The siege without and the Siege within: An Israeli perspective
Paper presented at the conference on: "Siege and Mental Health… Walls vs. Bridges"
27-28 October, 2008, Gaza City – Palestine
By Uri Hadar, Department of Psychology, Tel Aviv University
The current siege situation is horrendous for the besieged, but it is also very frustrating for Israeli activists: There is very little we can do in the large picture, having no influence on policy makers and, to make things worse, most Israelis view Gaza as Hamas-land, and therefore support everything that the army suggests. This is the reason why, in Gaza, we have seen some of the most unrestrained actions of the Israeli army, such as dropping a one-tone bomb in a residential area or not hesitating to shoot at innocent children on the beach, by way of "collateral damage". A former chief of the army’s staff, who authorized the dropping of the one-tone bomb, has announced that he never lost sleep over the death of people in Gaza. This is the reality within which we – Israeli activists- perform our actions.
Yet, despite the hostile atmosphere in the Israeli public and leadership, we have managed to stage some very powerful actions in the past year, as the siege policies became increasingly tight. Thus, last winter, there was a relatively large 'Break the Siege' demonstration, held jointly in Erez and Gaza, in collaboration with the Gazan Coalition to End the Siege. Tens of cars drove along busy Israeli traffic arteries- from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem- carrying banners that called to stop the siege on Gaza. At the end of the protest cavalcade, a few thousand demonstrators gathered just outside of the Erez crossing and heard speeches against the siege. In addition, we transferred truck-loads of goods provided according to a list we received from our Gazan partners, a transfer that involved much negotiation with the Israeli authorities. In another action, a boat carrying peace activists from around the world entered Gaza: its passengers held a demonstration and conducted press conferences in Gaza city.
You could say that, in both of these events, the semiotic principle, that is, the manner in which these events created their message, was a symbolic breaking of the siege. In the absence of any ability to concretely affect the siege situation, the most powerful tool that is available to us is symbolic action, where the highlight of the action is the symbolic breaking of the siege. In symbolic action, a major part of the effect of the action does not occur on a concrete level, but in the imagination of those who witness it, either by participating or through mediating communication (personal or mass media).
The siege situation is only the most extreme case in which Israeli policies aim to enclose large Palestinian populations and separate them from the rest of the world. In the West Bank, the Wall represents a very similar principle of oppression through exclusion. Both of these methods also have symbolic determinations- however unconscious- namely, to consign Palestinians to a realm that is beyond common humanity. Given the widespread siege-like policies of Israel and the poor ability of activism to affect these policies, what we should have in mind in the way we involve with public action, is more the symbolic nature of the activity, and less the immediate possible effects. Here, the main objective of symbolic action is precisely the breaking of the categorical, formal, or mental divisions, or walls, that cause various forms of stagnation and despair. Although something physical, actual, or concrete may happen between the sides of the Wall or of the Siege, in symbolic action the main effect is what happens mentally to those who take part in the action and to those who become aware of it. What happens is the breaking of the imaginary line that separates the inhabitants of Gaza or the inhabitants of the West Bank from the rest of the world. This crumbling or erosion of the image of the Palestinians as besieged happens to everyone who partakes in the symbolic activity, as well as to those who observe it from close enough (even if the definition of ‘close enough’ is indeterminate, because it is not so simple to say what "close enough" would entail exactly). The prime result of this crossing of the imaginary line of closure is the empowerment of those – on both parts of the division - who partake in this experience. The sense that one is not totally entrapped, that one’s space has another horizon, renders accessible new mental resources, those that lie behind the lines of the mental siege. Personally, I can relate that every time I return from a meeting with Palestinians, be it in Ramallah or picking olives in Tel Rumeida, I feel stronger, mentally, more determined to continue my resistance to the occupation, no matter how grim the realities. I know that similar things happen to those Israelis and Palestinians with whom I work.
The organizers of this conference offer a magnificent case study of the effects of the mental breaking of the siege. Under the inspired leadership of Dr Sarraj, the philosophy of working together with like-minded Israelis has been fundamental in the operation of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. Throughout its years, the Program has hosted Israelis who worked with them on both professional and socio-political levels. One result of this mental crossing of boundaries is this amazing event that we have been witnessing in the past three days when, despite the obstacles that Israeli policies have time and again been generating, the organizers managed to continue and execute this extraordinary conference - a truly unique event these days. Indeed, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program has been central in organizing the wider coalition that acts from within Gaza, with Israeli and International participation, in conducting activities that draw the world's attention to this terrible siege and its debilitating consequences. I have a feeling - and I have been in conversation about this with a number of people from the Program in Gaza- that the crossing of mental boundaries also has a positive personal impact. I sense that members of the Program have been better able to struggle with the daily consequences of the siege, the realities of shortages and violence, and not give in to despair and the culture of death.
I think that what we are learning from the crossing of mental boundaries can be put to good use for any meaningful action against the occupation generally, and its more local manifestations particularly. Whether in Gaza or in Bilin, whether in Tel Rumeida or at the Erez crossing - activity should benefit from coordination and co-participation of Palestinians, Israelis and Internationals. This, of course, is not a new insight. My point is merely to specify the unique consequences when mental sieges are broken, for instance, as said, by joint Palestinian-Israeli action. And I want to stress this because wide circles in the occupied territories resist collaborations with Israelis and dub it ‘normalization’. To give just one example of many, I have recently been involved with the attempt to organize a course for mental health workers in the Hebron area. The two local organizers were very effective and managed to get more than 30 professionals interested in the course, which was due to be taught by both Jewish and Palestinian lecturers. They also managed to get a Palestinian technical college to offer space and host the course, which consisted of lectures and group discussions in psychopathology and psychotherapy. Alas, after only three half-day meetings, the Union in Hebron banned the course and forced the college to withdraw its support. This, despite the fact that the Israeli partner - called ‘Psychoactive – mental health professionals for human rights’- is active in the struggle against the occupation and its evils. For me this is a sad case of overshooting, so to speak. The course could lay the ground for common activities and could strengthen its participants in their struggle against the occupation, even only by virtue of crossing imaginary boundaries.
Of course, I understand the degree of disappointment with the results of the Oslo accord and the agreements that followed it. Yet, let us not lose the baby with the bath water: Joint activities between Israelis and Palestinians have immense value, not only in the ability to do things that one could not do otherwise but also, and sadly, in the current realities, more significantly, in improving the mental resistance of those who live under this terrible occupation, as well as those of us on the Israeli side who try to act against it. When guided by the principle of resistance to the occupation, common activity among Palestinians, Israelis and Internationals is one of the best prescriptions for cracking the siege within.