Survive the Bomb, Then Be Branded a Terrorist

It was the afternoon of March 21 this year, and I. was on her way home from college, passing through the center of the city.

It was the afternoon of March 21 this year, and I. was on her way home from college, passing through the center of the city. Moments after she got off Bus 14 at King George St., a thunderous blast echoed through downtown Jerusalem. The terrorist had blown himself up only a few steps away from her.

Through the thick smoke unfolded the horrors she had seen once before, in another terrorist bombing not far from where she lives. But this is a young Israeli Arab college student and the threat to her life doesn't end with surviving the bomb. She was gripped by the terrible fear that the Jews around her would attack her as a suspect terrorist.

When a girl friend called her cell phone, she panicked. "I scared her, because she heard me crying," recalls I., "but I was afraid that if people heard me speaking Arabic they would do something to me." She tried to get away from the scene, wandering the nearby streets, crying and hyperventilating, a common symptom of trauma victims, her bag trailing behind her. People were actually quite kind. One took her into the Mashbir Lezarchan department store, where, she says, "a religious woman, stroked me, trying to comfort me. But I couldn't calm down. I thought what would happen if they found out I'm Arab."

She left the department store. An elderly woman approached her, shoving some pistachio nuts into her mouth, "like I was a little girl." But I. went on, aimless and weeping, until a saleswoman from a shop came out to her. "Cry, cry," the saleswoman said in a soft voice, leading her into the shop, making her lie down on the floor with her feet up, and putting a piece of chocolate in her mouth. Then the saleswoman called an ambulance. I. was taken to Hadassah Hospital. "In the ambulance they asked my name and I couldn't get a word out." When she didn't respond at the hospital either, they checked her bag, finding her ID card, and realizing she was an Arab. Immediately, two Border patrol officers showed up to question her. At first they simply walked around her with threatening looks.

A nurse sent them away because "I still haven't given her a tranquilizer," I. recalled. After the nurse left her bedside, the two uniforms were back, questioning her for about half an hour. I. Felt humiliated. "They showed up fifteen minutes after I got to the hospital. I was wearing a hospital gown, open at the back. I was in shock. I felt exposed. Nobody in the hospital really defended me from them." Later, when her sister showed up, I. was released from hospital. Her release sheet says she was traumatized "without symptoms." I. can't understand how they decided she didn't have symptoms when she didn't say a word.

The hospital spokeswoman's office said that the hospital puts medical practice above all. "We are aware of the security needs after a bombing and try to allow the security forces question the wounded when their medical condition allows it. Being Jewish or Arab has nothing to do with it." I. submitted a request to the National Insurance Institute that they recognize her as a victim of hostile activity, to pay for her hospital bill. But in July she received a letter from the defense ministry bureau that decides whether the damage was the result of a hostile action. Her request was denied, the reason - "No evidence of damage."

In an attempt to get back to normal, I. went back to school. But for long weeks after the bombing she suffered nightmares and anxieties, forgetfulness and confusion, and suffered a general sense of depression. "I became nervous, I became insufferable to my friends and family," she says.

Don't ask NII

I. is articulate and assertive. She is 23, and grew up in one of the mixed cities of the north. She maintains an independent lifestyle in Jerusalem, studying and working. Not wanting to frighten her parents, she didn't tell them about her experience. That's why she doesn't want her full name used for this article.

During the summer she was a camp counselor. One day, while they were baking pitot, the fire in the oven heated up, causing a small explosion. I. didn't lose her cool and ran to get the children away from the flames. Then she collapsed, weeping.

The father of one of the children, a clinical psychologist, witnessed what happened and spoke with her. "He said I am in a depression, and need treatment," she says. Since then she has been getting therapy. She has been diagnosed as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although the NII routinely invites all bombing survivors with trauma to attend a group therapy discussion groups a few days after a bombing, she says she never received an invitation. The NII says everyone gets the same treatment, irrespective of race, religion or sex.

"I. was not invited because she didn't appear on the hospital list," said a NII spokesman. But according to I., the hospital took all her identifying details - they must have, since she has a release form. The rejection hurt I., but didn't reduce her resolve. She sought legal advice from the organization of terror victims - now she needs financial help to pay for her psychologist.

After a second request to the NII they agreed to reconsider her case, but she still hasn't received any word from them. "This is a matter of principle," says I., saying she won't give up. Like many Arabs from mixed cities, since childhood she has lived in Jewish society. Her Hebrew is flawless, with barely a trace of accent. She says she did not have much of a developed political awareness before, but life in terror-struck Jerusalem changed that.

