Engaging the Disengagers

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on August 9, 2007. Click here for the original.

How were the soldiers who performed the pullout affected by the emotional turmoil?

Gil stood on a steaming sidewalk in a row of soldiers awaiting orders, while kids and teenagers darted out of the Kfar Darom homes, randomly approaching his brigade, hoping to break their firm physical and emotional barriers and get them to refuse the orders. The lawns of the terra cotta-roofed homes were sprawled with settlers and their supporters, the atmosphere tense and emotionally loaded.

“Many youngsters, mostly young girls, cursed us, yelled out us harshly: ‘How can you not be ashamed?’” recalls the 23-year-old kibbutznik from the Jordan Valley. His determination to carry out his orders was not deterred by their youthful, emotional interrogations, and today, two years after the disengagement, he remains unashamed.

“I don’t think I’ll be ashamed to tell my kids about it. I don’t see myself as an individual person who participated. I think there is a historical process for the country, and I can say I was a part of it – a solder who was a part of it.”

Gil has since completed his army service and works as an educational tour guide for young people. The disengagement – a move he favored – remains one of the most significant, difficult and thought-provoking chapters of his army service, but he doesn’t classify the operation as any more traumatic or unpleasant than his service in the West Bank.

Shalev, 23, from the same kibbutz, served in Gil’s unit. Looking back, he also conjures up images of angry kids and mothers cursing at him. Despite their warnings of shame and trauma, Shalev, too, emerged emotionally unscathed. “It’s hard when you speak to evacuees,” he says. “Sometimes it’s not pleasant to say that you were there, like when I hear about situations in which people don’t have homes. It’s hard, but it’s not an emotional trauma. It’s not that I can’t sleep at night.”

The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was arguably one of the most contentious and heart-wrenching IDF operations. Prior to disengagement, there were ominous predictions of bloodshed and civil war. In the end, the sandy grounds of Gush Katif absorbed no blood, but many tears. The disengagement produced some of the most iconic images of civil strife: Grown men breaking down while giving their mezuzas their parting kiss; tough, secular soldiers weeping and praying while carrying the Torah as they joined settlers’ hands in their final walk through the synagogues; teenagers clad in symbolic orange T-shirts warning soldiers they’d suffer sleepless nights and an aching conscience for destroying happy, Jewish homes.

Two years later, have predictions of post-traumatic stress hurled at the evacuation forces been realized, or are the disengagement soldiers sleeping soundly with clear consciences?

A study co-conducted by Dr. Ariel Knafo, assistant professor of social psychology at the Hebrew University, has found that the soldiers’ emotional well-being has largely remained unaffected by the disengagement, with some soldiers having reported that their participation has even contributed to their personal growth.

“When we started the project, we thought there would be very serious consequences over the event,” Knafo says. “We learned that some soldiers are better off now than they were two weeks before the disengagement. I think they were extremely anxious before, and actually it turned out not to be that terrible, because they prepared themselves for something more serious than what happened – potential threats, behavior of the settlers and so on. Eventually it turned out not to be so hard.”

The study surveyed 1,200 soldiers before the disengagement, an additional 231 soldiers one week afterward and 157 soldiers six months later. It checked the correlation between such factors as the soldiers’ locus of control (internal as opposed to external), their degree of training and their attitude toward disengagement as a military task with their level of anxiety and difficulties carrying out orders. The ultimate findings, published in an IDF journal on military psychology, show no signs of any significant post-disengagement trauma.

“IT WAS clear that if we prepared them effectively in preventing violence and escalation, then there are good chances that they wouldn’t have any negative reactions,” says Haim Omer, a psychology professor at Tel Aviv University and co-author of The Psychology of Demonization with psychologist Nahi Alon. Their work with the armed forces focused on preventing violence – not trauma – although, for Omer, minimizing the level of violence and trauma are intertwined.

Omer and Alon trained IDF officers and settlers based on principles covered in their book, particularly the art of “constructive conflict,” a set of strategies designed to minimize violent escalations, provocations and arguments between two sides in conflict. For example, soldiers were taught not to give in to their instincts to react to the arguments, insults, pleadings and curses of the settlers. The self-control exhibited by both the soldiers and settlers played a role in neutralizing the psychological battlefield and accelerating the relatively quick and bloodless execution of the disengagement.

Dr. Danny Brom, director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma of Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, has not received any soldiers complaining or suffering from trauma due to the disengagement, and he doesn’t anticipate that he will. He attributes the lack of reported cases to the comprehensive, psychological preparation.

