Naming Israel’s Psychological War on the Palestinians: Walid Daqqa’s Searing Consciousness (Or on Redefining Torture)

On April 7th 2024, Walid Daqqa was martyred in Zionist captivity 37 years and 2 weeks after he was arrested on March 25th 1986. The Israeli military court prosecuted Walid for his role in commanding a unit that killed an active-duty Israeli soldier– an accusation that he always rejected. One of the reasons why Walid was a particularly familiar figure to many of us, from among the over 9,000 other Palestinian prisoners held captive by Israel, was due to the campaign that was launched for his immediate release upon his cancer diagnosis in 2022. Not only did the Zionist authorities reject appeals for his early release, they had previously extended his sentence by two years, and subjected him to “torture or other ill-treatment, including beatings and humiliation”. Even after his death, they are yet to release Walid, threatening to hold his body in captivity until the end of his prison sentence, which is scheduled for March 24th 2025, in accordance with Israel’s “postmortem detention” policy.

Besides his medical condition, we know Walid Daqqa as one of the remarkable faces of the Palestinian Captive Movement, taking after a long line of prisoners who offered us a narrative of struggle, in life and literature. Walid’s book, Searing Consciousness (Or on Redefining Torture), demonstrates a sober scientific inquiry into the Palestinian condition that empirically investigates the Zionist violence that identifies Palestinian consciousness as its target, with premeditated and systematic precision.

In it, Walid takes Israeli prisons as a microcosm to contemplate the broader psychological operations waged against Palestinian consciousness. He writes to us about the orchestrated Zionist strategy to deprive us of the ability to discern or name its violence, and consequentially deprive us of the ability to confront it. With that, Walid takes on the task of neutralizing this calculated strategy of aggression that hinges on its capacity to skillfully evade our awareness. Lucid in his political and intellectual grounding, from within Zionist prisons, Walid begins his empirical psychological project with the communicated objective of providing us the language to name and the methodology to understand Israeli violence that has historically desecrated not only Palestinian and Arab lands, but also the consciousness of their inhabitants.

Walid opens his book with a choice he was burdened with a quarter of a century into his imprisonment, a crossroads at which he was standing at the moment of his writing: the first trajectory appearing in front of him was to acclimate to existing as a tortured object completely removed from the self, the second was a diverging trajectory where he converts the self to a subject of an empirical study that redefines torture and its surrounding conditions. Walid decided on the latter, with unbending certainty and conviction.

His adamant decision was conclusively an existential one, as the careful writing of one’s self and the methodological assessment of the torture it had endured is categorically oppositional to being removed from the self. Walid’s choice marked the beginning of a delicate investigative process that is at once introspective and outward looking, occupying a contemplative space that negotiates interrogating what is known as deeply intimate and what is grounded in an empirical line of inquiry.

The self, as is known to psychologists, constitutes a fundamental element of human life that needs to be existentially protected to ensure survival. Similar to the anatomy of the human body where skeletal structures protect vital organs – the skull protecting the brain, the ribs protecting the lungs and heart – the self is protected by mental processes that are activated when our sense of self is at risk of shattering. Common dissociative strategies operating within these self-protective measures include cognitive avoidance or emotional displacement in moments of intense grief, of torture, or core disruptions to the everyday.

The study that Walid tasked himself with required a confrontational immersion that refused and resisted those protective mental strategies. With that, Walid’s writing is offered to us as a decisively combative scientific investigation – a balanced model for knowledge production that not only speaks on resistance, but fundamentally embodies it.

A Word on Terminology

The substantial contribution of this work is partly captured through the metaphor that Walid incorporates into its title and then periodically conjures throughout. In Arabic, the literary device is “صهر الوعي”. While this book has not been formally translated into English, there have been various iterations of references translating its title – all of which are synonyms of a transformative heat-based process that is inflicted onto consciousness, including melting, searing, tempering, smelting, or dissolving.

The contested verb is functionally employed to capture the process that “consciousness” is subjected to. The verb Walid decided on corresponds to the physical process of transforming a solid (metal) to liquid form, of breaking down its elements through exposing it to a high temperature that exceeds its melting point. The point of contention refers to what takes place after the melting point is reached; the verb smelting would designate a purifying process where the metallic element breaks from its naturally occurring ore, while melting would characterize a process of fusion where a new substance can be created after disintegration with the re-bonding of dissolved particles, and searing or tempering can constitute a method used in welding metal, where the applied temperature sits below the substance’s threshold for melting which strengthens, rather than dissolves, the metal. But searing also holds the double meaning to capture burning sensations of pain or torture. I was unable to land on a verb that at once captured the literal and figurative meaning that constitutes the verb “صهر”, with searing appearing to me as the closest contender for the very visceral connotation it demonstrates.

