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How Israel is battling its demons Hamas survivors are struggling to rebuild their lives

Israel is in pain (Credit: Amir Levy/Getty)

Israel is in pain (Credit: Amir Levy/Getty)


January 11, 2024   7 mins

Outside the hotel, the Mediterranean Sea winks at the winter sun. There’s a lawn strewn with toys that look like they’ve been abandoned for something more fun. But the sense of tranquillity is deceptive; the deep, dark rings around the eyes of the hotel’s guests tell a different story.

The Shefayim Hotel, 15 minutes north of Tel Aviv, is currently serving as a temporary home for residents of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, which, on October 7, saw 62 of its 950 residents killed and 18 of them taken hostage. Flapping gently in the breeze from the ceiling of the reception area are images of the hostages. There is a banner with their names; yellow stickers are placed next to them if they have been returned. A few weeks ago, two were killed in a horrific tale of friendly fire. Yotam Haim, 28, and Alon Shamriz, 26, had managed to escape their captors in Gaza when they were fatally shot by Israeli forces, along with another young Israeli man.

On the hotel’s front desk, there is a list of funerals and memorials yet to take place. Everyone knows there may soon be more. Five members of the kibbutz remain somewhere underground in Gaza. At least one of them is a young woman — one of the 17 Hamas has refused to part with, perhaps because of the horror stories they would tell.

Today, the residents of the Shefayim Hotel have a roof over their heads, food and medicine. Each family has been offered therapy. You could compare them with the people in Gaza now suffering the repercussions of Hamas’s actions. But that doesn’t make life any easier for them.

“It hurts all the time, it hurts everywhere. I hate waking up in the morning. If I could stay curled up in my bed I would,” says Dafna Rousso, 43, a mother-of-three from Kfar Aza whose husband Uri was killed by Hamas militants on October 7. She looks haunted, but like many Israelis, she is now used to patiently telling her story to the Western media, knowing that if the victims don’t speak, no one will believe what happened.

Shortly after the first rocket attacks were heard, Uri, a member of the kibbutz militia, received a message saying terrorists were in the vicinity. He rushed out of his home so quickly that he didn’t even have time to say goodbye to his wife and daughters. His cartridge showed that he managed to shoot at the terrorists six times. He was probably one of the first members of the kibbutz killed. And he wasn’t the only casualty in Dafna’s family: her nephew was also killed and, as someone born on the kibbutz, she knows everyone who died that day.

Dafna, her daughters and her sister are now renting a flat nearby the Shefayim, but come back to the hotel for therapy sessions, and to be with those who understand what they are going through. There are vague plans for a temporary kibbutz, somewhere closer to the Negev — made up of caravans or temporary housing — where they can begin again, while waiting for Kfar Aza to be rebuilt. But no one knows whether the kibbutz, which was once so popular it had a three-year waiting list, will ever be revived. Dafna doesn’t think it will. How could those who saw their loved ones slaughtered ever feel safe enough to go back there? “To add to the tragedy, we’ve lost our community too,” she says.

Her story echoes across Israel, where nearly a quarter of Jews are reportedly suffering from PTSD. In the south in particular, families are still grappling with the fallout from October 7. Children have finally gone back to school, with too many classes missing pupils who were killed that day. Those who survived are now less likely to be playing Mums and Dads or having picnics with their teddy bears. “Now they are whispering in a corner saying, ‘Sshhhh we need to be quiet, there are terrorists outside,’” says Dr Flora Mor, who has been working with evacuated families for the humanitarian agency JDC. “During the Lebanon war we saw displaced people and fear but it was nothing like what we are seeing now in terms of scale, tremendous pain and trauma. The children aren’t as good at vocalising how they feel so there is a lot of separation anxiety, bedwetting and nightmares. They are very closed off or aggressive. They don’t know how to be themselves. It is like they have forgotten how to play; they are so stressed.”

One of the initiatives she has been trying to implement is one she devised, with Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Ministry of Education, in the wake of the Lebanon war: the Hibuki doll. A sad-looking dog, the toy has long arms and legs that can be Velcroed together, so that children can wear it like a backpack, and feel like they are constantly being held. (The name Hibuki comes from the Israeli word for hug.) More than that, the Hibuki doll is a tool that enables parents and educators to work out what young children are thinking. If they are told they have to look out for the doll, children will often tell their parents that Hibuki has had nightmares or is scared — when they aren’t ready to discuss their own feelings.