“They were really prepared, with very good training in all scenarios, so when they were in there – and I’ve heard this from a lot of people – there was nothing new,” says Brom, adjusting his knitted kippa. He closely followed the psychological training and aftermath as a mental health professional and also as a father; his son, still a soldier, served in Gush Katif during the disengagement.

“It was all planned, all known, and that is what happened. I would be surprised if there are a lot of people who still have problems, because one of the issues in trauma is the discrepancy between your expectation and what’s happening in reality. The further they’re apart the more harmful potential it has.”

The harmful results of inadequate preparation, he says, are very evident among Gush Katif evacuees and fighters in the Second Lebanon War, populations which have sought treatment at the center. As part of their mental preparation, soldiers learned how to maintain an emotional buffer between themselves and the settlers; to demonstrate empathy with residents, but to dissociate emotionally from their cries and outbursts. Soldiers were given specific formulas to recite upon entering the homes, and they were advised not to engage in political, religious or ethical debate. The organization of the soldiers into tight-knit groups provided a protective feeling of belonging and support. In drills, soldiers rehearsed the evacuation to immunize them from potential harmful effects of the verbal insults. Soldiers who had ethical, ideological or personal dilemmas with destroying the settlements and evacuating Jewish families were taught that they didn’t have to take personal responsibility for disengagement. They could find solace in understanding that they were members of the armed forces executing a democratic, government decision that must remain impervious to a soldier’s individual, political opinion.

PREPARATION AT the Counseling Center for Women based in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan trained about 800 female soldiers with an eye toward the needs and sensitivities of women, included workshops discussing the nature and effects of trauma after the pullout.

“There was definitely anxiety that this could cause post-traumatic stress problems,” says Bella Savran, a clinical social worker and co-founder of the center. “So built into training was very structured training about the issue of trauma, explaining what it is, what are some of the signs that you are having post- or pre-traumatic reactions, to help soldiers be more knowledgeable and aware and hopefully less frightened if they were having any symptoms, bodily or mental.”

Many of the soldiers, she says, considered trauma education the most helpful. Ten days after the disengagement, the center held debriefing workshops with some 200 soldiers who volunteered to attend. At first many of them were hesitant in discussing their experience, says Savran, who is currently summarizing soldier feedback in an article for an American feminist therapy journal, but eventually they opened up to share both positive and negative feelings. Among their negative emotions included feelings of isolation, guilt and shame for destroying the settlers’ homes, and keen discomfort upon encountering evacuees in public places. Soldiers also described feeling moved by the devotion and behavior of the settlers and pride in having participated in a national mission of such importance.

Zvia Kfir, a social worker who led a session, recalls one soldier requesting additional individual treatment, but overall “most of them spoke about a very empowering, powerful experience – there was a feeling of togetherness, collaboration, that they placed them in groups with men as well, and it didn’t matter if you were an officer or cadet, there was something very uniting.”

A similar sentiment is expressed by Ariella, 22, a former officer in the Liaison and Foreign Relations Division who now works as an editor. “It’s really funny because a lot of things people were yelling at us: ‘You’re just going to go to Sinai and forget about it so that you can cleanse your consciences, blah, blah, blah.’ At the end, most of the people in my group actually organized a trip to Eilat two weekends later. We all went together as a group… And everybody from the disengagement was there. It made me feel like it was all so national.”

As someone who had made aliya only months before entering the army, the disengagement seemed at first like a mission that contradicted her Zionist calling.

“As a person who came to Israel to fulfill a certain ideology and then be commanded to go against that ideology is a very difficult thing to have to do,” Ariella says. “It’s a very contradictory feeling running through you.”

She held an ambivalent attitude and dreaded participating in the evacuation. She considered refusing orders, but told herself and others that she didn’t join the army to impose her own views on the military, nor did she want to sit in jail and sacrifice her rank. She figured other, possibly less sensitive soldiers or policemen would replace her anyway. She got called to participate in the evacuation two weeks before it started, and she worried that she missed some of the mental preparation. Her officers assured her that she could seek psychological assistance from the army if she felt she needed it. She didn’t.

“The funny thing is that I don’t think about it, at least not for any extended period of time,” Ariella says calmly and confidently from the office of one of her co-workers, who happened to have been a disengagement critic. The wall still bears an “orange” flag of the State of Israel, a symbol of the struggle against the disengagement.

