They Can't Speak About What They Did in Service of Israel, but Can Finally Open Up About PTSD

After years, Israel's Shin Bet realized its personnel also deals with post-traumatic stress disorder after prolonged security activity. An initiative by a former senior official allows them to break their silence

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Soldiers searching for body parts in the sands of the Philadelphi Route after an explosion in 2004.
Soldiers searching for body parts in the sands of the Philadelphi Route after an explosion in 2004.Credit: Barkay Wolfson/AP
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

On May 12, 2004, around 6:30 P.M., a moment before the sun set, two men stood side by side: Colonel Pinchas (Pinky) Zoaretz, then commander of the Israeli military's southern brigade in the Gaza Strip, and Ilan Lotan, a senior Shin Bet figure at the time.

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In front of them, soldiers crawled in the sands of the Philadelphi Route – the road along the Israel-Egypt border dividing Egyptian Rafah from Palestinian Rafah in the Gaza Strip – searching for the body parts of their comrades, who were blown up in an armored personnel carrier in which they sat, during activity to uncover terror tunnels. “Bro, what’s going on? What are we going to do?” Zoaretz asked Lotan. “It’ll be alright,” the latter responded – the quintessentially Israeli “Yihiye beseder,” for lack of ability to come up with a more coherent response.

“I’m standing there in front of this devastating sight, promising Zoaretz it’ll be alright, and all I’m thinking about is how we didn’t prevent this incident. How didn’t I prevent this incident,” Lotan tells Haaretz. “Coming to the field and dealing with the failure is something that stays with a Shin Bet operative for life. It’s irrelevant whether they could have prevented the disaster. Shin Bet people usually remember the failures.”

The security service marks the memory of 150 of its members who fell since its inception. Forty-seven of them fell in active duty. Concurrent with the organization’s coping with bereavement, over the past decade the organization has been undergoing a significant process, which until then was considered unthinkable: The organization realized, some would say much too late, that post-trauma does not spare its personnel.

Former senior figures who spoke with Haaretz claim that the change began under Yoram Cohen, who headed the Service from 2011-2016. But the most significant change took place upon the entry of the younger generation into the organization, a generation that was not afraid to see a mental health officer during military service, and which ignores the stigmas attached to emotional and mental problems.

Yoram Cohen, former Shin Bet director over the years 2011 to 2016

A generation just as committed to the organization as its predecessors, but one that knows to demand that its commanders also take responsibility for the mental fortitude with which they arrived, and that with which they leave.

“The Shin Bet has undergone a revolution over the past decade in the organizational mindset and atmosphere, which enables and encourages discussion of mental and emotional distress,” says former senior Shin Bet operative Yizhar David, who after 23 years announced his retirement due to his personal struggles with post-trauma, due to his service during the Second Intifada.

Clashes in Bethlehem in the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.Credit: Pavel Wolberg

The organization didn’t know how to deal with David’s decision to speak publicly about his personal story. His book "Ticking Bomb," published in 2016, also wasn't endorsed by the agency. But even the Shin Bet, a covert organization that handles its internal affairs behind closed doors, understood that it had to adapt to changing realities. As time passed, tensions between David and senior Shin Bet brass decreased, to the point where he has become the organization’s point man on post-trauma, and was among the founders of the “Magen Israel Alliance for treatment and growth in post-trauma,” which is geared at aiding members of the Shin Bet.

“My personal experience, as well as that of other people in the Service, is the knowledge that the story that caused the most significant change in my life and that of my family can never be published,” he says. David, like other senior shin Bet figures interviewed, argues that unlike organizations like the IDF or the Police, where many struggle with post-trauma, they have an added weight to carry – maintaining secrecy even in therapy.

“The secret sits on several layers,” says David. “The story I can tell doesn’t necessarily present the full picture of what happened, and sometimes it paints the victim in a different light than what the victim is dealing with. You’re sitting in front of a psychologist and you can’t tell them the whole truth, present the whole story to them, because there’s a skeleton of a secret that can’t be brought out, not even in front of the psychologist. I’ll never reveal a secret, and neither will most Shin Bet alumni, even at the cost of adversely affecting the recovery and coping process.”

Carrying guilt

As Israel marked 20 years to the outbreak of the Second Intifada, David and other friends from the organization started a WhatsApp group asking participants to tell their story, share thoughts and coping mechanisms, after retirement and during service. Within days dozens of current and former Shin Bet members joined and began to share their stories.

“A former Shin Bet coordinator told us that he saw the movie 'Bethlehem,' which tells of the struggles of a Shin Bet coordinator,” says David, “following that, he had a bad mental breakdown and was hospitalized in a mental institution.”

In another case, a former Shin Bet operative, whose duty was to conduct electronic surveillance, revealed that she lives with a sense of guilt due to a terror attack that happened during the Second Intifada. She says that she should have understood, from the material before her that the terrorist intended to carry out an attack, but failed to prevent it. Today, after almost 20 years, she keeps pictures of the victims of that attack in her purse.

“The feeling when you miss it is very difficult,” says Lotan. “You send soldiers into action, they risk their lives. A word from me and they leap into action, and then they arrive and find that the terrorist isn’t home, that the Intel wasn’t accurate. You stand there and say to yourself, I put them in danger, and sometimes the soldiers carrying out the operation also get hurt. You can’t explain this feeling. Any Shin Bet retiree will always remember their biggest failures. If you wake them up in the middle of the night and ask 'What did you do in the Service?' They will tell about the failures first. It doesn’t let go.”

The Shin Bet identified a different pattern among those reporting post-trauma compared to the pattern in the IDF. While most IDF soldiers suffered psychological wounds due to a combat event, in the Shin Bet most of those suffering are those responsible for failures.

According to sources in the Shin Bet, even after retirement, some see terror attacks and ask themselves whether they could have prevented them. “A Shin Bet coordinator bears tremendous responsibility for preventing terrorism,” says David. “In most cases they wage an intelligence war upon the terror operatives for months. If they manage to collect enough intelligence, the army moves in for the arrest, and even then he takes a risk with the arresting force. If a terror attack happens, they usually bear the blame.”

“The more we talk, a lot of thoughts on the subject occur to me. A lot of things surface,” says Lotan. “All the talk about it’s not his fault, or he did everything to prevent it – none of that is relevant. At that moment, he understands that he bears responsibility for an event that will stay with him to his dying day.”

Lotan says he does not suffer from post-traumatic distress syndrome, but since his retirement, six years ago, when he began lecturing about the Service to various organizations, he has come to realize that the events he has experienced did not vanish upon retirement. “I experienced the Second Intifada, all the terror attacks and all the terrible sights, but I chose not to share – both not to cause my family to worry and because our generation’s concept was to be a he-man, affected by nothing,” says Lotan.

Thanks to the younger generation and David’s courage to raise the issue within the organization, which until then refrained from touching it, the Shin Bet understood the need to pay attention to the psychological fortitude of the Service’s members.

The past years have seen the appointment of psychologists with security clearance, and the senior commanders are required to identify those showing signs of distress and send them to see a professional. In addition, a social worker is stationed in every operational unit, and clinical psychologists are integrated in the field units.

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