Powerless and Purposeless


By E.J. Nabi and Laila Atshan

In the past few months, one of the most disturbing developments in the ongoing occupation of Palestine is the participation in acts of violence by Palestinian children and young people. In recent weeks, children as young as 12 have been involved in a series of stabbing attacks, often ending in their deaths. These incidents are effectively "suicide by soldier," with young people knowing any attack, successful or unsuccessful, will likely result in death.

The prominent question is the search for explanation. Why are young people increasingly becoming drawn to commit individual acts of violence that will kill them? Historically, Palestinian children, adolescents and young people have been involved in resistance, participating in demonstrations, throwing stones, organizing at schools and universities, but the recent actions constitute a sharp and, on the surface, confusing departure.

A popular adage has emerged in the context of the current refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe: "A person only gets on a boat if the water is safer than the land." In the current Palestinian context, a similar adage applies: "A person only risks death if dying is preferable to living." This adage contains the ethos of the recent individual violence.

To more fully understand the psychological and social factors behind this behavior it is critical to explore the twin concepts of powerlessness and purposelessness. A previous article briefly introduced this author's conception that the inability to produce change and the inability to resist change being imposed results in powerlessness. The definition of purposelessness is related, identified as the absence of any significant goal or sense of meaning, as well as the absence of any goal or purpose-oriented mindset. In many ways, purposelessness often supersedes powerlessness. An individual may have a goal, but limited agency or capacity may prevent that person from reaching it. Both have significant psychosocial causes and consequences and reflect the current climate of frustration and despair among young Palestinians.

Powerlessness and purposelessness are stimulated by a variety of factors, many of which begin in childhood but persist into adolescence and adulthood. One of the cardinal factors is the ongoing violence and abuse by the Israeli army and Israeli settlers. Violence, in the form of beatings, shootings and killings, along with abuses in the form of denied freedoms, harassment and humiliation, leave deep imprints on young minds. Studies have shown that children and young people exposed to such actions often develop traumatic symptoms.

One of the most critical consequences of such abuses of power is the destruction of authority figures and social structures, particularly among the young. Children naturally look to parents as sources of guidance, stability and protection and, in Palestine, children often look specifically to fathers. Seeing figures of authority and protection being abused and rendered impotent is shattering for children and young adults. The most serious manifestations are night raids and home demolitions. The invasion of Israeli forces into Palestinian homes in the middle of the night and the destruction and eviction of families from homes they have lived in for their entire lives is intensely destructive to any sense of security and protection young Palestinians derive from authority figures. The inability of fathers to protect children from these abuses erodes their image as protectors and leaves many children and adolescents without an authority figure or role model to rely on.

Parents suffer similar effects. Palestinian fathers are aware of their role as protectors and providers, and the inability to fulfill these roles can be equally shattering to their sense of power or purpose. Adults who cannot shield their children from the deliberate violence and abuse of the Israelis develop a sense of inadequacy and impotence, which stimulates disaffection and apathy, as well as misdirected frustration against family members. All too often, these factors serve as self-fulfilling prophecies in an increasingly tragic spiral. Parents are abused and rendered impotent as protectors, in their own eyes as well as their children's, which can cause both to become either disengaged or destructive, leading to greater distance and isolation within families.

Parents and fathers face additional challenges in serving as authority figures and sources of protection and stability. The most significant of these is economic strain. In 2015, the World Bank reported that 15 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and 36 percent of those in Gaza were living in poverty. Furthermore, these individuals have few prospects for rising out of poverty. The same statistics report the unemployment rate in the West Bank to be 18 percent and 43 percent in Gaza. As a result, many Palestinian families contend with the frightening prospect of limited to no resources. Families have increasing trouble paying for education, transportation, social events (such as weddings), or even food. At the beginning of 2015, the World Food Program (WFP) reported that 33 percent of households in Palestine were food insecure (19 percent in the West Bank, 57 percent in Gaza). In the grip of these circumstances, Palestinian parents and authority figures feel increasingly unable to fulfill their role as a stable source of strength and protection. Children perceive these circumstances through a similar lens, increasingly doubting a household authority figure's ability to provide physical security or economic support. This further contributes to the perception of being adrift, alone and persecuted.

Youth face additional challenges regarding their future, which contributes to their sense of powerlessness and purposelessness. Coming of age in an atmosphere defined by an absence of authority figures, coupled with consistent exposure to violence and abuse, leaves many young people struggling with adjustment issues. Medical studies reveal many suffer from anxiety, depression, feelings of inadequacy, a tendency towards risky behavior, a desire for revenge, and other anti-social behaviors and emotions. As previously stated, this maladjustment is manifested in actions and choices, which range from apathy to violence.

Unfortunately, youth have limited prospects. A 2015 ILO report estimated youth unemployment at 40 percent, while underemployment and lack of specialization is rife among those fortunate enough to find work. Palestinians struggle to achieve an education that prepares them for the job market. Many are unable to afford college; others, as a result of detention, arrest or dropping out to enter the labor market, have not had the chance to complete secondary school. On a psychological level, schools as safe spaces are no longer guaranteed. Israeli soldiers and settlers regularly attack school children and schools, damaging property, detaining educators and administrators, and destroying educational materials, actions that disrupt the ability of young Palestinians to learn or maintain healthy psychosocial behaviors and outlooks.

Finally, it is important to consider the increasing presence of social conservatism and socially conservative attitudes in Palestine. This refers to the increasing trend among Palestinian individuals, households and the broader national community to increasingly reject "foreign" ideologies and rely instead on tradition. One catalyst fueling this shift in attitudes is the rise of localism and the consequent decline in cosmopolitanism. The division of the West Bank and Gaza, and the imposition of checkpoints and other barriers to freedom of movement, prevent Palestinians, and youth in particular, from traveling in their own country where they might naturally engage in cultural exchanges and a blending of cultures. This is compounded by the shrinking of the Palestinian economy and the creation of "micro-climates." Palestinians now increasingly look for jobs and work within their immediate community, further limiting exposure to the broader country.

