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Intifada: Psychologists Talk About Emotional Toll of the Violence - 2002-03-25

More than 1,400 Israelis and Palestinians have been killed since the Palestinian uprising erupted 18 months ago. Tens of thousands more have been wounded, physically and emotionally. In this report psychologists on both sides about talked about how ordinary Palestinians and Israelis are coping with the crisis.

The sound of a siren in Jerusalem these days will make your heart skip a beat. Is it a minor emergency or another suicide bomb? Israelis are no longer sure what to expect.

"They feel the incident can repeat itself anytime, anywhere so they are hyper-vigilant and limiting their daily functioning, going out being in a crowd," Yeudi Shachem is deputy director of the Community Stress Prevention Center at Tal Hai College in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona explained.

He talks about increased stress and feeling of vulnerability among Israelis after 18 months of violence and suicide bombings that strike at the heart of Israel.

He says it has affected everyone, not just those who have been injured or lost friends or relatives. Many suffer from nightmares, depression, and anxiety.

Counselor Gafnit Agassi, of a Jerusalem-based Center for Psycho-Trauma, adds that children are not immune either. They see the horror on television news reports or on their way to school. "Children do not usually cope by talking about things. They cope by playing it out, in their games you see a lot more shooting and bombing. In their drawings you see a lot more," she said.

The reality cannot be ignored, but Ms. Agassi says the reaction of children often reflects the reaction of their parents. "And what they need more than anything else is parents that somehow can regain their own balance. When children see that their parents are regaining their balance after tragic incidents, that is what helps them more than anything else," she added.

Yeudi Shachem of Kiryat Shmona says Israeli Arabs have been emotionally damaged by the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed. "They suffer because they are blamed by their brothers in Palestine that they are not doing enough to help, that they are sitting comfortably in Israeli enjoying life. And they are searched and suspicious (suspected) everywhere by the Jews," he said.

In the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the story is similar.

In Gaza City, psychiatrist Eyad Seraj says ordinary Palestinians feel helpless against Israeli air strikes and military incursions into their towns and villages. Mr. Seraj runs the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

He says Palestinian children are especially vulnerable. "The main expression of the trauma today in the case of children is bed-wetting, difficulty of concentration in school, and violent behavior, disobedience," Eyad Seraj said.

Mr. Seraj says ordinary Palestinian men who have lost their jobs because of the Israeli closures suffer the humiliation of their inability to provide for their families. "We have to defend ourselves as men, defend our families, defend our honor, defend our tribe. But we were in a state of helplessness and that brings shame. Shame brings tension, and that brings violence," he added. The Gaza psychiatrist reports an increase in domestic violence as an offshoot of the tension.

Therapists in both Palestinian and Israeli societies describe the trauma as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. They talk of the basic resilience of ordinary citizens. But, they also raise concerns about the long-term emotional scars and the fear and mistrust that will dominate another generation of youngsters on both sides.