This is the beginning of my tenth year thinking about and witnessing the impact of occupation on Israeli and Palestinian families and, to some extent, on those of us living further away. And a question hovers that I cannot avoid: What lingers?

What lingers are the “uncontainable nights”[1] of incursion and violence that are begging to be inscribed — to be known, storied, and communalized.[2] Nights when metaphor falls away. When the “I and the Thou” cannot help but meet and invert. When the private does not exist. When people, having grown accustomed to overexposure, sleep in clothes and wake to what a retired Israeli soldier — a grandfather now — remembers as his shining lights between homes, pounding on doors, opening and searching through drawers, shining lights between homes, hearing children crying and grandmothers shrieking, and leaving behind people who he said were, “traumatized.”

Palestinian neighborhoods and villages in the West Bank and Jerusalem located near Jewish settlements are referred to as “friction points,” but they are battlefields — powder kegs, where historical and present injustices have condensed into some toxic brew, where injustices seek to be reversed and rectified. On these asymmetrical playing fields, the score will be settled by Palestinian children and teens and Israeli soldiers — themselves young — who are inducted into this troubling rite of passage, where Palestinians, denied basic rights including the right to protest, may throw stones or Molotov cocktails, and where Israelis — trying to prevent an uprising — invade homes and arrest scores of children and teens.

The war that is not a war, but is a war, hangs in the air. The sheer psychic exhaustion of managing terror is visible in the faraway glances of Palestinian mothers as they tell their stories the morning after, the day after, the week after their son is arrested. You do not have to ask how much time has elapsed; you can gauge it by the deadness that violence leaves in its wake. By the reactivity that has shorted the psychic fuse.

The uncontainable nights when there are no limits or boundaries to safeguard a home, insulate the private life of a family, or defend the perimeter of a community. No “containing envelope”[3] for the young Palestinian mothers who are anticipating their first night raids, their first child being arrested. These nights that are feared for what they will take: an imagined future and a longed-for past. Ice cream stands and playgrounds that were once set up in a village for Eid are only memories now, kept present by faded photographs. Cameras distributed by a human rights organization to document military violations are used to photograph weddings. So much life disregarded and discarded.


I am neither Palestinian nor Israeli. And so I face a question pertinent to many of us who stand at the periphery: Can we be legitimate witnesses and where? Will we betray the very people who have shared their stories, appropriating them as our own?


A teenage Palestinian boy has just returned from his second detention for allegedly throwing stones or hanging out with the gangs of boys on his street. Who knows? He cuddles his baby niece with tenderness, as she sits on his lap. A Palestinian colleague and I are documenting the stories of Palestinian mothers, many anticipating their first night raids, their first child being arrested.[4] My colleague can’t help herself and asks: “How about going to school?” But he has fallen behind and sees no way to catch up. She continues: “This is what the other side wants. They want you to stop going to school. They want you to give in and give up. Don’t give up. There are more clever ways to resist than giving up your youth.” A few weeks later my colleague circles back, and his mother says that her son has been arrested again. Like in our country, there is a school to prison pipeline. My colleague asks, perhaps hoping to counter the sense of defeat, “Can we tell your story?” His mother says, “You can tell my story anywhere, but it will not matter.”

We are trying to understand the grip of this trauma: the throwing of stones, the large sweeps of neighborhoods, the night raids and dogs, the interrogations and forced confessions, the conveyor belt of arrests and detentions of the young, the ever-present threat of home demolitions, the restriction of movement, the constant humiliations, and the maddening obstacles that interfere with daily life. What happens to these Palestinian families? To the child? And what happens to Israelis whose young adult life may begin with the enforcement of these harsh policies?

A colleague says, “Even if the occupation were to end today, the reverberation[s] and recovery would be never-ending.” Like the mothers themselves, we want to know and we don’t want to know the terror of losing a home, a child, and a protected state of mind.

III. Itidal[5]

Itidal is an older mother who raised two crops of children in East Jerusalem — one when the political violence was less intense and one in the dangerous place her village of Silwan has become. I visit her with a community organizer, a man, and she welcomes us warmly, though I am not sure she was aware we were coming. She appears tired, but within minutes the table is filled with grape leaves, vegetables, coffee, and cookies. We are there to talk about what it is like to be a mother in her village. She begins right away: Despite all her years parenting, she feels she cannot care and manage her two youngest ones.