Localism reinforces traditional structures. Instead of starting new and independent families, young Palestinians often marry and begin a family within their own community, and these new members become part of their existing family. They often find a house within their community, or move into their parents' houses, if financial means are tight. In either instance, the older family members remain the authority figures and heads of household. As parents remain dominant, youth are deprived of the chance to cultivate a sense of personal authority.

Localism also reinforces socially conservative attitudes and reliance on traditional elements of society, such as religion. The mores and values of these traditional systems and attitudes may provide a sense of stability, but they are inadequate to confront the many contemporary problems faced by youth. Social conservatism often emphasizes hyper-masculinity, which can lead to submissiveness and a sense of powerlessness among females. Simultaneously, it may lead to stoicism among males, preventing them from constructively addressing psychosocial problems and developing means of self-reflection. In effect, socially conservative structures often provide little relief for the sense of powerless or purposelessness felt by youth and, in some cases, can exacerbate a simmering sense of depression, anxiety, and frustration with oneself and others.

While it is important to focus on the immediate environment of youth, specifically their homes and communities, broader national factors also stimulate a sense of powerless and purposelessness. The most significant national determinant is the failure of political leaders, specifically Hamas and Fatah, to serve as representative parties, generally, and achieve reconciliation, specifically. Political parties are considered representative bodies, a definition that reflects their ability to influence change and resist change. In effect, their legitimacy derives from their ability to exercise power and achieve the goals of their members. The inability of Fatah and Hamas to achieve national unification, the goal of the majority of Palestinians, has eroded the legitimacy of both parties to the point of their rejection by youth.

This erosion of legitimacy has directly affected the current wave of resistance in two ways. The first has been the desire of youth to produce change themselves, shown in daily demonstrations and protest marches that were held without the permission of government bodies or their official agenda. Young people, recognizing that none of the established political actors was able or willing to confront Israel or serve the national interest, began to act independently.

The second effect was a desire to achieve a sense of power and control, if only temporarily. The most visible manifestation of this had been seen in the stabbings and other escalated acts of violence. For years, young Palestinian men and women have been subjected to Israeli violence. Their limited economic and political opportunities have created the sense of powerlessness described above. Their belief that the failure of established political parties to provide representation or a vehicle for resolving their struggles and achieving their goals by peaceful means was shattered by the failure of reconciliation. Compounded with previous feelings of deprivation, this triggered the acute recognition of powerlessness and a resulting sense of isolation and desperation. Reflecting these circumstances, the increase in violent attacks has constituted both an attempt to strike at the symbol of abuse (the Israeli occupation) in the lives of Palestinians and also achieve a moment of power and control in a young man or woman's life.

We would close this piece by warning about the dangerous temptation of determinism. To hear the stories of Palestinian children who are abused, and Palestinian adults who have been abused since childhood, naturally triggers empathy among people with a conscience. Yet all too often, we allow our empathy to function as a teleological black box, a device that bestows inevitably and, consequently, strips agency. We must be wary of explaining that because a Palestinian man or woman is repeatedly abused, they have no recourse but violence. In fact, every Palestinian makes personal choices as an individual and is not locked into a pre-determined path, like a car on an assembly line. Many Palestinians have endured the same violence and abuse, but each reacts in a personal way. We must understand that resistance is not simply a national duty, but a form of personal expression. "To exist is to resist," is the bedrock adage of Palestinians. Children and adults cultivate their own mechanisms of resistance, such as Jordan Valley farmers who form cooperatives, or children who manage to complete their education, regardless of restrictions, or artists who spread their culture to an international audience. If we allow ourselves the easy resort of saying "Palestinian violence is inevitable because of Israeli abuse," we too become complicit in robbing Palestinians of their personal agency. Though this reaction is inspired by benevolence, it is not substantively different people who, inspired by malevolence, declare that "Palestinian violence is inevitable because Palestinians have a culture of death and martyrdom." Both reactions deny Palestinians agency and the recognition that they are individuals who make personal choices.

This piece would be incomplete without examining our own choices. It is critical, when examining periods of conflict or violence and the people wrapped up in them, to practice empathy, to attempt to understand others through their thoughts and actions. We should never forget that "no [person] is an island/Entire of itself/Each is a piece of the continent/A part of the main/Each [person's] death diminishes me/For I am involved in [humankind]."

Two scientific terms seem both appropriate and applicable to the situation: isotropy and homogeneity. The terms originate in astrophysics and their purpose is to demonstrate how other parts of the universe are the same as our part of the universe. We do not need to go to Pluto or travel light years to a distant universe to know that gravity applies there, or that the concepts of Newton and Einstein are just as accurate as they are on Earth. Similarly, we do not need to live the life of a Palestinian child in East Jerusalem to attempt to understand their circumstances, their pressures and choices. To understand an experience and humanize an existence that appears so distant, we need to exercise our empathy and look to our own personal environment. This is relevant for my American readers, descendants of Irish peasants who fled famine, Latinos and Latinas who fled dictatorship and Africans who were trafficked as property. It is especially poignant for Jewish Americans, conscious of a heritage that includes discrimination, dispossession, cultural annihilation, deliberate impoverishment and murder. By recognition of the similar threads among these experiences and the contemporary experiences of Palestinians we can begin to move towards a higher humanity, rising above stereotypes and statistics. We have to exercise our own agency and make the personal choice to see the parallels offered by homogeneity, and, using the insight of our common human experience, stand up for the morals we know to be right and the people whose rights we know to be moral.

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