She is the only Arab woman student in her department at the college. She says that after she was hurt it was difficult for her to put up with the comments some of the Jewish students made about Arabs after terror incidents or military operations. The on-campus tension grew after two other Arab students at the college stood up demonstratively for a moment of solidarity with the shaheeds, and there were counter-demonstrations by Jewish students.

In a discussion organized by the college to get the emotions out, I. said, "I am afraid to come to school. The looks I get as if I am a suspect, bother me. I feel threatened." She says that one of the other students asked her, "what are you afraid of?" I. was outraged, "I'm a person just like you. Just because I'm Arab I don't have to be afraid? I walk on the same streets as you do, am exposed just like you are. And you think I'm also not afraid every day that some Baruch Goldstein won't come along and kill me?" After that first discussion, the college organized regular sessions for dialogue between the Jewish and Arab students, granting course credit for participation.

"Anyone, Jew or Arab, has the same fears about going to crowded places, getting on a bus, dying," says I. "But when I'm walking down the street I also feel as if I'm regarded as suspicious. That insults and angers me. I'm already scared enough, why the hell do I have to be afraid to speak Arabic in public?" The belief that Arabs aren't suffering anxiety like Jews because the attacks aren't aimed at them, is a myth - and wrong, says Dr. Mahmud Salah, head of the Psychological Guidance Service for the Arab sector in the Education Ministry.

"Arab citizens are suffering from existential anxiety, even if a large percentage of them won't admit to their fears and the deep identity conflicts they are going through," he says.

Indeed, a still-unpublished survey done by Prof. Zehava Solomon, an epidemiologist and trauma researcher at Tel Aviv University, shows that 28 percent of 150 Arab students she surveyed at the university expressed symptoms of distress, even though their level of exposure to traumatic events was relatively low. According to Solomon, that's a extremely very worrying high level. By comparison, another survey she did with a sample of the entire population of the country showed only about 9 percent of the population suffers from anxiety symptoms about terrorism. "Apparently, the Arab population is in panic," she says.

Another survey that strengthens Solomon's findings was done by Tamar Lavie of Tel Aviv University, who examined PTSD among 15 year olds, including Jews from settlements and Jerusalem, Israeli-Arabs, and Palestinians, a year after the outbreak of the intifada. Again, the results showed that Arabs showed more symptoms than Jews. While about half the Israeli Arab children were discovered to be suffering from some PTSD symptoms, only 30 percent of the Jewish children reported the symptoms.

Repression is a virtue

Trying to understand why there's such a high level of PTSD symptoms among Arabs - even though their exposure to trauma is supposedly lower - leads to a number of possibilities, mostly interpretative of even impressionistic. "Just like there are differences in responses to surveys by men and woman - women tend to speak more freely about anxiety and feelings than men - there are differences between Arabs and Jews when they answer surveys. "It's possible the gap is cultural," Lavie says, and Salah agrees. "Outwardly, Arabs will say everything is fine. They are used to being careful about what they say so they won't be accused of disloyalty. So they don't express their frustrations directly. But gradually, the dissatisfaction grows, and it eventually comes out in symptoms."

The Arab community, he says, tends to repress ideas, positions, and feelings. There's no legitimate way to channel the anger and anxiety resulting from the political situation and the identity crisis faced by Israeli Arabs, particularly after the events of October 2000, he says. Nonetheless, Salah does not believe the entire Arab community is in a state of panic. "I think the situation in the West Bank hurts us. It is difficult and painful to belong to one nation and a different state. But because of the seriousness of the situation, it's impossible to express that feeling of conflict. It's impossible nowadays to talk openly about the occupation."

That unhealthy situation could lead to an outburst, he says. Furthermore, he adds, there's no way in Arab society to admit weakness and emotional distress. "When everyone is rushing to buy gas masks, does anyone from the Arab community move?" he asks rhetorically. "It's self-delusion, of course, as if Saddam won't hurt us, as well." But in an anonymous poll, the dam bursts, he explains. It's easier to admit to fears, traumas and nightmares when speaking anonymously. "Lavie's researchers told me that children wrote more answers than they were asked in the margins of the poll, and I think those comments are no less important than the results. They show the answers they gave did not satisfy their need to express themselves."

Salah is nonetheless critical of Arab society. "At the psychological guidance service we understand now the importance of legitimizing expressions of feelings, and we have developed programs in the area. But we encounter a contradictory message in the schools. Principals and teachers are afraid to appear disloyal to the state, and they nurture the repression among the children. When a child in school says he wants to be a shaheed, it causes a panic, instead of letting these things out and let people say even difficult things."