For over seven years, her home has had an order for demolition, even though she and her husband have been paying city taxes. Itidal, whose name means moderation, says, “I am always nervous. Always screaming… Maybe they should throw us out already. If they destroy our home, it is better than living in this limbo… worrying that each person will be alone, separated, and homeless. The situation is killing the families.” Her four year-old grandson has offered to have her sleep under his bed, she says.

Sitting inside her salon, she relays the gravest danger: You lose your will to parent. You cannot focus. Or think. It was different with her older children, when life in their village was more predictable and calm. Itidal exudes heart and fortitude even though she sounds depleted. War has not extinguished her essence.

Images become imprinted from our visit together: the pickles in the jars outside, her eight-year-old daughter laughing, and her ten-year-old son’s drawings of tanks shooting and white phosphorous falling over houses, just like he saw on television. The worry that what happened in Gaza could happen here hovers over this family in East Jerusalem.

This is the eye of the storm where dispossession and severe, chronic terror penetrate the family domain, challenging a mother to calmly bear in mind, what a mother needs to bear in mind. Itidal worries that she cannot serve as a protective shield for her children; that she cannot regulate and contain her own or their rage and pain; that she will not be able to bring the necessary life force and vision that children depend on to imagine their own futures. Like many mothers living in these “friction points,” she oscillates between adrenaline surges, hyper-vigilance, and extreme exhaustion and irritability. And given her traditional culture, she is without the ability to move, stuck between patriarchy and occupation.

IV. Shai

Shai is a sixty-three year-old Jewish, Israeli, grandfather and among a handful who volunteer to be interviewed for an experimental truth commission. His wife, Ghitta, is the undesignated witness, not part of the truth commission project but also carrying a story that needs to be inscribed. She takes me into the kitchen for a glass of water and, with the faucet running, says, “We have failed. Failed as parents.”

We are huddled in their living room — Shai, Ghitta, my interviewing partner,[6] and I — while, as Shai says, the “dogs bark and the tanks roll on.” Shai begins by describing how his father’s narrative and convictions, which he inhaled and transmitted to his son and grandchildren, were wrong: “We are generations preventing Palestinian infiltration.”

In a barely audible voice, he describes how his late father, a professional soldier, sealed wells in a village years ago, to facilitate the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. He recalls being told that when his father was young, he would steal “Arab work, to give to Jews,” which involved destroying Palestinian encampments.

My interviewing partner, perhaps trying to ease the profound sense of defeat, asks Shai, “Were there ever any fissures in your father’s convictions?”[7] “Yes,” Shai replies, defeated. “My father would mess up the tents of the Arab workers in order to drive them away. He was only a lad. But he would go into his own tent and put his head under the pillow and weep. I don’t know if you can call it a fissure in his conviction, but something was definitely there. 

Does knowing that his father wept — that “something definitely was there” — open the window for psychic air? We talk about the erasures of trauma, but there are also erasures of compassion, erasures of moments when empathy and remorse break through the trauma narrative. It would be good to find these.

“It is patrilineal transmission of trauma,” my partner, himself an ex-soldier, writes months later. And I think about Ghitta in the kitchen and her words, “We failed.” Has she no story? Perhaps, her husband’s volunteering for this truth commission suggests that both he and she are, in some way, walking through a kind-of looking glass as collective identifications implode,[8] historical narratives give way and, as one colleague said, where “mercury can spill over the psychic floor.”

People in these trenches are not facing the imagined life story or the one they had wished for. Instead, they are waking up to the disavowed story — the not me, not us, not ever. Shai is going through a painful “sobering up” process, as he says, facing the realm of the Real, where the world as he knew it is gone. This is similar to the Palestinian mothers awakening to the ripping away of their maternal dreams.

Shai and Ghitta need to build a metaphoric boat that might carry them from the shared public reality to this painful awakening. They need a communal ethos that can hold their anguish and shame, a safe place to reckon with how they — and so many others — betrayed their own moral code, a place to put down their heads and weep.

