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Hamas Rockets Traumatize Israeli Children

Everything went dark and I was covered in dust and for a moment I thought the computer had exploded. Then I heard Nir screaming “mummy” but couldn’t hear Lior and couldn’t stand; it was as if my brain was disconnected from my body. I crawled to find Lior. I found her hand, grabbed it and dragged her out of rubble and broken metal from the roof. Nir was still standing in the hallway and had managed to push the door of the bedroom so that it was open a crack. I followed the light to the hallway and found him there. I hadn’t realized that my face was covered in blood pouring from my head injuries until I saw Nir’s reaction. He stopped breathing out of fright. I carried him and Lior downstairs. It seemed like an eternity, but must have been only a few seconds. … My 10-year-old son Itzhik is afraid to be in the bathroom alone and Nir has been wetting his bed since the attack. His hearing was affected and we still go to hospital for checkups and we see a child psychologist. But it is difficult to move forward, as every warning siren brings back fears and stress.

Geut Aragon, a nurse at Barzilai Hospital, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, talking to Amnesty International in 2009

It is so easy for this to become a crazy-making experience for kids.

Judah Koller, Israeli clinical psychologist specializing in infancy and early childhood, July 14, 2014

Around the world, people are anguished by the lengths to which Israel is going in this conflict to stop Hamas attacks on its civilians. “Can’t Israel just put up with the rockets and rely on Iron Dome to knock them out of the sky?” they ask. Their wish—to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties—is father to their thought. They read the names of more than 100 Palestinians under the age of 18 who have died in the conflict so far, and they see the terrible images, and they just want it all to stop.  

Of course, the Israelis want it all to stop too. They did not want it to start. Disengaging from Gaza in 2005, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, “We have no desire to rule over the Palestinians … Our goal [in disengaging] is that the Palestinians will be able to live in dignity and freedom in an independent state, and, together with us, enjoy good neighborly relations.” The reply from the Hamas bomb-making chief Mohammed Deif—who is probably leading Hamas operations in the current conflict—was instant: “You are leaving Gaza today in shame. … Today you are leaving hell. But we promise you that tomorrow all Palestine will be hell for you, God willing.”

Deif has been true to his word. He quadrupled the rocket fire on Israeli civilians. And though there have been interludes, the rockets haven’t really stopped.

During the five days before this latest conflict began, Hamas fired 230 rockets, ignoring Israel’s offer of “quiet for quiet.” Then Israel accepted an Egyptian cease-fire proposal and the IDF stopped firing, hoping Hamas would follow suit. Hamas did not. It rejected the cease-fire and kept firing.

Reasonable people acknowledge all this, but they still ask why Israel can’t just stoically accept the rocket fire and so avoid all Palestinian civilian casualties, including children.

The short answer is that the success rate of Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, is 90 percent, not 100 percent. That matters hugely because more than 15,200 rockets and mortars, an average of more than three rocket attacks every single day, have targeted Israel since 2001. Some rockets get through and they kill Israelis such as Aharon Smadga, Itzik Amsalem, and Mira Sharf (who was reportedly pregnant), victims of a direct hit on their house in the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi in 2012.

Barack Obama’s July 2008 remark struck a chord with many: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

There are several other reasons why Israel can’t be expected to accept the rockets. This essay is devoted to one of those reasons: after 13 years of rockets, sirens, and bomb shelters, the children of Israel are being traumatized. My aim is to make clear why ending the trauma of Israel’s children and Gaza’s children is now inseparable from silencing the rockets of Hamas.

 

The city of Sderot, in southern Israel, is less than 2 kilometers from the Gaza Strip. It first came under Palestinian rocket fire in 2001; Hamas would time the rockets to hit the school run. Between April 2001 and December 2008, more than 1,000 alarms were sounded in or near Sderot. By then, according to NATAL, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, between 75 percent and 94 percent of Sderot children ages 4 to 18 were exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Trauma is an emotional or behavioral state of extreme distress resulting from a traumatic event; traumatic because a sense of immediate threat floods the person with emotions of helplessness and fear. In short, the Sderot kids were being terrified.

And their traumatic stress could never become post-traumatic stress because the sirens have never stopped screaming and the Hamas rockets have never stopped falling. Dalia Yosef of Hosen, a national organization for trauma intervention, says, “It’s ongoing, there is no ‘post.’ How do you treat post-trauma in this situation?” So the psychologists and counselors in Sderot and other communities near the border with Gaza have had to innovate new treatments for children who suffer from constant stresses. The director of the Sderot Mental Health Center, Dr. Adrianna Katz, has noted that young patients in recovery often experience the Color Red siren as a trigger that makes them re-experience their PTSD symptoms. She reported in 2008 that more than 5,500 patient files had been opened since rocket fire on the city began.