This is the first time the pretty blonde has discussed her disengagement service at length. She knew it would be a highly emotional experience, and she describes how she cried the minute she crossed the gates of the settlements while settlers shouted at her and her brigade. She restrained herself from answering back, “in case I said something I wasn’t supposed to say. When I said something back, I think it generally consisted of ‘I’m sorry.’”

The shouts continued unabated as she marched on to evacuate several homes in Neveh Dekalim and the large synagogue in which hundreds of religious girls had barricaded themselves. There were moments when she felt moved by the cries of the protesters, but, with the support of the soldiers in her unit – who had received the full mental preparation – she eventually learned to disregard them.

“I just remember this 19, 20-year-old guy wearing a Golani Brigade patch on his shirt, and he had tears in his eyes, and was saying, ‘I was in Golani, and when I heard there was the disengagement, I refused orders and I went to jail.’ That was the first thing that got me, and then I wondered, ‘How many times has he said this, and how good was he at acting?’ When I realized that it was part of some big psychological plan, I stopped. My emotions turned into anger. It was probably about a couple of days into it. It helped me that my friends were telling the same thing. That it was all part of a game, and it felt that way.”

She understood the need for non-residents to show solidarity with the evacuees, but thought that their presence in Gush Katif ultimately made it more difficult on the soldiers. “We were pulling someone out of the synagogue, and we asked her where we she was from – to talk to them, to show that we were human – and she answered me from Eilat. And I thought, what are you doing there? Why are you doing this to us? I couldn’t understand. That’s another important thing to point out. I can’t understand why it was so hard for people today to differentiate between forces that were acting and force that was deciding. The IDF was doing what it was told on behalf of the government. We didn’t have a choice in the matter.”

SOLDIERS WHO strongly opposed disengagement for ideological, personal or political reasons generally had a harder time opening up about their experience, and they cast doubt on the rosy picture of soldier mental and emotional health. Knafo’s study could not question respondents regarding their political opinion, since soldiers are prohibited from airing their political views while in uniform, but the study has found that soldiers who took a negative stance toward disengagement generally showed more signs of anxiety and unease in carrying out certain aspects of their mission. More than half a dozen soldiers sharply refused to be interviewed. Some said they feared army backlash, while others didn’t want to dredge up the painful experience. All soldiers spoke on condition of anonymity. The IDF declined to offer any contacts for soldiers or army psychologists. Several soldiers related that the army hardly discussed the mission or held debriefings once it was over.

“They never mentioned it,” says Ron, 23, from Jerusalem, a student in a religious Zionist yeshiva. “I didn’t think about it. In the end it was the escape of the army. They didn’t have answers. It’s not talked about today.”

Ron too prefers to keep his own experience “inside,” and it’s clear reflecting upon the event is not easy for him. His answers over the phone are quick and brief. Prior to the disengagement, he had requested from his officer not to evacuate settlers from their homes, and instead was assigned to guard the settlements in the northern Gaza Strip from Palestinian violence and illegal Israeli infiltrators. In an officer’s training course at the time, he was torn between his loyalty to the army and his sympathy for the settlers. His own siblings were among the Gush Katif protesters.

“It’s bad memories for the rest of your life,” Ron says. Right after disengagement, he countered his own upset by conjuring better memories; he looked through his photo album of his days studying in the pre-military academy in the Gush Katif settlement of Atzmona.

“It was very black,” he continues. “It’s hard to describe the feeling. It’s something very deep and serious. It was the most disgusting period of my life. So was the aftermath.”

Despite his inner conflicts, Ron would do it again, on principle, if given the order, and he directs anger at the disengagement at the government, not the army.

“The army is the organization that unites all of Israel. If everyone would do what is good and not good for them, what would happen to the army?” he asks.

Likewise, Gil, who opposes Israel’s presence in the West Bank, says he would evacuate an Arab village, however reluctantly, if given the order.

IN CASES IN which soldiers deeply identify with the settlers, says Dr. Brom, emotional complications are more likely to surface. He concludes this in part from an incident his son related to him.

“They went to shul [in Gush Katif], and that was a very strange thing. They were accepted there, they weren’t sent away, but that was one of these cracks in the wall, where you suddenly identify with each other. And that was potentially a problem for the work that had to be done.”

Brom adds that the gap between someone’s ideal self-image and personal values versus his actions can also be the source of potential trauma.

“One of the more theoretical issues in the field of trauma is how trauma can disrupt the way you view the world and yourself,” he explains.

