Palestine: Therapies to better cope with violence

In the Nablus region, Wissam, an MSF psychologist, meets with patients who are victims of settler violence

Troops stormed house
In the village of Salem, near Hebron, in Palestine, Wissam is meeting with 48 year-old Um Taha for the second time. Wissam is a psychologist and works for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Um Taha's husband died five years ago and she lives in Salem with her nine children. Her 28 year-old son was arrested recently by the Israeli army. Troops stormed the house one night, beat Um Taha violently and aimed a gun at her. They also turned the house upside down, destroying everything they found. Her son was sent to prison for seven years. Since his arrest, Um Taha can no longer sleep, has nightmares and has become depressed. She hopes that talking about her problems with Wissam will help her return to a normal life.

Victims of settler pressure
Seventy percent of the population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, estimated at 2.6 million people, lives in areas under the control of the Israeli army. Approximately 520,000 Israeli settlers have moved there. Palestinians are the victims of the violence and psychological pressure that the settlements have created.

MSF has operated a psycho-medical-social programme in Nablus since 2004. The patients who meet with the MSF teams display post-traumatic stress syndromes and suffer from acute stress, anxiety and depression, which affect their daily lives. The techniques that the teams use in therapy are based on oral exchange, cognitive and behavioral tools, relaxation, play and drawing. Some illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, require medical treatment as well.

Frequent incursions
When the session is over, Wissam goes to Jaloud, a small village surrounded by four Israeli settlements. She wants to visit a former patient and her daughter. Um Fawaz is 56, but looks older. She was born and still lives in Jaloud. The settlers make frequent incursions into the village, armed with sticks and, sometimes, guns. They throw stones at residents' windows, enter houses and threaten residents, frightening them. Violence and intimidation are daily occurrences.

Last May, Um Fawaz’s 13 year-old daughter, Soulafa, was at school when settlers tried to enter the classrooms. Soulafa and the other children were terror-stricken. “Luckily, the teachers locked the school doors and the settlers left after a little while," Um Fawaz says. “But now I’m always afraid for my daughter when she goes to school.”

Restoring an acceptable level of health
After talking for a few minutes, Um Fawaz wants to show Wissam the olive grove below the village. The settlers burned ten trees a few days ago. They want the Palestinians to leave their houses and land. Um Fawaz will not leave. The price for her decision is living in fear and insecurity every day. An MSF psychologist (assisted by a doctor and a social worker) treated her for six months, providing her an opportunity to talk about her suffering and learn to cope better with the violence that seems difficult, if not impossible, to escape. Through these sessions, MSF is trying – in spite of everything – to restore an acceptable level of physical and psychological health.

In addition to the Nablus programme, the organization also operates a psycho-medical-social programme in Hebron and East Jerusalem. MSF has been working in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Gaza since 2000.