The personal stories of those under the rockets are at odds with the Western perception of the rockets as a mild irritant that can be tolerated. Listen, for example, to the testimony of Avi Adaf of Sderot, reported to the Israeli human rights group Btselem (no great friend of successive Israeli governments): 

I have four children. The older two are already in university and in the army. My two youngest ones, 13 and 10 years old, are still at home. They were born into the era of Qassam rocket attacks. My house was hit by rockets twice, once 8 years ago and once 6 years ago. The first time, 8 years ago, there was no Color Red warning. The rocket must have been launched from a low spot so the detectors missed it. It hit the house and all the windows were shattered at once. We were in the security room, so we didn’t get hurt. Since the hits on the house, my kids have refused to sleep in their bedrooms, and they’ll only sleep in the security room. It’s like that every night, not just when there’s an escalation. One of them goes regularly to the Hosen Center, for trauma treatment. He sees a therapist who helps him cope with the fear. We try to speak openly with them about the situation and all. I feel that we’ll only discover the true mental damage done to Sderot kids many years down the road.

David Wolfson, who assists trauma victims after rocket strikes in Ashkelon, told Human Rights Watch, “We’ve been under rocket fire now for so long that some people have been near rocket hits two times, and have been re-traumatized to the point where they cannot take care of themselves.”

Raziel, a young Sderot boy, began sleeping in a fetal position in the “cage,” the small fortified room in his family home, after five rocket attacks. Later, after therapy, he recalled his state of mind. “You are scared. You say, ‘If it will fall near me, what will happen?’ You just don’t know how to continue living.”

This kind of paralyzing regression is not uncommon. Dr. Ruth Pat-Hornchik of the Center for Treatment of Psychotrauma at the Herzog Hospital, in Jerusalem, studied the children of Sderot and discovered widespread developmental regression associated with trauma: children returning to the bottle, wetting their bed, plagued by sleeping disorders, aggression, flashbacks, numbness, cognitive detachment, depression. Interviewed in 2009, 15-year-old Tammy Pirchasov talked about the impact of the rockets on herself and her family.

When the rockets started I didn’t understand because I was so young I laughed when I heard the red alert, Tammy said. But when I understood I started to scream and cry because I knew I could die any moment. My sister Caroline is eight and she is used to it now, like me. But my brother, Sasha, is five and still can’t talk; his fear of the Qassam attacks has slowed his development.

By 2008, 120 of Sderot’s children were in long-term mental health therapy. Thirty percent of Sderot’s one- to six-year-olds needed long-term psychological treatment and 60 percent of infants refused to sleep alone. Judah Koller, an American-born clinical psychologist specializing in infancy and early childhood, has pointed out one reason the rockets are a “crazy-making experience for kids”: children are attuned to their parents’ anxiety, and the parents are often traumatized too. As Koller puts it, “Nothing says anxiety like ‘You have 90 (or 30 or 15) seconds to get your family into a sealed room before a rocket may or may not descend upon your home.’”

One Sderot mother, Shula, testified that “After the rocket hit my home I was shattered. The kids saw me falling apart and that’s what hurt the most.”

A high school student whose family had not slept in their bedrooms for six months told IRIN, the news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs who visited Sderot in 2008, that “We all sleep in one room on the bottom floor, which is considered safe. Some days my mum begs my dad to leave this place … To go anywhere where we can walk to school without fearing Qassams [rockets].” 

A 2007 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found 43.5 percent of Sderot middle schoolers (12- to 14-year-olds) displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2010 study in the academic journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice noted, regarding rocket-induced trauma, that “the symptoms seem to evolve gradually and be associated with ongoing, daily stress about imminent attacks.” Symptoms included “hyperarousal, including difficulty sleeping, hypervigilance, and/or exaggerated startle responses-particularly in response to the sound of the early warning public announcement system.”

A 2012 study published in Social Science & Medicine examined the exposure of Sderot residents to rockets and found 97.8 percent of residents had been in close proximity to a rocket and 52.7 percent had their house hit (directly or by shrapnel), 72.1 percent had a family member injured or knew someone wounded, 48.4 percent knew someone killed by rockets, and 4.7 percent were wounded themselves.

 

We don’t have the money to leave Sderot. But even if we did, where would we go? Now all Israel is in range of rockets from north and south.