Another explanation for the high level of anxiety among Arabs is that in general, minorities are more vulnerable to trauma. "Minorities are always vulnerable, because the population is naturally weak, so it doesn't develop immunities," says Lavie. Nimr Sa'id, a clinical psychologist in the north, adds that Arab society is less individualist and an person has less distinction from family, clan, village, and nation. The needs of the individual are more dependent on those groups, so the sense of anxiety is intensified. Sa'id has not encountered bomb trauma victims among Arabs. But his experience in treating trauma among Arabs shows it is possible that traumatized Arab bombing survivors didn't get treatment because they were unaware it was even available.

One of the things that trauma researchers examine in their research, aside from PTSD, is how much the routine of life is damaged, and if routine behavior changes in the wake of the anxiety. A survey among Jewish youth from Jerusalem found that they spend less time in the center of town, and less time on buses. Conversations with Israeli Arab university students in Jerusalem reveal that the bombings have indeed changed their lifestyles. R. and A. both say that it's been a long time since they were at a shopping mall, and they avoid downtown, for fear of bombings.

In addition to the fear of being physically hurt, they also express fears of humiliation resulting from the general suspicion that every Arab is a potential terrorist. They say they avoid speaking in Arabic on telephones, or between themselves, when in public. They say that since every time they go outside they can be subject to comprehensive searches, unnecessarily delayed, or even victims of outright abuse, they find that they rarely go out except when necessary.

To avoid going to the central bus station, where there are soldiers who harass them, they've cut back on their trips home to visit their parents. "Instead of every week, I go home only once a month now," says I. "I've stopped taking my laundry home and I don't take food home. I don't want the searching through my belongings. When it happens in a long line of people I want the ground to open up and swallow me." Other students say they take roundabout routes and several buses to avoid going places where they might be inspected and searched.

A. began taking taxis, but two weeks ago her parents gave her a car so could avoid unpleasant situations. Presumably many of the Arab students at the Hebrew University were exposed to trauma as a result of the cafeteria bombing earlier this year. R. and A suffered the trauma of being held for three hours under the sun near Hadassah Hospital. After three hours, when they were forbidden to sit or look either right or left, or drink water, they were released without being questioned.

A. cried. "I didn't cry because I was afraid. I cried because I was humiliated," she says. "Since the arrest, I am tense all the time," says R. "I'm more afraid of being arrested and accused of being a terrorist, then from an actual terror attack." Like other Arab students, she avoids using giving her full name because of fear of the Shin Bet, "I'm afraid for my job at the university," she says. "I don't want to get in trouble."

I., who lives at a convent that provides rooms to Arab students in Jerusalem, says that after every bombing, there's a self-imposed curfew at the convent. "Nobody even wants to go to the grocery store. They're afraid they'll be picked on." Has the situation changed her? "I feel like a victim, like a suspect. I'm always afraid of being arrested." But she says her basic attitudes haven't changed. "I try not to let these things affect my principles. I don't hate all the Jews, nor the state. I try not to become a person who hates."

R. says the change has been mostly in practical matters. "I never thought of living abroad before. But now I am beginning to think about it seriously. I don't feel like living here." Denise Asad, who lives in Haifa and teaches education at Haifa University, and Ibrahim Abu Shukri, the head of the Jewish-Arab Center in Jaffa, say that in the last two years their children have become afraid to speak Arabic in public.

Both are deeply involved in the Jewish as well as the Arab community and perceive themselves as belonging to the new generation of Israeli Arab Palestinians - modern, Western, and proud. But they remember their childhoods when the message in Arab society was to be afraid of the Shin Bet. Abu Shukri says he was recently at a McDonalds with his children and people stared when they spoke Arabic. His response was to keep going on as normal, to hold his head high and speak Arabic. But Assad says that her family goes out less often nowadays, because of the tension and the inevitable hassles. She says she used to take her children to festivals during Sukkot, but now, "nobody's in the mood."

"My children came home hurt from a visit to the water park. They were insulted and cursed, and people wanted them thrown out," she says, just because they are Arabs. Haifa's Arabs have responded to the situation with isolation and closure. She talks about a flowering of new Arab restaurants in Haifa, "because it's no longer pleasant to eat at Jewish restaurants, and maybe because of the fear of bombings, after the one at Matza."

"My father used to quote an Arabic had saying, that one should walk beside the walls, be careful," Assad says. "I thought I was past that, that I'm a proud Palestinian. But now, there's the fear of being Arab, and people are going back to that mentality. I really didn't think that would ever happen."