In his writing, the metaphor that Walid appears to evoke through this literary device illustrates a two-stage process: the dissolving of a solid metal which then generates malleable material that can be remolded in its liquid-like state of matter. With that, Walid identifies a process where a previously solidified consciousness dissolves into a workable object after being subjected to conditions that surmount its threshold for compactness. After consistently exposing consciousness to this intervening variable beyond its ability to endure it, consciousness is rendered pliable and can then be reconstructed depending on the structure that contains it – or in the Palestinian case, the structures dictated by Zionist occupation.

Israel’s War on Consciousness and Our Ability to Name

The history of Israel is a history of wars waged against the Palestinian people.1R. Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A history of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017 (Metropolitan Books, 2020). The typical cognitive effort to visualize or narrate this history organically takes the shape of a chronological timeline or a heavily marked up map of military operations – of mounting massacres, incursions, assassinations, arrests, and displacement activities. Searing Consciousness, however, interrupts this telling of history to assert that along with its military operations and in direct coordination with them, the Zionist occupation has also historically waged offensive psychological operations against the consciousness of the Palestinian people.

In Walid’s diagnosis of Israeli violence and the Palestinian condition, he soberly articulates that Zionist aggression does not restrict itself to merely threatening the material infrastructure of Palestinian resistance, but was structurally designed to infiltrate the very fabric of Palestinian consciousness. The motivation for targeting consciousness is predicated on the countereffects of eliminatory Israeli violence where Palestinians bearing witness to the mass martyrdom of their people consistently opted for risking their own martyrdom through struggle, when the alternative was the unbearable act of incessant witnessing.

Alert to this trend, the book identifies a shift in Israeli aggressive strategy following their recognition that the most imminent threat to the Zionist project was not Palestinian leadership or political formations, but the popular Palestinian consciousness that relentlessly births resistance to Zionism. The threat of this consciousness is evidenced by an intergenerational historical record of Palestinian resistance rejuvenating, with a popular cradle persisting in the face of increasingly devastating crackdowns. Schematically, this framework pronounces Palestinian geography as clustered with sites of death that have since escaped their designed purpose to become sites of resistance.2N. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “Living death, recovering life: Psychosocial Resistance and the Power of the Dead in East Jerusalem”, Intervention, 12:1, 2014, 16-29. A geography surviving on a “psychic political economy of life” designated by a social system of beliefs and practices that stimulate social cohesion and individual resolution in the face impending existential threats.3Lara Sheehi & Stephen Sheehi, Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine, (Routledge, 2001)

Walid’s core argument presented here is that the Zionist occupation has intentionally moved to Palestinian consciousness as a site of aggression to spoil the fertile ground breeding anti-Zionist resistance. With that, the target was relocated to threaten the psychological, as opposed to the strictly material, infrastructure of resistance. This infrastructure is operationalized in the book as the necessary everyday conditions and relations that allow for social cohesion and group formation around a national identity, the very Palestinian perception of unifying grievances and a political imaginary of a unifying national objective to escape those grievances.

In this study, we lean towards the belief that since 2004, Israel has accomplished a comprehensive and dangerous scientific program that relies on the latest theories in social psychology to sear Palestinian consciousness through dissecting the collective principles it hinges on – a process that required a coordinated economic, military, and political effort.

The starting point for this book’s conceptual framework was to reject the popularly adopted reading of indiscriminate and catastrophic Israeli violence as irrational or erratic behavior that is guided by unattuned primordial emotions. Instead, the text situates this violence as a byproduct of a calculated scientific strategy that employs disproportionate violence and destruction to establish the necessary conditions to impose what Klein refers to as the shock doctrine.4Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, (Macmillan, 2007). Building on Klein’s work, Walid’s study conceptualized that the high-cost retaliation of Israeli forces (of mass murder and mass destruction) is precisely deployed to create a shock that can be leveraged to dissolve Palestinian consciousness and then recreate one that is more amenable to Zionism – turning a body of resistance to dissected parts that regulate and tame one another.

Reading Walid’s words with an eye to the present, a present that has come to a stop with Israel’s seven-month rampage into its war on Gaza, we are reminded to reject distorted analyses that present the genocide of the Palestinian people as anything short of a premeditated program of orchestrated and eliminatory violence. Contending with the near total destruction of Gaza – the over 34,000 martyrs, the 1.8 million displaced, the 76,000 injured, the 6,000 arrested throughout the occupied territories, the hospital names that have transformed to designate sites of massacres… we observe a deliberate effort to present these atrocities as a failure in restraint, a miscalculated episode of uninhibited reactive anger by Israel, rather than data corroborating a moment of thorough clarity in the objectives of an admittedly colonial project.

Here, Walid’s words would urge to read every death, every amputation, every arrest, every destroyed structure, and displaced individual as premeditated with precise intent and execution. To pathologize the decision making of one of the most technologically advanced and well-funded militaries in human history is to humanize it. To look at an intelligent system of domination with a reprimanding posture that expects it to have known better, is indicative of a rigged analytical framework that, according to Walid, is a symptom of a scientific Israeli program of searing consciousness.

Particularly in its disproportionate responses to operations by the Palestinian resistance, Walid’s study argues that Israel’s desired objective is for its terrorizing violence to be read either as a necessary security measure to protect its borders or, at worst, for those less sympathetic to the Zionist project to view its brutality as a reflexive child-like tantrum. But Walid reveals to us that the incomprehensibly asymmetric military violence deployed by Israeli forces is neither an indicator of episodes of pathological madness nor a security mission to materially threaten “terrorist infrastructure.” Instead, he postulates that the purpose of continuously inflicting unimaginable scales of death and destruction is primarily to change public sentiment towards Palestinian resistance, where the consequential blame of Zionist violence becomes displaced onto Palestinian resistance. This process rewires discursive associations to identify resistance to Zionism as the breeder of violence, as opposed to the very structure of the Zionist project in Palestine as an aggressive establishment that requires existentially eliminating Palestinian presence to ensure its survival.

With that, Walid explicitly communicates his research objective to invalidate the misdiagnosis of Israeli violence. The obstacle that he perceives to be most challenging for him, for his self that is both researching and experiencing Israeli violence, is the frustration that comes with the inability to name the violence that is precisely inflicted against consciousness. To redefine torture Walid needed to redefine pain to constitute what lives beyond the sensory, where the body and the flesh would no longer be target of torture but the mind.

While military violence leaves evidence of tangible damage in its wake – death tolls, destruction, and wounds, psychological violence is much more difficult to measure or perceive, cognitively and emotionally. And so, we are presented with the inability to name or explain reality as a symptom of the Palestinian condition and the violence that burdens it. In turn, the inability to diagnose the logic of Israeli violence becomes a tool for oppression in and of itself, where popularly accepted narratives, contaminated by Zionist engineering, digress from reality and further dissect Palestinian consciousness.

There is nothing more intense and harsher than living with a sense of oppression and suffering without being able to describe it or identify its cause and source. It is the feeling of helplessness and loss of human dignity when uncertainty meets oppression, making you feel that not only the world has abandoned you but also your language has failed you in describing and defining your agony.5Addameer profile of Walid Daqqa

This text recognizes that the accomplishment of Israeli psychological operations hinges on our inability to name it, for when it is named it is brought into awareness, creating the possibility to consciously defy it. And so, with that recognition and through closely examining the case of prisoners in Zionist jails, Walid begins his project of naming…

Palestinian Prisoners as a Microcosm for the Palestinian Condition

Empirically, this book offers an analysis of the Zionist attack on Palestinian consciousness through closely studying the torture strategies that the Israeli forces have activated within prisons. The premise of this project is the observation that Zionist prisons constitute “the lab” where political-psychological operations are tested and then generalized to target the wider Palestinian population.

Taking the prison as the unit of analysis to study the climate of violence that Palestinians endure, this text illustrates the blurry lines separating and intersecting between incarcerated Palestinians and “free” Palestinians living under occupation or siege. Walid recounts Israel’s own words that identify Palestinian prisoners as the solid nucleus of the Intifada, and so, the searing of Palestinian consciousness intentionally begins with the body of prisoners and then ripples outwards to cover the totality of Palestine. Following this, the book lands on a research design grounded in the conviction that to scientifically analyze the condition of Palestinian consciousness, there is a need to investigate the condition of the prisons – as the prisons represent “an institution of searing consciousness”, a site to deconstruct the Palestinian psyche and then to tame it.

The book argues that the same way psychological studies on “psychic driving” did not seek to treat patients but to recreate them as desirable beings, the Israeli occupation does not aim through its violence to end Palestinian resistance but to re-create the Palestinian individual, to reshape their principles and to remove from their imaginaries the possibility or desire for Palestinian statehood. This process is resonant of “scientific works of “curing” a colonized subject correctly […] making him thoroughly fit into a social environment of the colonial type”.6Frantz Fanon, Colonial War and Mental Disorders (1963), 444-452.

In addition to the parallels between solitary confinement and isolating territories, the Zionist strategy to dissect the Palestinian national land into fractured territories is replicated in and outside of prisons. This strategy of isolation is foundational for the war on Palestinian consciousness where the dissection and isolation of territories impedes not only the ability for Palestinians to behave as a collective but to also think or perceive themselves as one. A process that creates an everyday that overwhelms the Palestinian with impossible and distinct material conditions impedes the mental capacity to comprehend the full scope of the Palestinian struggle. Ultimately, a prerequisite of the disintegration of the Palestinian struggle as a national struggle and the Palestinian identity as a national identity is the dissection and isolation of Palestinian land and differentially subjecting each dissected territory to disparate Israeli aggression. This then serves to disintegrate Palestinian identity, to disintegrate collective memory by isolating Palestinians from one another and subjecting them to differential material conditions of violence in the everyday.

Walid draws on Foucault’s Panopticon to capture the integral position of Israeli surveillance in searing consciousness, as it takes place inside and outside prisons. The obstructed fields of vision for Palestinians, in confinement in Zionist prisons and through constructing separation walls and checkpoints and hyper surveillance across Palestine, block the visual ability for Palestinians to perceive and pronounce the condition they exist within, and lends a God’s eye view to their occupier.

Israel has managed to impose at least five prisons on Palestinian communities: ‘48 areas, Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the diaspora. Each of these prisons has its own temporal and spatial reality along with its unique legal and political reality. With the passage of time, these separate entities—at first destined to be temporary in nature—have become near permanent. This reality could create opposing identities. The question thus becomes: how does one ensure that the deconstruction of Palestinian identity does not take place as it grows in these opposing temporal and spatial contexts? What is to be done until liberation? […] If time is divided along these contexts, and between various Palestinian spatial and geographical configurations, then what might unite the Palestinian people as to safeguard their identity? How can this be done knowing that the occupation possesses a “time chisel” able to shape the identity of place given that the occupation does not only hold the ability to divide time in relation to physical space, but also controls the division of hypothetical time as well?7Basil Farraj and Hashem Abushama, “Parallel Time”: Cultural Productions from the Small Prison to the Large Prison, Jadaliyya, March 2022.

Searing Consciousness sketches how the geographical dissection of the Palestinian national body is replicated within the Zionist jails, where prisoners are held in different prisons, and different sections within the prisons depending on the region, village, or refugee camp they are from. Predictably, further entrenching the Zionist project to dissolve the Palestinian liberation struggle is conditional on dissolving the Palestinian national identity as a tangible or imagined collective. But we know that Walid himself contested this orchestrated disintegration and saw beyond the obstructed fields of vision, where he wrote that it was witnessing the massacres of his people in Lebanon that drove him to politics:

I must confess that I had not planned anything—not to become a fighter, nor to join any faction or party, nor even to engage in politics. Not because I deem all of this wrong, nor because politics is undesirable or reprehensible as some perceive it to be, but simply because these were vast & intricate subjects for me. I did not become an organizer or a politician because of premeditated conviction. Instead, I could have simply carried on with my life as a painter or a gas station worker, as I had done until the moment of my arrest. I could have chosen to marry one of my relatives at an early age, as many do and perhaps have had seven or ten children. I could have bought a shipping container or become an expert on trading cars and hard currencies. All of this was within the realm of possibility, until I bore witness to the atrocities of the Lebanon War and the subsequent massacres of Sabra and Shatila.

Similar to the disproportionate violence of collective punishment and mass murder, Walid views the detainment of Palestinians in Zionist prisons not as a security measure for Israel, but as a comprehensive and scientific program that targets Palestinian consciousness. The material achievements of violence, that primarily relate to security threats, pale in comparison to the psychological objectives. This is immaculately captured through the common practice of torturing prisoners during interrogation to extract information that the Israeli officers knowingly already have access to. The objective here is not material threats to resistance infrastructure, but to shatter the self and its relationship to the collective through backing it into a position of betrayal; a similar strategy that this book recognizes in the Israeli response to instances of dissent in prison.

Drawing on the torture that accompanied the prisoners’ hunger strike action that Walid had personally experienced, he observes that the Zionist retaliation did not aim to end the strike but to end collective action as a prospective or imagined possibility, both within the prison and in the struggle connecting the prisoner to the wider Palestinian liberation struggle. The objective appeared to be explicitly working towards breaking the collective where ending the hunger strike signaled instances of individual defeat and defection rather than a collective retreat. Dissolving consciousness required the disbanding of the prisoners as a collective body, reducing them instead to a pool of defeated individual bodies.

The text points to Israeli violence that is not necessarily sensory or clearly discernable, in form or source, introducing a mental torture in tandem with the physical torture that amplifies suffering through ridding the prisoner from the ability to point to the violence they endure. According to Walid, this inability to name coupled with the need to act is one that has historically worked against the dispossessed Palestinian people. The book also marks overlaps between shocking prisoners through torture and shocking society through asymmetric mass destruction demonstrated by Israel historically and currently– instigating the collective to make concessions they wouldn’t have compromised under normal conditions, concessions that require a disruption in cognitive capacities.

The inability to name the Palestinian condition directly and consequentially influences the ability or potentiality to change it. Where, according to Walid, even the characterization of the Palestine plight – using the language of apartheid for example is inadequate to describe reality: for apartheid does not account for the Israeli strategy to not only segregate Palestinians from Israeli Jews but to segregate Palestinians from one another. The book’s fundamental argument then becomes that any misdiagnosis of the Palestinian issue will naturally render that issue insoluble.

But Walid dictates to us that escaping misdiagnosis is an integral part of the struggle in the present. This misdiagnosis is thoroughly recognized as a symptom of the Zionist strategy to recompose, recreate the human being in accordance with the Zionist imaginary. To recreate a Palestinian that is well-conditioned to occupation, who has long abandoned the task to resist it, and who does not pose a threat to it.

Walid tells us that the one condition consolidating all Palestinians, in exile, in prisons, and in occupied land is a condition of yearning. A yearning not to a past that Palestinians once had recorded in collective memories, but to a future that their collective imaginary is fixated on, a future of return and liberation. A return not to the Palestine of the mandate, but to the liberated Palestine that superimposes an intact Palestinian collective consciousness over an intact Palestinian territory. In a recorded interview, Walid confesses his yearning for the Mediterranean Sea, for a quiet house on a quiet hill with a mute dog that does not disturb his quiet, he yearned for the memory of a Palestine that is yet to be created, that he did not witness but that he urged those who read him to create.

I want to assert that I only write because I want to remain steadfast and stalwart in captivity. My writing is not a testament to my love of poetic language or my desire to be published. The majority of what I have written was letters to my wife and siblings and friends, that people who are far more prolific than me found some literary value in. Because when your body is buried underneath tons of concrete and metal and barbed wires, in front of this overwhelming truth, if left to sensory and rudimentary cognitive capacities, confronting this reality might lead you to madness. And madness under a deranged reality is the culmination of cognition, where the imaginative mind creates another reality that bypasses the prison walls. I think of writing as an operation of bypassing, of breaking out of those walls. I try to do it every day. It is the tunnel that I dug under their walls that moors me to life outside, to what concerns my people in Palestine and the Arab world. This should not imply that my writing is a dissociation from my reality inside the prison. On the contrary, as much as it is a creation of textual reality, writing is a methodological tool to deconstruct and make sense of my reality as a prisoner.

Reeling from yet another war that Israel has waged against our people in Palestine, with a scale of death and destruction that surpasses our abilities to comprehend it, we, similar to Walid, are faced with diverging trajectories. The first one glares at the Palestinian condition with a romanticization of what could have been and crumbles with despair when glancing at the present. The second is an intentional scientific inquiry that is committed to naming Zionist violence that extends beyond the statistics of destruction. Walid points to Searing Consciousness to urge against romanticization and despair. He considers romanticization to be a symptom of inability, thinking through how we romanticize prisoners because we are unable to liberate them, and despair to be a tempting opulence that we cannot afford.

The question for Walid is not concerned with sentiment, instead, it demands a serious analysis of conditions and selves that intentionally deviates from distortive self-protective perceptions. For Walid, the question demands the protection of a consciousness that remains intact despite fissures in land, a program that invests in a cohesive identity and in a solid collective that is not so threatened with reality that it forgives itself for consistently looking away from it. With that, Walid guarantees to us that we cannot change what we cannot name, and that naming requires a discipline that resists the distractions of symptoms – that sits with those symptoms to deconstruct them but is not led astray by them, that scientifically identifies the operations that are behind those symptoms and then consciously defies them.

Ghina Abi-Ghannam is a graduate student from Beirut, currently completing her PhD in Critical Social Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email