Internalized Oppression: Yet another Loss for an Occupied Nation

Sacrifices must be made and sometimes risks must be taken to snatch our life from the jaws of death. (Photo:

By Samah Jabr – Jerusalem, Palestine

The chronic tyranny brought by the Israeli occupation has had a devastating effect on the wellbeing of the Palestinian community. But one of the worst effects is the internalization of oppression and the undermining of Palestinian’s collective self-concept.  I have observed that since the 2006 elections in Palestine—which were followed by an arrest of the elected parliamentarians and an international boycott of the elected government—the vigorous spirit of the Palestinian community that had previously evolved during long years of resistance has finally been reduced to a state of demoralization.The undermining of this election represented an additional bitter blow after the more subtle impact of the Oslo’s Accords, which had been originally promoted as part of the Palestinian liberation project. However, reports published on the Accord’s 20th anniversary showed that during this period the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank had doubled and the area controlled by settlements had expanded to 42 % of Palestinian land; furthermore, a system of restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade had continued its division of Palestinian families and its decimation of the economy. No mention the infamous collaboration between Palestinian and Israeli security forces that has secured for Israelis a profitable trade and tourism through bed and breakfast hotels overlooking the magnificent hills of the West Bank, dismantled resistance, and incarcerated more Palestinians in prisons.

Over years of occupation, young Palestinians saw their fathers dragged from homes by Israeli soldiers, humiliated at checkpoints, and rendered unable to provide for their families’ safety and basic needs. In reaction to their feelings of shame, such vulnerable children came to identify with the oppressor through oppressing weaker members of their community and developing self-loathing. A Palestinian Jerusalemite told me, “On holidays I don’t go to Eilat because it will be full of Arabs!”  The efforts of some Palestinians to assimilate and identify with Israelis are truly pathetic. Some Palestinians shop for their clothing in Israeli boutiques, dress their hair in Israeli salons, and drive while listening to loud music in Hebrew. I have observed more than one Palestinian patient suffering a relapse of manic illness who spoke to me in Hebrew as an expression of grandiosity.  Meanwhile, the reality of job opportunities in the West Bank is dismal and work conditions are miserable, so that many laborers are eager to work for Israelis even if they must work in settlements or participate in projects such as building the separation wall. These workers are often treated by Israelis as sub-human:  a few months ago Ahsan Abu-Srur, a 54 year old unauthorized Palestinian construction worker from Askar refugee camp, was seriously injured while doing renovation work in Tel Aviv.  Realizing that he was critically injured, the Israeli contractor and two of his workers dragged the man to the sidewalk opposite the workplace and left him there to die.

The experience of oppression undermines the internal cohesion of the oppressed and creates among them a state of polarization, in which they often direct their rage at others who are similarly victimized. Oppression makes people selfish and greedy, prone to infighting and competition over scarce resources—the scraps of opportunities left over from the oppressor. Oppressed people readily become resentful and envious of one another, creating an ambiance of mutual distrust.

The sense of inferiority resulting from internalized oppression sets into motion a vicious cycle. We are treated as inferior—and in the absence of resistance, resilience and self-defense, we internalize the assumption of our own inferiority. Thus we come to believe that we are less capable and less worthy than others. These feelings are then projected onto our perceptions of one another and enacted in our treatment of one another. In this way, Palestinians come to distrust and devalue their own educational and medical systems; there is a spiteful oppression of women, a contemptuous attitude towards persons of a lower socioeconomic class, and an exclusionary and intolerant attitude towards political opposition—just a few manifestations of our internalized oppression.

Nowadays, there is a widespread, corrupt system of influence and cronyism in Palestine such that most people are employees of the government.  As a consequence, our agriculture is suffering, small independent businesses are crushed, and only the enterprises of a tiny minority, closely allied to the government can flourish. Young people are trapped in a cycle of consumerism, with new apartments, cars, and big loans from banks requiring a relentless lifetime of repayment. The result is decreased social involvement and productivity and rising rates of crime, addiction and diminished wellbeing. Pervasive inadequacy throughout our institutions, nepotism, false representation and mistreatment and torture of Palestinians by fellow Palestinians are just a few of the symptoms of the general degradation of our community.

Community leaders and politicians fail to restore our national dignity and pride by taking steps to break through this vicious cycle and shedding light upon resilience, productivity, authenticity and steadfastness. We remember the submissive words of the President following the western boycott of the electoral results, “If we have to choose between bread and democracy, we choose bread.”  Since the partition between the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian official discourse seems to confuse the doer and the do-ee. In its relationship with Israel, our officials assume the role of the oppressor, condemning spontaneous Palestinian reactions to Israeli violations and promoting meek submission to Israeli oppression. The people of Palestine are cast by our leadership into the role of the suspect, the offender; such reactions only feed into the entitlement of the occupier’s spin on reality, which turns us into victimizers and assumes the role of the victim.

The submissiveness urged by our leaders goes beyond condemning armed resistance to trivializing non-violent measures such as the imposition of boycotts and the use of international law to hold Israel accountable for its actions; the Palestinian official position toward the Goldstone report on Israel’s war crimes is an illustrative example.  We should not be deceived by the exaggerated festivities surrounding the UN General Assembly’s change of Palestine’s “entity” status to “non-member observer state.” The change in status was just a smoke screen to blur our perception of the revolutions taking place within the Arab world. We may have retitled our postal stamps by the addition of the words, “State of Palestine,” but have yet to take a single war criminal to the Hague and have yet to pursue our legal right to Palestinian land, waters, or air space—as any sovereign state recognized by the UN would surely do. Instead, “secretive” negotiations continue in the dark while Israel continues to approve the construction of more settlement homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and the demolition of more Palestinian homes.