“Basically, people have the need to experience themselves as good people, and they want to know the world is a just place and that there is some order in the world. Here you are confronted with something you have to do that you might feel is unjust and you are identified with something bad and you have an ambivalent identification.”

Kfir at the Counseling Center for Women noticed that soldiers who generally supported the disengagement were more responsive and receptive to the help and solutions offered them.

“It was harder for those who asked the basic question: ‘How can I dare do this?’ Definitely. For many of them, the fact that they performed a task that they didn’t choose made it easier for them.”

Shalev and Gil describe their most difficult moments as the personal encounters with the residents, cases in which the settlers welcomed the soldiers warmly without accusations, insults, shouts or curses.

“There was a family of Ethiopian immigrants,” relates Shalev. “They explained how they came, how they had nothing, how Gush Katif was the only place that welcomed them. It was hard to hear their story… but that doesn’t become the reason for you not to go through with it.”

Throughout the evacuation, Gil knew “something wasn’t right” when settlers asked the soldiers where they were headed and his officers couldn’t offer a clear answer, but he didn’t view their smooth resettlement as his personal responsibility.

“It makes me feel bad about the state,” Gil says. “It’s one of the many things that make me feel bad about the state. It doesn’t take care of many things it should – the sick, the poor and also the evacuees.”

Nir, 26, a secular Israeli who works as a security officer in Tel Aviv, served in Gaza during the disengagement and continues to regard the pullout as a mistake. As an officer in the air force, he carried out his orders to lead his unit in evacuating hundreds of protesters from the streets and border crossings. He has no qualms discussing his service in Gaza but admits that serving in the outer military circle as opposed to the first circle charged with the evacuation of residents may have lightened his emotional load.

“No doubt it would have influenced me differently, and this is what I heard from people who were there. They have scars that are difficult to fathom,” he says.

He had debated whether or not disengagement orders could be classified as “manifestly illegal orders,” which soldiers have the right to disobey. A missive from then chief of General Staff Dan Halutz discussing the legality of the disengagement dispelled his doubts. It gave two examples of manifestly illegal orders: the shooting of 48 unarmed civilians at Kafr Kasim in 1958 and Adolf Eichmann’s instructions to murder Jews.

During the evacuation, Nir disregarded the angry shouts and responded more favorably to protesters who questioned him rationally about his actions.

“You could speak with them and tell them, ‘I don’t agree with the act, but I’m in the army and I have to follow orders.’” He didn’t have too much time or mental space to debate the issue while there. “We worked mostly as robots because of the volume of work that had to be done. From lack of sleep, your body works on automatic pilot. You don’t know what you’re going to do the next hour. The lack of knowledge about what’s next contributes to your robotic mode.”

Ariella too didn’t have the luxury to let her personal feelings or opinions influence her course. She recalls at one point shutting off her feelings. “When the international media interviewed me at the time, and they asked me how I felt about it, I said, ‘I’m not allowed to feel anything.’ It sounds like a getaway answer, but I really felt that way.”

Today, Nir says he “has more scars from Operation Defensive Shield,” but the disengagement marked a turning point in his life. A few months later, he decided to scrap his plans for an army career and not renew his army contract.

“I felt like they forced something in a wrong way, like they behaved in the wrong way, as if they higher-ups wanted to prove that they can, like kids in the nursery,” he related. “The way they came, the way they prepared, what they stuck in people’s minds. The entire mental preparation was harder than the actual evacuation and ultimately only a third of what they taught came to pass. They really exaggerated. For officers at that level, you have to prepare something in proportion. Things bothered me after as well. I noticed people were in the army more for ego and status.”

WHEN ARIELLA finished her assignment, she left the ad hoc unit created for the disengagement and returned to her regular unit. The remainder of her service remained largely unaffected by the evacuation, but she came out of Gush Katif with new friendships.

“Everyone who participated in the disengagement became very close. Most of my good friends were people in my unit during the disengagement, and that was only a few weeks out of my entire service.”

During her first weekend back home, her friends described her as a “zombie,” but about a week and a half later, she already began to heal from the ordeal.

“At the time I thought this is going to scar me for life, this is the saddest thing I have to do. And it still is the hardest thing I ever had to do. I had to do tough things, but nothing like this. This was something completely beyond reality. I think it’s awful because I know there are people that are still affected by it today, people who don’t have permanent housing, but I don’t think too much about it.” She pauses and looks up, a glimmer of guilt in her eyes. “I think I should, but I don’t. I think everyone is just living his own life.”

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