A child with her Hibuki

Parents can also benefit from talking about another’s emotions when they don’t feel able to articulate their own. Some attend therapy groups during which they discuss how to talk to their children about Hibuki: “The parent is encouraged to ask, ‘What did Hibuki have a nightmare about and how do you think we can make it better?’” says Flora. “When you are dealing with multi-generational trauma, it can help both the parent and the child.”

For the adults themselves, just a few miles down the road from the Shefayim Hotel is Rishpon, a home from home for another group of survivors. Behind a pair of heavy gates lies a camp in what feels like an enchanted forest. Teepees have been set up to offer massage and sound therapy; there’s a candle workshop and a campfire, free food and herbal teas. This was once a retreat for troubled youths, but it has been expanded to become a centre for the survivors of the Nova festival.

Around 3,500 young people were dancing in the desert close to the border when Hamas terrorists invaded and started shooting at them. Of them, 364 were killed; many more were wounded, raped, taken hostage. Rishpon offers them a safe haven, where they support one another and speak to psychologists who are trained in helping them. “I see telling my story as a way of therapy,” says survivor Nehoray Levy, 24. “I lost 10 friends at Nova and it brings them back — I memorialise them for others.”

The trauma can hit him suddenly. “I think I am OK and then suddenly I am not. Last Friday it just attacked me out of nowhere, all these memories. I was crying and shivering for 15 minutes — my mum just hugged me.” There are the memories of seeing his friends killed, of bullets raining down on him; there is the survivor’s guilt, the fear that he could have done more to save them. And, like many Israelis, he’s saddened that he is telling his story in a world that doesn’t seem to care. “I know it is important for me to talk because I am a survivor and there are people who say they don’t believe what happened, or feel they can justify it,” he says. “It is insane to think we would lie about this, but we have another battle that we are fighting on social media just to get people to believe us.”

Many of the Nova survivors need more intensive therapy because of what they witnessed. The “Iron Hug”, a shelter named after the Iron Dome defence system — and set up by the addiction centre Ritorno in the countryside close to Jerusalem — is dealing with Nova survivors who aren’t coping at all. Some of them have lost their jobs and flats because they were unable to function normally, go to work, even get out of bed. Others have been thrown out of home because they were excessively using alcohol or drugs or sex to alleviate their pain.

“When you drink something, or smoke something, or have sex with someone, for a moment you feel good — and you forget about your memories and your flashbacks — but it doesn’t last long and then the cycle begins again,” says Talia Brandes, who is helping to run the shelter. “At first, we didn’t realise that some of them were living on the streets or were homeless. But then one of the girls wrote to me in the middle of the night saying that she could not take it anymore — she said ‘I am sleeping in different beds every night’. That is when we realised, we needed a shelter for them.”

Trauma, of course, is something with which Jews are familiar — older survivors of October 7 speak of its echoes with the Holocaust. And therapy is something Jews are good at. But can you mend a country that seems so broken? The images of those 136 hostages yet to be returned are everywhere; pictures of them flash up at cashpoints. And Israelis are forced to reckon with the fact that, elsewhere in the world, posters of the kidnapped are pulled down, or seen as false propaganda.

“It feels like our entire society is being tortured — all of those hostages are like our children,” says former politician Ayelet Shaked, who is now the Chairwoman of the Friends of Schneider Hospital — the biggest children’s hospital in Israel. She has worked with some of the nation’s most traumatised individuals: the child hostages who have been returned. “Physically they are malnourished, have nits and scabies but those things they can recover from. Mentally, it is a different thing; some of them were physically abused. Some of them were sexually abused. They were not allowed to speak, not allowed to cry.”

And yet, she is hopeful. “They will not break us,” she says. Israel, recently so divided over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial reforms that many wondered if it could ever recover, is more united than ever. “[Hamas] miscalculated as they saw we were polarised before, but now we know what we have to do: we will fight until the end — until all those monsters that did this are either dead or in jail.”

As for the Israel’s traumatised survivors, “will be looking after them for some time”, says Shaked. “But we will get there.”


Nicole Lampert is a journalist based in London.

nicolelampert

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Matt B
Matt B
6 months ago

What happened was appalling. Whilst Netanyahu was long a disaster in the making, the villification of all Israelis and calls for Israel’s demise add little to the debate over what should be done next.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

 On the day that the South African genocide case comes before the ICJ, Unherd decides to lead with another story centering the Israeli aftermath of October 7th. All harrowing, all desperate, all tragic, all heart-breaking, but I think the timing is odd to say the least.

