Most people don’t know what it’s like to live under foreign military occupation, bombardment, blockade, and apartheid rule. However, all of us have an acute understanding of how happiness brings hope and optimism, whereas unhappiness delivers hopelessness and pessimism.
Knowing the difference between the two polar opposite emotional states is to know how the psychological wellbeing of Palestinians sits on a vastly different plane to Israelis, despite both sets of people living under the rule of the same government – the government of Israel.
Their disparate realities are captured in the most recent UN World Happiness Report, which has Israel breaking into the top 10 of the world’s happiest countries for the first time, ranked 9th, with the Palestinians Territories ranked towards the bottom in 122nd place.
Israel breaks into the top 10 of the world’s happiest countries for the first time.
Whereas ordinary Israelis are as happy as those who live in the most economically, socially, and politically prosperous nations on earth, such as Switzerland, Luxemburg, and Denmark, the Palestinians are as unhappy as those who live in war-torn and killing-plagued countries, such as Myanmar, Iraq, and Yemen.
In other words, Israelis are living their best lives, while Palestinians are living their worst.
The rankings were based on six major positive or negative determinants of happiness, including income, life expectancy, generosity, corruption, freedom, and social support. The authors were able to plot a scale, ranging from a state of utopia at the highest point, to dystopia at the lowest.
“Since life would be very unpleasant in a country with the world’s lowest incomes, lowest life expectancy, lowest generosity, most corruption, least freedom, and least social support, it is referred to as ‘Dystopia,’ in contrast to ‘Utopia,’” note the authors of the report.
Palestinians inhabit a reality that’s determined by the United Nations to only be slightly better than dystopian, while their Israeli neighbors enjoy the fruits of a near utopian existence. Not forgetting both live under the rule of the same government – the government of Israel.
Palestinians live under a system of apartheid and military rule.
But whereas Israelis enjoy full protections under the law, with equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and voting as the next Jewish Israeli citizen, along with freedom of movement, Palestinians live under a system of apartheid and military rule, as affirmed recently by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, US-based Human Rights Watch, and UK-based Amnesty International.
Three decades ago, researchers examined the effects apartheid had on the mental health of black children in apartheid-era South Africa. They described the trauma associated with growing up in a divided society as “child shock.” According to them, “The consequences of poverty, racism, and violence have resulted in psychological disorders, and a generation of maladjusted children.”
Cognitive theorist Robert Lazarus described happiness as an emotion that results from “making reasonable progress towards the realization of a goal.” What goals have Palestinians made reasonable progress towards realizing? Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is now in its 73rd year, with the blockade of Gaza in its 17th.
What hope do Palestinians hold for the future after their historical Arab allies threw away their aspirations for liberation by signing the US-brokered Abraham Accords and normalizing Israel’s colonial rule in exchange for money, missiles, drones, and fighter jets?
For Palestinians, the pursuit of happiness has never looked so impossible.
A recent review of twenty-four studies conducted on the mental health situation in the West Bank and Gaza concluded the Israeli occupation to be the primary source of anxiety and other mental health disorders among Palestinians.
“Palestinians are particularly at a higher risk for developing anxiety disorders and PTSD.”
“Palestinians are particularly at a higher risk for developing anxiety disorders and PTSD due to the continuous exposure to political violence, prolonged displacement, and other limitation on professional, educational, financial opportunities, and mental health services,” the authors observe.
These health risks are further compounded by distinct barriers, such as inconsistent availability of medications, absence of multidisciplinary teamwork, insufficient specialists, and fragmented mental health systems.
The circumstances are especially grim in Gaza, where more than 370,000 children are in need of mental health and psychosocial intervention, according to UNICEF. Last year, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported “40 percent of young Gazans suffer from mood disorders,” while upwards of 90 percent suffer from “other stress-related conditions,” with the number of suicides and attempted suicides increasing significantly during the past two years.
More than 370,000 Gazan children are in need of mental health and psychosocial intervention.
Making matters worse is an economy shattered by a permanent blockade, multiple Israeli military invasions, and periodic bombardment. These horrific events have left Gaza uninhabitable, according to the UN, and its population unemployable. The Gaza unemployment rate is now well above 40 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum, Israelis are not only wealthier – earning 10 times as much income per year than Palestinians on a per capita basis – but also living eight years longer than the average Palestinian.
The UN estimates the Israeli occupation has siphoned $57 billion out of the Palestinian Territories during the past 20 years, leaving the Palestinian economy three times smaller than what it would have been without Israel’s resource extraction and exploitation. And the pilfering of land and resources is often accompanied by perpetual violence from Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers
For Palestinians, the wells of unhappiness are as deep as they are plenty.