“The novelty of the coronavirus epidemic confronts everybody with the unknown, bringing a loss of control and a sense of powerlessness,” said MSF psychologist Samieh Malhees, who has spent the past five years providing free psychological consultations and social services to the population of Nablus . “Since the lockdown started, I have been unable to meet my patients, so I try to provide regular consultations by phone. It’s hard for me as I always try to keep my family away from the heaviest side of my job. And it’s also hard for those patients who don’t have a safe space at home where they can talk with me. But we need to keep up our program. Providing psychosocial support to people already facing a load of mental distress is of the utmost importance now.”
The spread of COVID-19 in Israel and the Palestinian Territories has not stopped the violence in the West Bank. In March, clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinians continued, as did arrest operations, house demolitions, and seizures of Palestinian properties by the Israeli army. While Israeli and Palestinian authorities are cracking down on people’s movements and enforcing physical distancing in an attempt to curb the outbreak, attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians rose by 78 percent in the West Bank in the last two weeks of March, according to the UN.
“Episodes of physical and verbal assault, stone-throwing, damage to Palestinian property, and vandalizing cars, houses, and agricultural property are very frequent in this area, added to routinely heavy-handed operations by the Israeli military,” says Zaid-Alkilani. “The result is a pattern of widespread, relentless violence that is taking its toll on the mental health of thousands of people and the wellbeing of entire communities. This adds to the more common causes of stress and anxiety, such as family issues or lack of financial security that Palestinians share with other societies across the world. This virus and the lockdown aren’t reversing the trend.”
Violence has been a fact of life in the West Bank for decades, and it permeates domestic dynamics, creating difficulties within the home and within family relationships. For the majority of people who seek psychological support at MSF’s clinics, their distress originates in the home—for example family issues and various forms of domestic violence. Sometimes, both sources of psychological disorder—the context of recurring violence and more commonplace family matters—become intertwined and hard to separate from one another.
“One of my patients told me that her husband shouts at her and the children like some Israeli soldiers used to shout at him,” says Malhees. “Another told me that her husband became abusive after he was severely wounded during clashes. These cases aren’t isolated. I can trace a pattern where feelings of oppression, humiliation, powerlessness, and anger due to the occupation intrude on family bonding, and violence takes its course in a vicious cycle.”
Since 2001, MSF has been running psychological support programs for people suffering from mental health issues as a direct and indirect result of violence in the West Bank.
In Nablus and Qalqilya, MSF provides psychotherapeutic and psychiatric assistance, group therapy, group mental health awareness sessions, and psychosocial support activities in two clinics and in a new consultation room opened in Tubas in December 2019.
In Hebron district, our team of locally hired and international psychologists, counselors, and medical staff provide home visits, individual and group psychosocial sessions, and psychotherapy consultations for adults, teenagers, and children directly and indirectly affected by conflict-related violence.
In 2019, MSF ran a total of 5,240 counseling and psychotherapy sessions and 2,398 patients received psychotherapy support in the West Bank.