Trauma from Palestinian rocket attacks inflicts deepening wounds on Israeli society

Click photo to download. Caption: Israelis stand near a hole caused by a Palestinian rocket fired from Gaza into the southern Israeli city of Sdeort on March 12, 2014. At least 60 Islamic Jihad rockets were launched from Gaza at Israel from March 12-13. Credit: Flash90.

By Maayan Jaffe/JNS.org

Fifteen seconds. That’s how long a resident of Sderot has from the time a Code Red alert is announced until a Palestinian rocket strikes the town or is intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. In other southern Israeli communities, one might have 30 seconds, maybe even a minute. But it’s never very long.

Israelis fell asleep to sirens March 12 and awoke to sirens March 13 while enduring a barrage of at least 60 rockets launched by the Islamic Jihad terrorist group, the largest rocket attack emanating from Gaza since late 2012.          

Over and over, Israelis ran into the bomb shelters, taking cover from the threat. They know the drill. Gaza rockets have been raining down on southern Israel since 2000. But what Israelis are just beginning to understand is the long-term impact of these rockets on their society.

Working in conjunction with Georgia State University’s Dr. Christopher C. Henrich, Professor Golan Shahar, a clinical/community psychologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, followed 362 adolescents from southern Israel between 2008 and 2011. They measured four times per year the adolescents’ exposure to rocket attacks and their levels of anxiety, depression, aggression, and violence. Strikingly, longitudinal results evinced only modest effects of rocket exposure on anxiety and depression, and no effects on aggression, but robust effects on violence commission.

In other words, explained Shahar, by the fourth year of the study, a sizeable portion of the youths had “gotten used” to the rockets from the point of view of becoming distressed and anxious. But a sizeable number had become more violent—and seriously so.

“These findings were something that made us feel gratified as scientists, but made me alarmed as an Israeli citizen,” Shahar told JNS.org. “Kids who at the beginning of the four-year study had been seriously traumatized, who had been exposed intensely to missile attacks, became extremely violent four years later. And I am not talking pushing and shoving, I am talking carrying weapons, carrying knives.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Col. Dr. Eyal Fruchter (pictured), head of the IDF Mental Health Department, said he does not see increased violence among members of the Israeli army, but his recent work in attention bias modification supports other research by Professor Golan Shahar about Israeli desensitization to violence. Credit: Provided photo. 

“This is the first longitudinal study attesting to the prospective longitudinal effect of exposure to terrorism on adolescent violence,” he said. “These findings should serve as a red flag for healthcare practitioners working in civil areas afflicted by terrorism and political violence.”

Shahar said scientists know that chronic stress (as opposed to smaller bursts or more isolated stressors) changes the brain by causing the part of the brain that controls impulsive behavior, the prefrontal cortex, to mature more slowly.  

“We are programming the next generation neuropsychologically to become impulsive and dangerous,” said Shahar. “And we are doing this on both sides of the border; there is no reason to expect the kids in Gaza are not becoming more violent from what they have to endure. … Unless this conflict is contained, unless it is resolved, the worst is yet to come.”

According to Shahar, the impact of rocket-induced trauma is likely to be most acute among the next generation of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. While a study released in September 2013 by the IDF Medical Corps Mental Health Department revealed that reported cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Israeli soldiers are among the lowest in militaries worldwide, Shahar’s research raises the possibility that the situation might shift as Israeli youths are exposed to consistent rocket attacks. Some 1.6 percent of regular IDF troops and 0.7 percent of reservists were diagnosed with PTSD, and such diagnoses in other militaries worldwide ranged from 2 percent to 17 percent, according to last year’s IDF study.

Col. Dr. Eyal Fruchter, head of the IDF Mental Health Department, said he does not see increased violent tendencies among members of the army, but his recent work in attention bias modification supports Shahar’s research about desensitization.

Fruchter began testing strategies designed to prevent and ameliorate PTSD symptoms in soldiers after he saw that military deployment to combat zones involved exposure to trauma at a higher-than-average rate and was leading to an increasing number of PTSD cases. Most recently, Fruchter translated cognitive-neuroscience knowledge and attention bias modification research into a novel computerized training tool that helps make soldiers more attuned to words like death, battle and gun. The test, easily delivered to soldiers during different stages of the deployment cycle, is now being used during basic training. Fruchter told JNS.org that soldiers who are desensitized to trauma are less prone to PTSD or anxiety and more prone to action in the field.

Similarly, Fruchter has revamped the army’s debriefing process to focus more on action than emotion. There are three parts to the process. First, the soldiers discuss what they have seen (for example: “I was sitting on the roof and I saw a bomber come from the right side”), then what they did (“I was on the roof and I was trying to connect with Moses on the radio”), and finally what they will do next (“Now I am going to clean my machine gun to get ready for the next occasion”).

According to Fruchter, the IDF borrowed aspects of the debriefing process from the U.S. and European armies, but the major shift is that rather than relying on top commanders to debrief with soldiers, officers are trained to debrief with one another, making the process immediate and accessible even in the midst of a battleground.

“We will probably have a mental health gym soon in every basic training camp that will have an aspect of this neurofeedback/attention bias modification program and training in the main debriefing process to make people more resilient,” Fruchter said.

Joe Goldman served in the U.S. army for 14 years and was stationed in the Middle East. He said emotion should stay off the battlefield and thinks this aspect of Fruchter’s plans make sense. But he said once a person leaves the army, if there is not an emotional debriefing, it can lead to emotional instability—something he has seen firsthand.

Scott Claster, who served as an IDF platoon commander in the last Lebanon War, during which several of his comrades fell in battle, expressed similar sentiments. “It hits you after the fact,” he said, adding that the army should do better not only at making people effective in battle, but at helping them transition back into civilian life.

Yehoshua Boncheck, a reservist in the Golani Brigades, said not talking about emotion plays into the testosterone of the Israeli army and translates into a macho, impatient, and nervous Israeli society.

Is Fruchter worried that additional desensitization to violence, coupled with an often already traumatic army experience, may lead to increased violence among the Israeli public?

“I’ve heard this claim several times before,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. She can be reach at maayanjaffe@icloud.com.

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Posted on March 14, 2014 and filed under Israel, Features, News.