Tammy Pirchasov of Sderot in 2009, age 15

Here is the crux of the matter: the circle of fear has widened as Hamas (with Iranian help) has sought to make all of Israel into Sderot. Back in 2001, Qassam rockets only fell on Sderot and nearby villages, a mere 1.5 kilometers from Gaza. Then came Qassam rockets with a maximum range of 3 to 4 kilometers. Soon upgraded, their range was 12 to 15 kilometers by 2005. Before long, Ashkelon, 20 kilometers north of Gaza, with a population of 120,000, was a target. By 2006, Katyusha rockets made in Gaza were being fired 12 miles into Israel. Grad-type rockets were smuggled into Gaza from 2008 and were hitting the town of Netivot, 20 kilometers east of Gaza, and Kiryat Gat and Beer Sheva, about twice as far away, after that. And then the Iranians began supplying Hamas with Fajr-5 rockets, smuggled through Sudan and Egypt, and they were capable of hitting Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem outskirts. By 2014, Hamas was firing Syrian-made M-302s and hitting Zichron Yaakov, around 160 kilometers, or about 100 miles, from Gaza. (For an illustration of this deadly progress, see this New York Times graphic.)

Longer-range rockets have made the “crazy-making experience” a part of more and more Israeli children’s lives. By 2014, almost the entire country was getting a taste of what Raziel, Nir, Lior, Itzhik, Geut, Tammy, Caroline, and Sasha had endured for years.

The more potent weaponry Iran supplied to Hamas ensured that by 2009 15 Israeli civilians were dead, Fred Abrahams, the senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, was denouncing Hamas as guilty of war crimes, and more and more of southern Israel was under fire.

As the circle of fear widened, what had been the experience of the children of the south—running to find shelter from explosive warheads packed with ball bearings—become an experience known to more and more Israeli children. And that could not be tolerated.

At one time, Sderot Media Center’s Community Treatment Theater program created a play, Children of Qassam Avenue, and performed it in Jerusalem to raise awareness about this simmering crisis. They sometimes felt ignored by the rest of the country. “It’s important that they know what we are experiencing, so they don’t look at it with a removed understanding [and think things] like, ‘Qassams fall in Sderot, fine.’ It’s not fine and we can’t get used to it,” said one young performer to the Jerusalem Post.

Later, there was no need for plays. By 2009, Yonatan Yagodovsky, the director of the international department of the Magen David Adom (the Israeli Red Cross), was telling Human Rights Watch that “more than 800,000 Israelis were under threat because for the first time the missiles had a range of up to 35 kilometers.” The “crazy-making” world of rockets and sirens and shelters was spreading: “The problem for most people was not being hit, but the fear, uncertainty, and stress. … You had to plan your daily life by considering how long it would take you to get to a bomb shelter from every point on your route.”

By 2009, Amnesty International was reporting that 1 million Israelis now lived in fear of rockets as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired on “homes, businesses, schools, other public buildings, and vehicles in and around towns and villages in southern Israel.”

Yotam Dagan, the director of community outreach at Israel’s Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, told the Washington Post that “20 percent of those exposed to large explosions would develop some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, Israelis and Palestinians alike.” A 2013 study led by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, the Gertner Institute at Tel Hashomer, and Tel Aviv University found that exposure to rocket attacks increased the risk of spontaneous abortion by 59 percent.

Research undertaken by Yair Bar-Haim, head of the School of Psychological Sciences at Tel Aviv University and director of the university’s new Center on PTSD and Resilience, suggests that PTSD has an hereditable component. If your parents suffered PTSD then you are more likely to. How so? In the technical language, a predisposition to trauma can be “transmitted via epigenetic means.”

Trauma also has huge implications for the peace process. New research by Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler, Daphna Canetti, and Carmit Rapaport, forthcoming in the British Journal of Political Science, concludes that “individual-level exposure—necessarily accompanied by psychological distress and threat perceptions—is key to understanding civilians’ refusal to compromise in prolonged conflict.” In other words, as the study’s title reminds its readers, conflict hardens the heart. And NATAL, the Israeli trauma center, estimates that 750,000 victims of terror-related trauma live in Israel today.

We must not carelessly pathologize Israelis, of course. They cope. Yotam Dagan, the outreach director at Israel’s trauma center, told the Washington Post that “Our communities are much more resilient than 10 years ago. We’ve learned to move from normalcy to emergency in minutes. Israeli society is getting more mature.”

Government, civil society, and families have worked hard to improve resilience: Iron Dome, fortified public buildings, bomb shelters (many of which double as play areas for school children), the “Color Red” early warning system, a program of upgrading aging apartments by adding a blast-proof room, therapy classes in school, training for parents to help their children cope with stress, a helpline, couples and family therapy, social rehab clubs, diaspora organizations such as World ORT investing in schools in the south, and more.

In the end, reliance is a relative concept. As Dagan notes, “when a missile lands near you, it takes something out of you.” And when it comes to the young, the missiles take too much. For them, the rockets are literally intolerable. And that’s one reason why, despite the protection provided by Iron Dome, Israel will continue trying to stop the rockets being fired in the first place.

To avoid a fourth operation in the near future, and yet more trauma for Israeli and Palestinian children, the international community should now demand the demilitarization of Hamas and other terror groups in return for a large-scale, long-term development program for Gaza. The Israeli government accepts this idea. But will Hamas?

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