Michael Eigen likens psychoanalysis to a form of prayer, and so is psychoanalytic witnessing.[9] But what does one pray for here? For healing, for escaping disaster, for safe travel, or for mourning? And what are the ethics? A seasoned political educator once cautioned me to be careful about focusing on perpetrator trauma when the winds of war are still blowing hard: It is a sign that you are tiring of the pain in those trenches, needing to look away from the humanitarian urgencies, just like the rest of the world.[10]

Yes, this world is tiring, saturated with suffering and an inability to grieve. There is compassion fatigue everywhere. And this tremendous exhaustion impacts families and communities, infecting social justice efforts and contributing to even more reactivity as its antidote.[11]

V. Basher

Basher is a fifteen year old whom we interview with his mother at the Al-Arub Refugee Camp. Basher helps to alter my perspective, to see the terror of mothers through the eyes of their children.

Basher tells a story about being awakened in the middle of the night by soldiers, of thinking that he would escape this experience, and of his dismay that he could not. He homes in on the memory of his mother “screaming, going hysterical, crying.” A human rights worker in Palestine told me how common this is, how many boys worry about their mothers while they are in detention, how they remember her screams when they were arrested and how much they miss her, sometimes calling out for her.[12]

But what moral injuries[15] are inflicted when these Israeli and Palestinian boys dehumanize others and themselves by breaching the maternal vision or code — assuming that mothering is not only about reminding children of who they are but also of who they are not? And, how does their inability to protect their mothers from life being “otherwise” and from their own being “otherwise” reverberate?

In a well-known testimony from the Israeli group Breaking the Silence,[16] an Israeli man painfully explains that he finally understood what he had done to Palestinian families while watching footage, in the presence of his own mother and sister, of an arrest of a teen that was videotaped by his platoon. In their presence, he sees what was so hard to see as a soldier: That he arrested a child while the child’s mother stood outside in the rain screaming. As his dissociation thaws, he says, “I did this?” And then, “If that had been my sister who was taken, I would go nuts. And if I had been taken like this, my mother would have fainted straight away…”

He goes on: “But the point is I didn’t relate to the human dimension. If you had to take a kid who was fifteen or nine, you took him, without thinking about it much. But when you put yourself in the shoes of those on the other side of your gun, and you imagine that this could be me…it’s impossible to swallow… and you think, how am I going to tell this to my child?”

It is crucial that we understand how the humanity of people on all sides of the divide gets hijacked and disavowed, so that hurting children is possible. But it is equally important that we try to understand the ways humanity is being nurtured even during moments of violation, so that we can generate some understanding of what it might take to step out of violence[17] and embrace humane ways of engaging.

Basher recalls one other important detail of his arrest: the soldier seemed sorry for what was happening. His mother jumps in: “The soldier was actually trying to be gentle.” Basher and his mother’s ability to recall the soldier’s tenderness, in the face of the assaultive, and to reach for the humane is extraordinary.

Is it possible that maternal eyes, in addition to tracking the erosion of humanity, carry the need to seek out the humane, even in the face of brutality? Does cultivating the reflex to seek out the tender, teach us something about how to “survive

hating and being hated?”[18] In the face of incivility, perhaps this bond between mother[19] and child can evoke what poet Naomi Shihab Ney refers to as, the “place in my brain where hate won’t grow.”[20]


Years ago a Palestinian father, a community organizer, took a small group of us though his village and described how his village was “mapped,” a word meant to describe a process in which children are photographed so as to later aid in their identification and arrest. “Mapped” is a word that normalizes violence, bleaching policies of their cruelty and blurring accountability, all in an effort to sound reasonable.

And this is precisely the point. Soldiers, likely to be late adolescents or young adults, must find a way to engage this mapping. Much is at stake if they fully grasp that they are in fact responsible for perpetrating the inhumane. So, how do we bear knowing terrible things and enable others to bear it, as well? Pumla Gobodo-Madikiezela writes, “Not closing the door to understanding may be one of the ways in which people can redefine their understanding of atrocities and see them as something that is, like evil in the self, always a possibility in any political system that has emerged from a violent past.”[21]

And therein lies hope. Facing the capacity to oppress might bring extreme psychic strain. It forces us to own what we have worked hard to disavow. But accepting this capacity can soften and enable us to ask, what happens next? What communal safeguards will we need to erect to contain “knowing” terrible things? And, can these communal containers — these efforts at restorative justice[22] — begin to transform individual and collective reactivity, alleviate profound anguish, and rectify injustice?


After Shai and Ghitta read this paper, Ghitta shares how for years she went to the Qalandiya[23] checkpoint with a group of Israeli women to monitor how Israeli soldiers behaved. At Qalandiya she met a soldier, David, who made a deep impression. David was always busy making sure that children and babies were passed quickly through the barriers and took boxes from older men. He was aware of the sun beating down and would run around fetching cups of water. Ghitta remembers thinking that she wanted to write a letter to David’s mother to tell her. 

