'It Comes When You're Alone:’ IDF Snipers on Gaza Border Aren't Receiving Mental Healthcare

The snipers who shot at dozens of people at close range, for hours at a time, saw them falling and heard their cries, have not received any specific handling by their units

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“There's a myth about these combat soldiers, that they are not vulnerable, that they can deal with anything”
“There's a myth about these combat soldiers, that they are not vulnerable, that they can deal with anything”Credit: Ilan Assayag
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The place is the border with the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. He is a sniper in one of the leading infantry units, who doesn’t leave his rifle. Four years have passed since then, but he has remained in Gaza, many months past the fighting, and past his release from the army.

“I don’t sit outside, not for fun and not at home,” the former soldier told Haaretz. “Every minute I try to look for the right place for a sniper and look to see if someone is there. If I don’t see him, I’m sure he is hiding, and that any moment a bullet will arrive.”

At the time, when he left the frontlines, no one was waiting for him, no one asked him how he was dealing with the things he did, heard and saw. In retrospect, he discovered that he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and only recently was he recognized by the Defense Ministry as having PTSD.

'Every one of them will bear the psychological results of their activities and to carry with them the troubles of PTSD is an entire world, a collapsing world'

Since then he has began doing photography, a sort of hobby, a form of self-treatment. “When he holds the lens, cleans it and puts the eye to the camera, you immediately understand what he is going through and why he chose photography,” his good friend says. “This lens is the same lens through which he wants to get something good from, a sort of conversation he conducts through the lens of the camera with the telescopic sight he had on the gun.”

An IDF force across from thousands of Palestinian protesters in a March of Return, April 2018.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Protective Edge ended, the border with the Gaza Strip quieted down a bit, and the army continued its preparations for the next escalation – which would certainly come – and the renewed fighting. It began in March this year with the start of the Palestinians’ “March of Return” every Friday and grew more intensive in recent weeks between the cease-fires. The snipers were once again called to the earthen berms constructed along the border.

They discovered that “their output” has become a catch phrase for Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman when he responds to the harsh criticism of the indirect deals said to have been reached with Hamas. “168 Hamas members were killed during the ‘March of Return,’ 438 were injured and dozens of terrorist bases were destroyed,” he has said repeatedly in a sort of attempt to turn the situation into a victory.

But at the same time, he does not talk about the other side of the equation - not the moral issues involved but the effect the shooting has on its perpetrators. It seems that the IDF, too, is at best only partially dealing with the problem. The snipers who shot at dozens of people at close range, for hours at a time, saw them falling and heard their cries, have not received any specific handling by their units.

Even though these intensive operations have been going on for months, the IDF has thus far not prepared any plan for psychological treatment for these snipers, in the days, weeks and months since these border confrontations began. The army has not initiated any consultations between snipers and mental health professionals and no follow up has been conducted with regard to their psychological resilience.

IDF snipers on Gaza's border, March 2018.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

So, what has been done? The IDF told Haaretz that every brigade has its own mental health officers and every sniper who feels the need to talk about it can turn to them at his or her own initiative. But this is far from providing an adequate response, mental health professionals and sufferers of PTSD say. The nature of the operations in Gaza require the IDF to be proactive because it is unavoidable for these events not to have implications for many of the snipers, all parties involved say.

'There are no thoughts about who is standing in front of me or what is the significance, if he has a family or it’s a young man at the start of his life. There is a sort of satisfaction when you see the hit, the person you shot at in the leg falls'

“There's a myth about these combat soldiers, that they are not vulnerable, that they can deal with anything,” says Major (res.) Shai Kozlovsky, the founder of the nonprofit organization “Leave No Wounded Soldiers Behind," an organization which helps treat and advocate for traumatized shell shocked soldiers. Kozlovsky suffered from PSTD, too, and he says that even though snipers who come from elite units have a higher level of psychological resilience, they are still not invulnerable.

“I invite the IDF to come to us and see the fighters of Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag, Duvdevan and all the (elite commando) units in the IDF where they fight for their lives everyday anew,” Kozlovsky says. He says that even if the numbers of traumatized troops are a minority among combat soldiers, they still need to be looked after. “Every one of them will bear the psychological results of their activities and to carry with them the troubles of PTSD is an entire world, a collapsing world.”

Another ex-soldier who wishes to remain anonymous has relatively fresh memories. He finished his army service before the latest round of fighting, but served as a sniper in an elite unit whose soldiers are now deployed near the border with Gaza. “You really cut yourself off, create a sort of bubble around you, the only thing that interests you is to be precise the moment they give the order to fire,” he says about dealing with the situation day-to-day.

