One of the many ways in which the Israeli government controls the Palestinian population – alongside the Separation Wall, water shortages, the appropriation of Palestinian land and the segregation of Palestinians living in different occupied areas – is through house demolition. Approximately 46,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished since 1967 in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and around 52,000 within the state of Israel since the Nakba in 1948. What does it mean to have one’s home demolished? I came to this question both as a human being and, professionally, as a family therapist. What could it possibly mean to have, not just one’s house but one’s home demolished? What would that feel like and what would be the ongoing effects on family life?
I spent two weeks in Palestine in the summer of 2015 as part of a summer camp organised by the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions. We were helped in our efforts to understand the effect of house demolition on family life by Salwa Duabis of the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling in Ramallah and by Nadia Harshash, a psychotherapist. They each spoke about the psychological impact that demolitions have on the family.
One of the somewhat unexpected effects described by Nadia was the role reversal that may occur, for it is the mother rather than the father who often first confronts the military on the doorstep. She is more vulnerable and therefore more difficult for them to deal with, but the strategy also has the effect of emasculating the father and arousing in him impotent rage, which he may displace later onto his wife. The total removal of everything that a home stands for in terms of its security and opportunity to be sheltered from a hostile world – to regress, in a normal and healthy way, as part of the oscillating pattern of child and adult behaviour which makes for normal psychological functioning – this total loss is hard for others to comprehend. It leaves us feeling helpless and finding that we have to own up to a profound failure of imagination. The total invasion of privacy that is experienced – having one’s private life opened to the eyes of the world in a culture that has strong boundaries between what is appropriate for public view and what is for the family’s inner world alone is deeply damaging to the delicate fabric of family relationships that are built up on these shared intimacies over many years.
Even more traumatic is the loss of so much that has personal and symbolic meaning – tiny artefacts that may have no obvious pecuniary value yet link their owners to important life events. Photographs and personal papers, all dumped by a bulldozer into a damaged disreputable heap, alongside the stable necessities of everyday life – furniture, pots and pans, toilets, beds and toys. But worst of all perhaps is the sense of being so hated, so uncared for, so rejected by other human beings that one’s own personal sense of identity and self-worth is obviously called into question. The daily humiliations suffered by the Palestinians on many different levels, reaches its climax in the experience of having one’s home demolished – often before one’s very eyes. The terror and fear experienced by young children may leave lasting scars and we were told of a young child who underwent a severe psychotic breakdown some years after experiencing his home demolished several times. For all this can happen multiple times – six times in fact in the case of the family with whom we were staying.
What can possibly legitimize such behaviour on the part of any government? And the final twist of cruelty is that the family has to pay for the cost of the demolition or else demolish their home themselves (as happened in the case of the family for whom we were rebuilding a house during this camp). The latter may entail an even greater assault on the family’s emotional and psychological integrity, subtly shifting the responsibility for the disaster onto the family members themselves, increasing their confusion and fracturing their sense of solidarity. Being a participant in this event was a unique and life changing experience for me, focussing my attention as never before on the personal day to day experience of what the occupation means to ordinary Palestinian families. Being part of an international group was also extremely enriching as it made me much more aware of the way that countries in all parts of the world are united in their revulsion at the treatment of the Palestinian people and in their determination to work for their human rights to be recognised and implemented.
During the two weeks we were able to meet with several groups and with various individuals who were working towards bringing to an end the illegal occupation. Almost all of these were Israeli Jews, as were the staff of the Israeli Committee who has organised this house building programme for many years. I found this fact impressive as it underlined the way in which the desire to bring justice to the Palestinian people can only be of benefit to the people of Israel too, for the way to lasting peace for both communities can only be built upon the sure foundation of human rights for all.
– Rev’d Sue Skinner, UK.
– Sue collecting rocks for the dry stone wall surrounding the house.