And then, one day, she came to Qalandiya, and a car had just been detonated. And she saw David now standing on top of this hill, looking like a soldier with his rifle, yelling, panicking, and shouting. “This one incident drove him away from his humanity. He had been so incredible. He would take a child with fever or a mother and help them across. But then the car exploded. He lost it. And you have to face your own panic, your own vulnerability. When I saw David on the hill like that I thought, This is not him. And, I wonder how he came out of this.”[24]


Grateful to Born Equal, Military Court Watch, and Zochrot.


Discussion of Itidal and Basher also appear in Roth, J. (2017). Dwelling at the thresholds: Witnesses to historical trauma across concentric fields. In Alpert, J. and Goren, E (Eds.), Psychoanalysis, trauma, and community: History and contemporary reappraisals. Relational perspectives book series, Lewis Aron and Adrienne Harris. Series editors. Routledge.

[1] Rilke, R.M. (2005). Let this darkness be a bell tower. In A.Barrows and J. Macy (Eds.), In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. NY: Riverhead Books.

[2] See Shay, J. (1994). Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; and Gilligan, C. (2014). Moral injury and the ethic of care: reframing the conversation about differences. Journal of social philosophy, 45(1), 89-106.

[3] Containing envelope refers to a protective, psychological buffer that enables us to hold mental anguish. In war zones community, home, family, and private space are continuously invaded, which destabilizes and punctures this emotional barrier. See Anzieu, C. (1979). The sound image of the self. The International Review of Psychoanalysis 6, 23-30.

[4] Roth, J., & Duaibis, S. (2015). Crows on the cradles: Palestinian mothers at a frontline vortex – reflections on the psychology of occupation. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 12(1), 5–20.

[5] Some names have been changed.

[6] A. Asher is a researcher with Zochrot.

[7] Grateful to the Born Equal study group on Israeli parents for opening a space to think about the importance of these fissures.

[8]See Gilligan,C. (2014). Moral injury and the ethic of care: reframing the conversation about differences. Journal of social philosophy 45(1), 89-106.

[9] Eigen, M. (1998). The psychoanalytic mystic. London: Free Association Books.

[10] M. Zak, personal communication, July, 2011.

[11] A. Asher commented that the whole world was suffering from extreme compassion fatigue after WWII, which may have made the Nakba possible. A. Asher, personal communication, June 19, 2016.

[12] S. Duaibis, personal communication, July, 2012.

[13] Davoine F., and Gaudilliere, J. (2004). History beyond trauma: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent. New York, NY: Other Press.

[14] Shay, J. (1994). Achilles in Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

[15] “Moral injury is present when there has been (a) a betrayal of “what’s right”; (b) either by a person in legitimate authority… or by one’s self… (c) in a high stakes situation. Both forms of moral injury impair the capacity for trust and elevate despair, suicidality, and interpersonal violence. They deteriorate character.” Shay, J. (2014). Moral injury. Psychoanalytic psychology 31(2), 182–191. .

[16] Breaking the Silence is an Israeli organization of veteran combatants who work to share their experience of the realities of everyday life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the Israeli public, in the hopes of ending the Israeli occupation. They strive “to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.”

[17] See Benjamin, J. (2014). The discarded and the dignified. Retrieved from

[18] White, K.P. (2002). Surviving hating and being hated: Some personal thoughts about racism from a psychoanalytic perspective. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 38, 401-422.

[19] “Mother” also refers to the maternal voice carried by a parent of any gender.

[20] Shihab Nye, N. (1994). Jerusalem. Retrieved from

[21] Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2003). A human being dies that night. A South-African woman confronts the legacy of apartheid. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt..

[22] See Nevo, J. (2009). Transitional justice and its applicability to the Zionist/Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian refugee issue. In Rempel, T. (Ed). Rights in principle-rights in practice: Revisiting the role of international law in crafting durable solutions for Palestinians refugees (11). Retrieved from

[23] Qalandiya is the main checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. For more information about the conditions and human rights issues related to this and other checkpoints, see B’Tselem.

[24] An earlier version of this paper was presented on the panel: Conscripted childhood: Facing militarism and moral injury in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, at Children and War, Past and Present, Salzburg, Austria July 13, 2016.