One year after the second Lebanon War, Israel’s north is back in business. Where 12 months ago the region was shaken to its core by the impact of hundreds of missile hits from Hizbullah, traces of the damage are now hard to find.
Last year, the north was empty, as many of its residents fled south to safety and tourists were conspicuous by their absence. This August, it’s more or less life as usual.
But according to experts in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects of the Hizbullah onslaught are still there, under the surface. For adults and children alike, especially those who were already in difficult emotional circumstances, the impact of last year’s war remains enormous.
According to Professor Mooli Lahad of Tel Hai College and the Israel Trauma Coalition, “the houses are fixed,” but the question remains as to whether the souls of those who suffered through the bombardment and the displacement it caused are repaired.
In a presentation to American Jewish journalists visiting the country at the invitation of the United Jewish Communities, Lahad and his colleague, Professor Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University’s School of Social Work, discussed research on the question of just how great the impact of the war was on the psyches of Israel’s citizens.
What they found was that even though the number of civilian casualties in last summer’s war paled in comparison to those inflicted by Palestinian suicide bombers and snipers during the four years of the second intifada, the conflict with Hizbullah devastated Israelis’ sense of security more than anything that had come before.
The failure of the government to prepare adequately for attacks on the north – and the fact that the evacuation of civilians was “too late and too slow” – eroded the sense of community and security.
To deal with these problems, several programs were funded by North American Jewry via the United Jewish Communities’ Israel Emergency Fund. The fund won the respect of Israelis for acting quickly to help people at the time of the fighting. And it continues to sponsor efforts that deal with problems that linger long after the rockets stopped falling.
Millions of dollars donated by friends of Israel via their local Jewish federations have been invested through the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee to deal with problems that experts such as Lahad and Benbenishty assert are not only serious but have been exacerbated by lack of faith in government.
The prime minister of Israel, however, when asked about this in a meeting with the journalists who were in Israel to learn more about the Israel Emergency Campaign, would have none of it.
Speaking on the record – with the ground rule that his statements were not be directly quoted – Ehud Olmert dismissed the notion that people in the north had been traumatized, and questioned the reliability of any psychologist making the claim. Moreover, he asserted that anyone who would make such a case for the impact of the war was attempting to construct a false sense of the nation’s state of mind.
Not only did he flatly contradict the studies commissioned by those tasked by Israeli and Diaspora philanthropic institutions to deal with the issue, he seemingly denigrated the value and importance of the work the emergency fund has been doing all this time.
When this was pointed out to him over the course of several follow-up questions, he backtracked to the extent of allowing that he valued the work of the UJC and its emergency fund, and acknowledged that some people somewhere in Israel might be traumatized.
But Olmert still insisted there was no crisis of confidence, no reason to be alarmed about the way the war may still be harming many Israelis.
The state of denial in which Olmert is living is hardly limited to his oblivious attitude to the facts about the need for aid to the traumatized.
When asked about any mistakes he might have made during last year’s war, Olmert reiterated a stonewall strategy all too familiar to Israelis. Though it was his own boast that he would eradicate Hizbullah and free the two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping set off the fighting, Olmert blamed the press for inflating the public’s expectations of a clear-cut victory that he now acknowledges was always an impossibility.