58% depressed: the racism of Israel’s apartheid regime toward Palestinians shows in their mental health

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  July 18, 2023

Ann Arbor – While the Democrats in Washington, D.C. conduct a bizarre debate about whether Israel is a racist state, The World Bank has released some findings from its The Palestinian Psychological Conditions Survey (PPCS). They are summarized by Alia Aghajanian, Arden Finn, Gianluca Mele, and Nadir Mohammed.

In a survey of 5,876 Palestinians in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip during 2022, the researchers found that overall, 58% of adult Palestinians report symptoms that are categorized as indicating depression as it is defined by the World Health Organization’s wellbeing index.

There is a big difference between the two occupied territories, though. Gaza is surrounded and besieged by Israel, which refuses to let it have an airport or a harbor, fires on ships that get more than a few miles from the coast (even fishing boats), and strictly regulates imports. This blockade, in place since 2007, has cost Gaza billions in opportunity costs and has left the Palestinians with high rates of unemployment and food insecurity, along with inadequate medical facilities and schools and a massive shortfall in electricity and potable water. When unarmed, civilian Palestinians in Gaza staged weekly demonstrations at the border with Israel late in the last decade, Israeli snipers killed hundreds of them and maimed thousands, with impunity.

It is illegal for an occupying power to place the occupied population under this sort of economic siege according to the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Rome Statue ratified in 2002, which serves as the charter of the International Criminal Court.

From time to time the Israelis subject Gaza to artillery fire and aerial bombardment. The Palestinians of Gaza have no means of defending themselves from these predations. They have no heavy arms, no cannons, no aircraft, no navy. They do make little rockets of the sort that could be constructed in an 8th grade chemistry class and fire them off toward their former homes from which the Israelis expelled them, and which they expropriated for themselves. Although you will hear Israeli propaganda that they fire thousands of these rockets, it is also true the 99.9% don’t manage to hit anything and land uselessly in the desert. They do occasionally cause some property damage and even inflict harm on human beings, and that is condemnable. However, the number of Gaza Palestinians killed by the Israeli military, and the amount of property damage inflicted, is orders of magnitude greater than what the largely defenseless Palestinians are able to do.

So it is no huge surprise that 71% of the Palestinians in Gaza show symptoms of depression.

The West Bank is not blockaded but it is being colonized by the Israelis, who in defiance of international law have sent hundreds of thousands of their own citizens in to squat on Palestinian-owned farms and orchards. Palestinians’ lives are made miserable by a network of Israeli checkpoints, which can prevent people from getting to the hospital in good time.

It is no surprise that 50% of West Bank Palestinians are depressed.

In addition, 7% of Palestinians showed signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2022.

The Mayo Clinic explains,

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

Other symptoms include “negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world; Hopelessness about the future; Difficulty maintaining close relationships,” and loss of interest in activities you once found rewarding.

The US is a particularly violent society that has fought several wars recently, but only 3.5% of Americans experience PTSD every year.

Palestinians in Gaza were more likely to be exposed to a traumatic event in 2022 (65%) than were people in the West Bank (35%). But West Bank Palestinians were more likely to have PTSD as a result, whereas people in Gaza just got depressed.

The Israeli blockade on Gaza is responsible for a great deal of depression. It is tied to unemployment, which stands at 45% in Gaza but at 13% in the West Bank. Youth in Gaza have an unemployment rate of 70%. Depression is highly correlated with feelings of lack of agency and uselessness, which are reinforced by unemployment.

Being unemployed and without an income can also lead to food insecurity — not starvation, but being just a missed paycheck away from missing a meal. Food insecurity is also highly correlated with being depressed.

The economic conditions of the Palestinians also foster poor health, with 19% being afflicted with chronic diseases and 2% having a disability (including all those young people whose knees were blown out in Gaza, monstrously, by Israeli snipers). Disease and disability are in turn correlated with high levels of depression.

2010 study found that depression is also 2.5 times higher among Israelis of Palestinian heritage than among Jewish Israelis (~25% vs.~10%).

It also appears that the incidence of depression among African Americans is much higher than among whites, and this appears to be because of the effects on them of discrimination and racism.

So, yes, the state of Israel is committing racism every day, and its impact can be seen in the mental health of its occupied population.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment ; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of, among others, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam