‘This man is practising social work in one of the most oppressive areas on earth, with no supervision, manager or police support’

In 2013, British social workers Dave Harrop and Henry Smith spent eight days in Palestine, to find out what it's like to practise in a conflict zone


As we pass through Palestine, the impact of the military occupation on day-to-day social work practice becomes evident. Sudden and unpredictable checkpoint closures shut the country down, meaning it’s impossible to plan ahead. We experience this ourselves travelling between Ramallah and Bethlehem – a 15km journey takes us over an hour and a half. When we tell our Palestinian colleagues this, they laugh and say we’ve done well to make the journey at all.

The system of visas employed by the occupying Israeli administration in Jerusalem means non-Jerusalem residents cannot enter and Jerusalem residents who wish to live and work outside risk losing their visas and being unable to return. We speak to one colleague who lost his visa and was forced to live away from his family in Ramallah for two years.

In Palestine, “social worker” is not a protected job title. We meet a wide variety of professionals working in disciplines ranging from public health to political activism, who describe themselves as social workers. We interview 15 in total; none are practising anything like statutory children and families social work in the UK, however, they all work directly with children and families. We see many parallels with our work back home.

Risk of arrest

In East Jerusalem, one of Dave’s contacts from an earlier visit to Palestine in 2011 has arranged for us to meet with a social worker who is attached to a local school. He phones us shortly before we are due to meet, to tell us he will be a few hours late. When he arrives, he apologises and informs us that his 16-year-old brother was arrested that morning by the IDF (Israeli Defence Force).

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We ask him if he needs to leave. “No,” he says. “We’ll find out in the next 24 hours. If they haven’t released him by then they’ll hold him for a few months and maybe try him.” His reaction suggests this is normality. It is the second time his brother has been arrested; he himself has been in jail three times, once for three years after he and 13 of his fellow psychology students were arrested and jailed, accused of being enemies of the Israeli state. Arrests of practitioners is a recurrent theme; all but one of our interviewees have been imprisoned at some point.

Visiting a school in Hebron provides perhaps the starkest example of the day-to-day reality of living and practising social work in Palestine. While there are Israeli settlements scattered all over the West Bank, Hebron is different in that the settlements are slap bang in the middle of the old town. As a result, this school is surrounded by Israeli settlers and its staff and teachers need to pass through checkpoints in order to get to school.

The metal detectors beep as we walk through the checkpoint, but the three IDF soldiers armed with machine guns check our passports and visas and let us through. Past the checkpoint, the road bends round to the right. Most of the houses leaning over the narrow streets are boarded up and Stars of David are daubed crudely on the walls. Israeli flags hang every 30m along the street. A single IDF soldier patrols ahead of us, but otherwise we’re alone. It feels like the eerie aftermath of a political rally.

Simple safety plans

The main steps up to the school have been destroyed and all that sits where they stood is a roll of razor wire. Thankfully an alternative path has been made and we climb the steps to the gate. It is scary stuff, yet junior school-aged Palestinian children have to make this trip every day. “Each of the children here is a case,” says the school’s social worker. She meets the children on the other side of the gate every morning and escorts them through the checkpoint. She says some of the IDF soldiers will grope or expose themselves to her and the girls as they pass through.

We ask her about the last case she had that she was really worried about and how she managed this. She says she heard from other children at the school that IDF soldiers had started offering a young boy sweets and that he would go off with them after school. When she talked to the boy he revealed that, when he was alone with them, they would take all his clothes off and touch him. He was six years old. The social worker says she made a simple safety plan by informing the boy’s family of the risks and telling the other children at school not to let him go home alone.

In an Arab suburb of East Jerusalem we visit another primary school and meet the social worker. The area is only about a mile from the tourist hub of old town Jerusalem as the crow flies, but tourists would have no idea such a place existed. The Israelis are in the midst of building a giant bridge to link the old town to a new settlement, which will pass right through here. As a result, a program of removing Palestinian homes has begun and 100m away from the school lies a pile of rubble where the first house was demolished.

Using Facebook for professional support

Our guide says the Israelis very rarely grant Palestinians planning permission, which means several generations of a family will live in a two or three-bedroom house. This results in little privacy. Sexual abuse by family members is common. I asked him what support and resources he has in his role and he says he has a Facebook group with a network of different professionals, who he will contact for help with specialist cases. The strength of this network is the key to being a good social worker, he adds. He receives no supervision and has no manager.

He describes one case where an uncle had been abusing his niece. The first step in a case like that is to tell the parents, he says, but he is often met with aggression and denial, so he will approach a fellow professional from his Facebook group to come with him on the visit. They would try and use the teachings in the Quran to show that what was happening was wrong. I ask him if he has ever visited with the Palestinian or Israeli police and he laughs. “The police never come round here.”

After the interview he takes us on a tour of the narrow streets. People stare at us nervously from upstairs windows and children throw stones at us from the end of the streets. “They think you’re Israelis,” he says. The tension in the street is palpable and I’m glad to leave.

Back in the UK, social workers complain about being forced to work with increasingly diminishing resources, but this puts it into perspective. This man is practising in one of the most oppressive areas on earth with no supervision, no manager and no support from the police. It’s humbling. “How do you cope?” I ask. “My wife’s a psychotherapist,” he replies with a grin.

Trauma, stress and burnout

Many of the others we interview report feelings of secondary trauma and transference of stress from their clients, with some breaking down in tears as they recount their experiences of practice. Several take anti-depressants. One participant says organisations give little back in the way of support, so the workers end up burning out and leaving – something that draws a comparison with social work in some settings in the UK.

Throughout our trip we are inspired by the social workers we meet and the stories they tell. Many of these people are working for little or no pay in one of the most dangerous and oppressive environments on earth, yet, unfailingly, we are met with warmth, enthusiasm and passion.

Many people who described themselves as “social workers” in Palestine were what we in the UK might describe as political activists. If, as the International Federation of Social Workers outlines, social work is a profession that “promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing”, then perhaps the most effective form of social work in Palestine is one that challenges the occupation itself, rather than solely focusing on managing its impact on individuals.

Although there are clear and obvious distinctions between practising as a social worker in the UK and Palestine we are struck by how much we share and how much we could learn from sharing these experiences of practice and forming closer professional links.

We are part of the British Association of Social Workers special interest group PALUK (Palestine-UK Social Work Network) and, following this trip, we will continue to form closer links with our colleagues in The Palestinian Union of Social Workers and Psychologists. We were delighted to welcome colleagues from Palestine to our conference in November 2013 and there are plans to hold a further international conference in Palestine later in 2014. As such we, as practitioners in the UK, are able to support our social work colleagues and develop social work practice globally to support the world’s most oppressed communities.

Dave Harrop is an adoption social worker for a voluntary adoption agency and Henry Smith is a consultant social worker for Frontline in a children and families team. Their trip to Palestine was not motivated by an allegiance with any political faction or agenda; their primary objective was to understand what it is like to practise social work in a conflict zone.

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