“You are really just into the mathematics, the cold calculations. Trying to listen to whoever is calculating the firing trajectory for you,” says Guy. “There are no thoughts about who is standing in front of me or what is the significance, if he has a family or it’s a young man at the start of his life. There is a sort of satisfaction when you see the hit, the person you shot at in the leg falls.” But the ex-soldier knows that it probably doesn’t end there. “There is always a type of cut that you are waiting for it to form a scab and not develop into something more serious.”

IDF sniper near the Gaza border, March 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag

‘Improper treatment’

One of the unique characteristics of the events of the last few months, even more so of the March of Return, is that this time things are different. It is because the shooting is not about an attempt to locate a single person hiding in an abandoned building but about trying to spot a single person among the masses. Veterans of Protective Edge and other operations in Gaza never experienced such incidents, and certainly never with such wide scope and frequency.

'It’s a killing that’s distant but also very personal. I’d even say intimate'

“It is impossible to describe this situation of every Friday, where for hours there is a continual wearing down of the snipers,” says a reservist captain, a former commander of snipers in an elite unit. “It’s a type of activity that repeats itself at very high intensity and no one relates to the issue in the army. The shooting, the results of the shooting, the figures, the successes and failures are something you live with.”

Recently, a number of combat soldiers launched initiative of turning to their friends to try and discover if they were in distress and needed to talk about it, the officer says. The response was surprisingly high. But when those behind the idea tried to ask the IDF for support, they were turned down. “The army, and I say this out of great disappointment, does not treat is properly,” he said.

The captain says the story is not just about the shooting that ends in a death: “Today, there are a great number of snipers who live with stress, which will never leave them for their entire lives, because they didn’t hit the terrorist – every terrorist attack is their responsibility.”

IDF force in Gaza border, April 2018.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“When they travel with their family and walk down the street they look to the sides – maybe they will be able to see [the terrorist] there – and I’m talking about streets in Ramat Hasharon, not when they're on reserve duty in Gaza or Nablus,” he says.

This is where it is important for the IDF to take action to identify the problematic cases early enough all the more so in elite units where there is a rampant feeling that showing psychological distress is a sign of weakness, those involved in handling the issue say.

'PTSD that arises as the result of one serious incident is a serious injury that the fighter will have to deal with. PTSD that comes from a continuing incident is cancer for the spirit of the combat soldier'

“This is simply a lack of understanding to expect a fighter from Shaldag, SEALs or Duvdevan to come and say they are in psychological distress,” says another reserve officer who still serves in one of the elite special forces units, whose snipers have served along the Gaza border over the past few months. “They expect him to say he has a problem when he needs to return to his team’s room and prepare with them for the operation. There is no way he will do it, because the moment he does he will put an end to his being a fighter – and not because of a decision by the army but from the point of the fighters’ trust in him.”

This conclusion is supported by a report of the IDF Ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, from two years ago. He wrote that commanders tend to express a lack of trust in soldiers who tell them of medical complaints – and that this problem is even more serious in elite units. The commanders often showed contempt for the medical condition of their soldiers and described them as “cry babies” with a low threshold for pain.

Fresher reminders exist, too. In an interview granted two months ago by the IDF’s chief mental health officer, Lt. Col. Dr. Ariel Ben Yehuda, to the Walla website, he said that if a soldier with a perfect medical profile becomes ill or suffers form some disorder during military service, he is given sick leave or some form of reduced duty while the doctors try to diagnose the situation. “But in the end, if he is suffering from a serious anxiety disorder that requires intensive treatment, it is almost certain his [medical] profile will be lowered,” which means he will have to leave his combat role or unit, Ben Yehuda said.

It seems one of the key problems is the degree of visibility of the injury, or, in other words, whether it leaves any traces of blood. “If the IDF had known in the first week of the fighting that there was a chance that during these events five combat soldiers would wounded by being shot in the leg, the army would have behaved completely differently,” Kozlovsky says.

“The IDF would have protected the positions better, replaced the protective equipment, made sure to move the snipers farther away. The army would have done everything to prevent injury from live fire to those same snipers,” says Kozlovsky. But the mental injuries are transparent and “until today the army still doesn’t know how to understand when the fighter is injured and by what type of mental injury –so it prefers to ignore it.”

“PTSD that arises as the result of one serious incident is a serious injury that the fighter will have to deal with. PTSD that comes from a continuing incident is cancer for the spirit of the combat soldier. The IDF is obligated – right now, this minute – to delve into the matter and begin handling the snipers. Not to ask if they need help, but to begin talking to them, now,” says Kozlovsky.