As for these traumatised Israelis being upset that elsewhere in the world their claims are seen as ‘false propaganda’ then I’d have to ask where precisely? Where in the Western mainstream/legacy/Establishment media have any of their claims been questioned at all? I’ve not seen any above the line hear at UnHerd. Links please if you have any Nicole.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

A quick perusal of Ayelet Shaked bio is interesting too – a founder member of Israel’s ‘The New Right’ and one of the initial drafters of the Basic Law is quite a resume beyond her hospital work. I’m sure she’s no axes to grind at all.

Brian Thomas
Brian Thomas
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Referring to the ludicrous South African “Genocide” case reduces all else you say to utter garbage.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Brian Thomas

What’s so ludicrous about the South African case? Has anyone at Unherd touched it?

Brian Thomas
Brian Thomas
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Do you really believe that Israel is intentionally targetting and killing those who have no known link to Hamas? Intent is absolutely vital to any claim of genocide.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Brian Thomas

 The South African case has pages of Israeli politicians claiming just that intentionality. I’m sure disbelieving the statements of Jews violates some antisemitic trope or other – I’ll take them at their word here:
You can find them here (from page 59):

https://www.icj-cij.org/sites/default/files/case-related/192/192-20231228-app-01-00-en.pdf#page=59

Also for your reference:

From the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/atrocity-crimes/Doc.1_Convention%20on%20the%20Prevention%20and%20Punishment%20of%20the%20Crime%20of%20Genocide.pdf

Article II:

Te present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.  

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I listened to the whole proceeding this morning and came out very depressed at the end with a feeling of injustice at the narrative that was put forward by the South African side. Some of what they said was lies or distortions, but even given that, I understand how the Gaza war can be framed as genocide and that is the narrative that will win. And as for us? I just want to live, and I want my children and grandchildren to live. I don’t want to be slaughtered in the name of Allah and I don’t want them to be either. I want our soldiers (including my children) to clear Gaza of every last military installation, equipment, weapon and fighter; whether it be in or under a school or hospital, rockets stored under children’s beds, or in tunnels dug beneath residential quarters. And I want every last hostage back.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

I would love for you and your family to live in peace too Rafi, really I would. I just don’t see any evidence that successive Isreali governments have done anything other than to make that less likely.

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

That may be because you apparently find little blame in the intention and determination of Islam in general and the adherents inside Israel specifically.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Shaked was interviewed about her work with the child victims. Do you believe she should have nothing to say about the children and their PTSD because of her political views?

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

She can be interviewd and say what she pleases – I’d just expect an article on a platform that wishes to properly inform their readers of events would add a little more context than offered here so they can make their own mind up.

s d
s d
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

What “context” makes these people’s suffering okay? That a war is going on–provoked by Hamas? So readers “can make their minds up” that their suffering is somehow okay? The sub-text of your comments is pretty transparent.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  s d

No of course their suffering is not OK, but neither is it’s potential instrumentalisation to support the political aims of an, even in Israeli terms, somewhat extreme politician. Forgive me for finding that too bleedin obvious to have to explain in a comment thread like this.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

So, is the narrative implied in this article disagreeable to you, or are the facts provided here disagreeable to your narrative?

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

All the events of the last 3 months have been disagreeable to me. I’m just curious as to why Unherd decided to re-centre the Israeli experience today of all days whilst ignoring the events in The Hague.

As for the ‘facts’ I’d take issue with a few (a quarter of Israelis suffering PTSD? Really? I’m not convinced that it was only the 3 hostages in Gaza who were killed by ‘friendly fire’. There are many questions about that on October 7th that need to be addressed (indeed some families of those killed are begging the Israeli gov to answer them themselves).

As for the narrative, I think the most likely one is this – Of course atrocities were committed by Hamas & other Palestinians on that day – but IMHO it’s also true that these were exacerbated by a panicked and disproportionate response by the IDF. Subsequently the Isrealis have gone on to commit actions that quite easily reach the threshold of genocide as defined in treaties that the Israelis have signed.

