Psychosocial side of Israel-Palestine conflict explored

Conference tries to end domination of issue by non-specialist UK academics. Matthew Reisz reports

October 22, 2009

For Mohamad Mukhaimar, a psychologist from Gaza, there was something fundamentally wrong with Tony Blair's style of peace-making in the Middle East.

By exploring only economic solutions and ignoring the psychological dimensions, the former Prime Minister was, said Mr Mukhaimar, adopting "a humiliating approach to Palestinians' open pain".

Hope could come only when feelings of anger, humiliation and the need for recognition were addressed alongside purely material factors, he said. Talk of "post-traumatic stress disorder" among Palestinians made little sense when the traumas were continuing, he told the "Sites of Conflict: Psycho-Political Resistance in Palestine-Israel" conference at Birkbeck, University of London, last week.

Organiser Lynne Segal, anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck, said the conference was inspired by a group of Israeli and Palestinian mental health professionals who shared a commitment to dialogue, non-violence and peace - and found ways to keep talking even during the Israeli assaults on Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and 2008.

It might be asked why non-specialist British academics feel able, or even duty bound, to involve themselves in tackling the Middle East crisis. "As scholars, we want to be able to hear the voices of people striving to end this conflict," Professor Segal explained.

"It is our responsibility as British academics to foster communication. One of our remits as a department of psychosocial studies is to think about sites of conflict."

To this end, the conference organisers planned to bring clinicians from Israel and Palestine to Britain for the first time and to devote one day of the conference to their experiences, while using the second day to expand the argument to other conflicts.

But nothing in the Middle East is ever simple.

Of the planned participants from the West Bank and Gaza, one had to drop out because of ill heath and several more were not allowed to travel. One was given permission to leave Israel but refused permission to enter the UK, as endless paperwork shuffled back and forth between the British consulates in West Jerusalem and Amman.

This meant that although a speaker from Ramallah delivered a paper via Skype about the complex relationships that can develop between Israeli officers and Palestinian prisoners, several other important "voices" were not to be heard.

Mr Mukhaimar described daily life in Gaza under a "suffocating siege", where poor employment prospects often led to a loss of self-worth - and sometimes domestic violence - among men, while their sons sought alternative role models in the resistance fighters.

Asked how therapists, who have often themselves lost loved ones, could hope to "cure" their patients in such circumstances, he said mental-health practitioners on both sides were "breaking through the wall of fear, hatred and paranoia" one small step at a time.

Israel/Palestine remains one of the world's most intractable conflicts, a poisoned chalice for successive American presidents and a divisive issue within British universities, where many academics from Jewish or Arab backgrounds feel personally implicated.

For Stephen Frosh, professor of psychology at Birkbeck, that is precisely why it deserves academic attention. His department of psychosocial studies, he said, has "a tradition of critical thinking and radical thought, of looking sideways at problematic issues of conflict and violence".

The conference, which took place on 15-16 October, "represents both an act of solidarity with those working across the divide and a commitment to certain kinds of conversation", he said.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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