to the Palestinian experience. The authors note that “psychological and political resistance occurs in the clinical sphere as much as in popular cultural resistance.” Through mental health practices, Palestinian clinicians are using the space within the settler-colonial context to contribute towards mobilisation against colonial violence.
The book concludes with a quote from prominent Palestinian psychiatrist Samah Jabr: “Traumatic events cannot be banished from consciousness when they are not banished from communal reality. Acknowledging this reality is a social process, beyond the bounds of individual psychotherapy.”
Psychoanalytical practice in Palestine, therefore, stands in direct confrontation with settler-colonial narratives through providing the space for healing Palestinians’ historical trauma.