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Your last paragraph is ridiculous, bordering on intensely prejudiced. It is Your Humble?? Opinion that they were exacerbated by a panicked and disproportionate response?? The vast numbers of abominations could only have been carried out by subhumans. I have seen the videos that the Hamas people took of themselves and of the atrocities that they were committing so they could proudly boast of them back “home”. They were allowed to happen because the IDF was not prepared.There can be no such thing as disproportionate response to the horrors, the vile, evil things that were done to civilians of all ages. Furthermore kidnapping/ taking civilian hostages are war crimes. Hamas, like its brothers, the Islamic State, Hezbollah and others do not consider international law to apply to them unless it suits them. Their law is an antique one called Sharia.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Fraser

I have also seen the video evidence of Israeli helicopters straffing cars as they drove rom the festival as well as interviews with pilots stating they did not know who was in them at the time. That seems a bit panicky to me.

Also check out the testimony from Tuval Escapa regarding the shelling of the Kibbutz Be’eri or Haretz report of Israel’s order to bomb their own military bases on the day.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Fraser

I’m not saying Hamas didn’t commit war crimes – but if you don’t read Hebrew may I suggest you run the Israeli newspaper report linked in this tweet through google translate. The Hannibal Directive is an over reaction – an awful, murderous one.
https://x.com/RnaudBertrand/status/1745721714364076512?s=20

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

That goes to the larger issue of why Israel anyway? Assad has killed a half million of his own. Sudan, Yemen, Congo? Who’s fighting them at the Hague? Who cares about their PTSD? It’s because Israel is the canary in the coal mine. It’s a litmus test of civilization. If it goes, civilization as we know it is probably next. Like it or not Israel is important that way.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I don’t think she is grinding an axe here. What she is saying is a very pervasive sentiment here in Israel and crosses all political boundaries. But yes, I happen to agree with you that her political affiliation should be stated. Ayelet Shaked is first and foremost a political figure.

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

It is not this platform’s remit, thank goodness, to censor its articles. It is this platform’s remit to allow comment from any member, even AD Kent who clearly is determined to provide a narrative that is profoundly anti Israel

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Go to any online forum like Reddit, Quora, X, or Facebook and enter any chat on Israel. In there you will find almost every young person denying what happened on October 7th. These numb-heads actually believe that the attack by Hamas was staged by Israel to manufacture an excuse to attack Hamas and take over Gaza! The Western tabloids have not helped much in dispelling these beliefs.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

As a South African I would suggest that the South African government knows zero about genocide, murder, justice, logic, morals, protecting their borders and good governance.
To think that years ago I voted them into power.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

Have you read their submission to the ICJ? You should – I’ve linked to it in another comment to this post. This is a legal document prepared by named lawyers & scholars – it’s not an election pamphlet.

Chipoko
Chipoko
6 months ago

I don’t recall the South Africans rushing to The Hague when Putin invaded Ukraine. To the contrary, SA has been openly supportive of Russia’s endeavours.
The sheer arrogance and hypocrisy of SA in this instance is vomit-inducing.

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
6 months ago

One problem is South Africa has no standing. It wasn’t harmed as a country so it has nothing to gain by fighting Israel in court. That’s why it shouldn’t have been allowed to bring it to these judges.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Where I live, a very Jewish city, the light poles and construction site hoardings are covered in anti-Israel, pro-Hamas stickers, posters and grafitti. Not even a mention of October 7th. The hostage posters have all been torn away; you can still see the bits that stuck when they were ripped down.
Maybe you live in a more Jewish-friendly place. But I doubt it.

Miriam Shalom
Miriam Shalom
6 months ago

Anywhere he lives is not going to be Jewish friendly.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Miriam Shalom

As it happens I live in Hove, England, where are local MP is Peter Kyle who I think is still chair of UK Labour Friends of Israel – he’s certainly a member of that group. Peoples Jewishness or otherwise makes no difference to how I feel about them whatsoever. If I saw someone stubbing a fag out on a child’s face i’d stop them and make sure they were punished. The very last thing on my mind would be what’ religion they followed – that’s where we are here.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Antisemitism is racism. There are messianic Jews and secular Jews who experience prejudice.