The Palestinian President reassures the world that a Palestinian state will be demilitarized while two thirds of the national budget goes to our security forces. Meanwhile, healthcare, education, social welfare, and all other national programs survive on one third of the budget! We need only look to our neighboring Arab countries who were impoverished  for decades as they fed the fat cats who ran their armies, while their own starving people were duped into the belief that these armies would “defend” them one day. Now these armies devour the very same people who had supported them—but are we Palestinians any better?

Internalized oppression is driven by several engines.

The first is media. Anger and dissatisfaction create the momentum for social change, but an artificial leisure and entertainment industry will blind and distract a frustrated public from the reality around them and create a false consciousness. Local media bombard our eyes and ears to dull our critical faculties and weaken our ability to protest, resist, or revolt. Media owners and their donor capitalists ally with the political elite to impose their tastes and ideology on the public. Mohammad Assaf, the Palestinian winning Arab Idol, is a good example—a charming vocalist with a beautiful voice. But the media promotes this triumph as the symbol of “the Palestinian plight,” and mobilizes the public to become consumers of a simplistic, reductionist, and deceptive exploitation of his charm; a thing of beauty can be used for ugly purposes. One might ask why the local media failed to make an equal effort to mobilize against the siege  on Gaza, the Prawer plan, or in the service of transparency regarding the ongoing negotiations—matters which connect directly with most Palestinians and their plight!

International donation is the second engine. It is a paradox that oppression can come to us through the doors and windows of freedom, openness, and efforts to do good. In her study, “Promoting Democracy in Palestine: Donation and the Democratization of the West Bank and Gaza,” Dr. Leila Farsakh concluded that such projects sought to promote the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority rather than empowering the Palestinian public to challenge the dominance of the Authority or to critique its definition of the national liberation project.  Donor-driven projects fail to devote sufficient attention to important institutions central to the democratic process, such as the parliament, political parties, and the electoral process.  In the end, these projects tend to entrench the occupation rather than helping Palestinians to create the conditions for national liberation; these projects tend to intensify the grip of the Authority instead of strengthening independent-minded channels.

The third engine is the domain of education and institutionalized religion. This year, five Palestinian schools in East Jerusalem substituted the Palestinian curriculum with the Israeli one. The Jerusalem municipality went on to award the administration of these five schools by increasing the personal salaries of their principals and paying them 2000 NIS for every student registered in their schools. A mere glance at the Israeli curriculum reveals how it distorts history, religion, geography, and eventually the mindset and the national culture of pupils:  In one textbook, two pupils discuss how Israel brought electricity to their village and granted national insurance to children and their elders; the pupils conclude that they should join the celebration on “Israel’s Independence Day.” And while some of our children are savoring a toxic dose of Israeli indoctrination, others are anesthetized by some misleading religious leaders who form an unholy league with political and financial power elites.  Manipulating the public with an insidious form of mind control, they come up with “teachings” promoting a fatalistic, mystical frame of mind and issue “fatwas” that promote compliance and conformity. These religious leaders promote the status quo with all its agony and disadvantages and inhibit people from embracing genuine reform and social change, encouraging people to pin their hopes on the afterlife rather than dealing with the misery of the here and now.

In conclusion, since decisions and behaviors of our leaders do nothing but establish internalized oppression, it becomes the social responsibility of ordinary people to work actively to recognize and alleviate this threat to wellbeing, in order to prevent the demise of the Palestinian spirit and cause.   Raising awareness about the phenomenon, monitoring and protesting its appearance in official discourse and behavior, bearing witness, empowering economic development, resisting consumerism, connecting them with their own history and community, and helping then to analyze reality— are just a few tools to liberate Palestinians from internalized oppression. So much has been done to efface, harm, eradicate the Palestinian nation or to disfigure it forever. We cannot simply wait for justice to happen—justice is something we must work hard to actualize.  Sacrifices must be made and sometimes risks must be taken to snatch our life from the jaws of death. Commitment, awareness, wisdom, and planning are required for recovery and salvation of this injured life—as we want a decent life, not any life. Our work for healing and recovery is indivisible from our work for liberation.

– Samah Jabr is a Jerusalemite psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the wellbeing of her community – beyond issues of mental illness. She contributed this article to

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  1. Excellent article! I was teaching 10 years in Palestine at a university and I felt just the same. My students started to tell me that I was more “palestinian” than some of them. I believe deeply that struggling against this feeling of inferiority and this deep depression has to start from the schools and universities. Make the young people know their history, let them know that they can act, explain the inferiority feeling and eradicate it by giving opportunity to succeed…
    Thanks for this analysis.

  2. I am infuriated by the policies of Zionism. Apartheid makes me physically ill. I support the BDS movement. I do all I can to inform people about what is really happening to the Palestinians. I support the Palestinians in their quest for justice. They deserve better leaders than Abbas. He will sell out the Palestinians for a mess of political perks.

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