Practicing mental resilience

In recent years, the IDF has made a number of attempts to raise awareness about mental health difficulties suffered by combat soldiers. A new unit has been established in the mental health department named the “Field and Combat Fitness Branch,” tasked with providing a broader form of treatment for combat soldiers. Mental health officers have been placed in every brigade, so it is no longer necessary for a fighter to seek an appointment via a regional command as in years past. But even these officers do not initiate contact with soldiers and focus instead on providing solutions for them.

Over the past few years, research was conducted in the army on the possibility of preventing psychological harm through the use of preventative treatment. Hundreds of combat soldiers participated in the research, conducted by Prof. Yair Bar-Haim, head of the school of psychological sciences at Tel Aviv University. Before soldiers were deployed to Operation Protective Edge, half took part in a computerized psychological resilience exercise. The results showed that 7.8 percent of the soldiers who did not take part in the exercise were diagnosed with PTSD, while only 2.6 percent of those who underwent the training suffered from the disorder. As a result, the IDF decided to conduct a pilot experiment in which the program would be introduced into a number of combat units in the early stages of training.

But this is only a partial solution. It will not solve the problems of soldiers who just left Gaza, and may soon return. “The moment they realized in the IDF that this incident does not end in a week or two, they had to find the resources for preventative treatment for those snipers,” says a senior academic who specializes in PTSD and conducts joint projects with the IDF. “The studies show that in the end combat soldiers lose a bit of their humanity during ongoing incidents. There is a terrible lack of proportion between what the IDF invests in the fighter compared to the investment in mental [health].”

Not many studies have been conducted in Israel that focus on snipers and the influence their actions have on their mental state. One such study was published in 2005, in the journal Third World Quarterly, by anthropologists Neta Bar and Eyal Ben-Ari, entitled: “Israeli Snipers in the Al-Aqsa Intifada: Killing, Humanity, and Lived Experience.” The authors interviewed 30 snipers who served during the second intifada.

“It’s a killing that’s distant but also very personal,” Bar said in one of the interviews she gave foreign media regarding the findings. “I’d even say intimate.” The researchers found that snipers develop mental systems that simultaneously negate the humanity of the figures present on the other end of the rifle’s sight yet recognizes them as humans, defined as “human enemy.”

The snipers, the research found, experience the killing they’ve committed with contradictory feelings of success and disquiet.

This feeling, Bar says, has no expiration date. According to her, many snipers might face problems years after their discharge and return to society.

A former sniper says he can testify to this feeling. He was a sniper in the Golani Brigade during the Second Lebanon War (2006). “It comes after your discharge, it comes during the big post-army trip, it comes when you’re alone with yourself,” he told Haaretz.

“That change in your life makes you think differently about the things that have happened to you through the years, and this was definitely a meaningful event, maybe the most meaningful one in my life up until now,” he said. “The thoughts aren’t necessarily about my morality or how I can live with myself, because I still believe I had to carry out that shooting, that it was operationally justified. But still, the thoughts don’t leave me, I keep thinking – where would he have been today if I hadn’t pressed the trigger. I think it’s a question that surfaces in the minds of all snipers.”

Demanding answers

The main problem, says Amir, is that “the military does not care about the mental resilience of its fighters. We were never asked – not in mandatory service and not during reserve duty – what we think, how we feel after difficult incidents, how we can release this mental stress.”

The clinical division of Israel's psychologists' association says that “in general, policy makers have a tendency not to take psychological consequences into account, despite the significant effect they can have on an individual’s wellbeing and his performance; which of course translates into how this affects money and resources.”

The division, whose members include mental health officers in reserve duty, added that they will demand answers from the professional echelon involved in this issue.

For now, most of those affected, who are usually no longer in the IDF, have nothing left to do but wait.

“Not everyone’s going to suffer from PTSD, most won’t even be diagnosed as shock victims, but there is no such a thing as someone coming out unscathed from an event such as what happened in Gaza,” Kozlovsky said.

“No one knows what a sniper feels at the end of his work day on Friday, as he goes home, sits alone in a room. No one knows what thoughts haunt him from those events. Sometimes, even he won’t be able to understand that these thoughts are the beginning of a wound that is going to fester.”

Kozlovsky adds that he meets people every day who have been discharged for years “and suddenly it all blows up in their faces. The IDF is already too late for those whose wounds have formed, but it’s important for it to address this issue today, now, this moment. To take care of people, hear them and understand what is going on for those snipers, in order to try and prevent the personal hell they go through.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s unit said in response: “The military’s mental health system has been working in recent years to promote mental health and resilience among soldiers and particularly fighters. For the past two years, a mental health officer has been placed in every standing brigade, and together with the commanders, the mental health officer is charged with the mental healthcare of all brigade soldiers. The IDF takes its fighters’ needs with utmost seriousness, and this includes snipers who take part in security operations in Gaza, and the IDF will continue to look after them.”

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