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

try any left wing media outlet from the Guardian, the BBC, to The Cradle and every left wing academic Jew ( academic meaning not practical, realistic, or directly useful) you can find. Ironic it is that of all countries South Africa is the one to bring a charge of Genocide. My concern is the amount of prejudice against Jews that one will find in the countries represented in this courtroom.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Fraser

In the Guardian? As for the claims of ‘propaganda’ I’d be interested to hear what you think of thiis – an Israeli paper reporting that orders were given on October 7th for the IDF to stop at all costs Hamas getting back to Gaza with hostages – with that cost including the lives of the hostages themselves.
https://twitter.com/RnaudBertrand/status/1745721714364076512?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1745721714364076512%7Ctwgr%5Eefe82b863b002d26c8a8d3cf59fafb8d2f8bfe0e%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nakedcapitalism.com%2F%3Fp%3D264858

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

The atrocities were so obvious and so well documented that even as educated westerners or any educated persons can criticize journalists for ignorance and bias in many cases, they’re not that ignorant or biased in this case as you might expect.

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

That almost a quarter of Israeli Jews are suffering PTSD is quite a claim Nicole. PTSD is a defined condition – it is not just increased anxiety levels, losing sleep and not getting out as much (which is what the Tel Aviv Uni study I think that statement is based on found).

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

PTSD is a spectrum, whereby people can suffer from a milder version. Having said that, anxiety attacks alone can be crippling and have an adverse effect on people’s ability to lead a normal life. Those who suffer from flashbacks, paranoia, depersonalisation and psychosis have the more severe version of the illness. If not caught early and treated, it can get worse over time. Full marks to Israel for making attempts to heal the traumatised victims of the atrocities.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
6 months ago

Finally an article that addresses the real victims of October 7th, while the main stream media is still busy churning out article after article on Gaza victims and Palestine cause! A very few journalists are addressing the elephant in the room. In a sense, the whole world is a victim of Hamas and its supporters since, in Hamas’s ideology, the whole world is occupied territory.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

For a while, I was almost convinced that October 7 had been memory holed by the media establishment and the political class. Hamas is welcome to release the remaining hostages at any time, but that’s not going to happen and we all know it. Maybe a few representatives of ‘Queers for Palestine’ can take a road trip and convince the terrorists that it’s time for peace.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Maybe those representatives of ‘Queers for Palestine’ can offer to swop places with the hostages

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

That hasn’t seemed to have been the case in the US – I don’t think it’s been true over here too.

https://theintercept.com/2024/01/09/newspapers-israel-palestine-bias-new-york-times/

R E P
R E P
6 months ago

Thank goodness Spiked! and a couple of other outlets give voice to the Israeli victims. Almost everyone I have spoke to in the UK seems to believe that the October 7 atrocities were ‘misinformation’. The same people believe every US debunked hoax of the last few years…

Carissa Pavlica
Carissa Pavlica
6 months ago

It’s disheartening to see that troubled kids suffering in the wake of the atrocities are then tossed from their homes by their parents for being unable to cope. It’s hard to comprehend.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
6 months ago

I didn’t see that anywhere in the article. It talked about young people losing their apartments because they couldn’t keep up with rent, not teenagers being thrown out by their parents.

Brian Thomas
Brian Thomas
6 months ago

Many posts on this article seem to have disappeared?

Simon S
Simon S
6 months ago
Reply to  Brian Thomas

I can’t imagine why

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
6 months ago
Reply to  Brian Thomas

Because some ‘spastic’ objected. I gather the technical term is ‘ flagged it’.
So much for freedom of speech!

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

Not sure I’d have put it that way Charles, but I take your point. Those comments came back for a while this morning, but have now disappeared again.

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I wouldn’t have put it that way either, but it did give me a laugh!

Ron Kean
Ron Kean
6 months ago

People are also free to choose who to associate with and who not to associate with. Who wants people around who say something you think is obnoxious? What does this site necessarily owe anyone?

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago
Reply to  Brian Thomas

Indeed they do. Many seem to have been either mine or replies to my comments. I pointed out the fact the ex-politician mentioned was a founding member of ‘The New Right’ in Israel so may have had an axe to grind. Also that she was one of the original drafters of ‘The Basic Law’ (which I could have, but didn’t, label as a blue print for Apartheid). I thought that might have been worth noting in the original piece.

Simon S
Simon S
6 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Tut tut

A D Kent
A D Kent
6 months ago

The fact that Israeli newspapers are now reporting that the IDF gave orders to stop at all costs Hamas terrorists returning to Gaza, even if they had hostages is going to add to the horrible trauma I fear.

https://www.ynet.co.il/news/article/yokra13754368