The appearance of a book on the impact of political violence on Palestinian families could hardly be timelier. Deaths caused by the present unrest in Israel and Palestine already number over 300, mostly Palestinian, in what is arguably one of the most written-about conflicts of the late 20th century. A book aiming to offer something new on the subject could easily bring readers into the lives of families affected by the trials of over 33 years of military occupation. Unfortunately, this is hardly such a book.
Vivian Khamis, chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Bethlehem University in the West Bank, has doubtless written for an academic audience. It would take a tenacity rare in any casual reader to get through her formulas and methodology. But this does a disservice to her subject — the Palestinians — who here are made to speak mostly through “support variables” and “multiple logistic regressions.”
This did not have to be. Khamis apparently began with a wealth of material on over 900 families, gathered in the course of years of interviews in Palestine, yet she devotes just 15 pages to quoting them — still the most valuable part of the book.
Khamis researches the underrepresented majority who are not out in the streets taking bullets or beatings, but who nonetheless suffer directly from such violence. In doing this, she probes qualitative change in Palestinian mental health, instead of such quantitative measurements as the casualty counts that make the daily headlines.
Her diagnostic focus is on posttraumatic stress disorder, a condition identified in many U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, Khamis does not sufficiently clarify just what the disorder entails for Palestinians, aside from general anxiety or depression, though it is understandable how such mental pressure can affect family relationships.
She finds that in the Palestinian context this disorder is most severe in people who have had a family member killed in the intifada, followed by those with relatives injured, homes demolished or relatives imprisoned, in that order. Women are far likelier to show symptoms of the disorder, Khamis finds, especially those left alone by death or divorce.
The Gaza Strip has the highest proportion of people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, the study finds, followed by the West Bank and then Jerusalem. This makes sense: The Gaza Strip has one of the highest population densities in the world — close to 1 million people packed into 361 sq. km. Add an unemployment rate of over 25 percent, and the distress greatly intensifies.
However, it’s the passages taken from Khamis’ interviews with anonymous Palestinians that prove most rewarding, especially since they largely discredit any simplistic, us-vs.-them view of the Middle East conflict. For example, many, if not most, of the sentiments vented by the interviewees are directed at the Palestinian authorities rather than the Israelis. In fact, the word “Israeli” rarely appears in their accounts of killings and humiliations. Such afflictions are “expected” from the “enemy,” Khamis records, meaning that the bitterest outrage is felt over the Palestinian Authority’s alleged betrayal of its people since it changed from a popular guerrilla group a proper administrative power with its own weight to throw around.
Interviewees tell how they were snubbed by the PA when resources were distributed; how a form of class oppression has arisen, with the dispossessed exploited by the recently empowered; how solidarity among neighbors has crumbled since the 1993 Oslo Accords legitimized the Palestinian leadership and introduced a plague of factionalism; and how paranoia has prevented people from helping troubled neighbors out of fear of being negatively associated with them or their activities. What follows in this gloomy recipe of despair is another blow to the psychologically stricken; what Khamis calls “secondary victimization:” the rejection felt by victims of violence when their loss is overlooked by the community, such as when the due rewards for a martyr’s family do not materialize.
A fuller discussion might have gone beyond the effects of physical violence to include the resentment inspired by subtler forms of political violence; the sort that has destitute families paying exorbitant prices for scare fresh water while just up the hill, settlements boast swimming pools and water subsidized by the state. Or where farmers’ orchards are razed to afford better visibility for military installations that are there to protect the settlements in the first place. Such policies surely pick away at people’s mental stability. With such added details, Khamis could have brought her subject more vividly to life. It’s clear she wished to generate sympathy for the Palestinians and an understanding of their condition, but it’s hard to do that with statistics alone.