Under Israeli Bombs: PTSD, Traumatic Stress Disorder and Flashbacks

Photograph Source: ORIGINAL PHOTO: Ashraf Amra, Palestinian children wounded by an Israeli rocket strike on Beit Hanoun, January 1, 2009. IMAGE ALTERATION: anomalousnyc. PAINTING: Mataparda – CC BY 2.0

The dust has barely settled from Israel’s latest bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip, but the post-traumatic stress has only just begun. A new round of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is, on top of the trauma of decades of occupation and daily humiliations, and the bombings of Gaza in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2018, and 2019.

Shocking reports have been surfacing from during the bombardment and since the ceasefire over the past few weeks. A 14-year old Palestinian boy committed suicide following the death of all his family members. Eleven of the 67 Palestinian children killed in Israeli airstrikes, aged between five and 15, were participating in the Norwegian Refugee Council’s “psycho-social programme aimed at helping them deal with trauma”.

It is not just children traumatised. Palestinian youth know their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are also suffering, keeping up a brave face as they deal with their long-term PTSD. Nobody can become resigned to such continuous systemic violence.

I did not experience this recent onslaught, but I have been under Israeli bombs, and it brought its own PTSD, mild and not comparable to what the Palestinians have experienced, but enough to relate. Indeed, when I watched the Israeli bombing of the 11-storey al-Jalaa tower – which also housed Al Jazeera and the Associated Press – it triggered flashbacks.

In the July 2006 war on Lebanon, I was volunteering with the Syrian Red Crescent at the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. We would flag down vehicles coming from Lebanon to offer people water and food, and ask if they needed any medical attention. What struck me the most was the anguish, the deep pain in the faces of elderly women in the front passenger seat, fleeing bombs and conflict for the umpteenth time, having experienced the 1976 and 1982 Israeli invasions, the civil war, and other Israeli attacks.

Every bombing reopens wounds, causes the heart to beat faster. Before crossing back into Lebanon in August 2006, I had only heard bombs in the far distance – the IRA bombing in London in 1993, in Cyprus the Americans shelling Lebanon in 1984, and the bomb that killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2004. But I had never seen or heard a one tonne bomb.

On my first evening back in my apartment in Beirut, I sat down to try to relax in the lounge before dinner. Then the bombs began to drop. My body shook, it felt as if I was physically lifted from my seat. My heart did more than the rumba, it was ready to pop out of my chest. It scared the living daylights out of me. I leapt from the couch, grabbed my passport and some cash, and was ready to leg it out of the building when I realised the bombs were dropping on Beirut’s southern suburbs (dahiyeh), several kilometres away.

That night, after quaffing a few strong drinks, I went to sleep. An hour later I was nearly shaken out of bed; another onslaught of US-made bombs being dropped by Israel. I drifted off again. Around 5am, the same jolt as the bombing started again. A psychological onslaught for those not immediately under the bombs. That morning I put cellotape across all the windows in case they were blown in, to prevent being wounded by shattered glass.

Some days later I was working on the seventh floor of a building overlooking the dahiyeh. We all looked up from our desks as Israeli jets hit one, then two then three high-rise buildings that disappeared from sight, clouds of dust obscuring the southern Beirut skyline. Seeing a 40-plus metre building being reduced to less than 10 metres of rubble is, for lack of a better word, extraordinary, or as the US propagandists call it, shock and awe. It is not something you want to see again, apart from maybe a controlled demolition.

There were to be some 30 bombings and assassinations in Beirut between Hariri’s killing and 2014. Each one I heard brought up bile, and what had gone before. Israeli overflights would do the same, especially the sonic booms that caused windows to warp in and out, car alarms to go off, and people’s hearts to race – is it another bombing?

For me, that I had some form of PTSD became apparent in late 2006 when I tried discussing that summer’s events with family. They could not really relate. For a while I was only truly comfortable interacting with people that had experienced the same.

That I was emotionally rattled by it all became apparent when I was in McLeod Ganj, near Dharamsala, in India. Watching a harrowing documentary about Tibetans escaping across the Himalayas to India, I had to go out on the balcony I was so overwhelmed with emotion. Another trigger was a visit in 2011 to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – about the 1945 atomic bombing of the city. A superb museum, with a clear mandate of no more nuclear weapons (it correctly lists Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons on its map of nuclear warmongers). At the exit there were computers to write to your mayor to express your opposition.

The museum has ample grounds to let one reflect. I sat on a bench very near the site of the explosion that immediately killed around 80,000 people, and thought of nuclear war, the July 2006 war, the one tonne bombs. Emotion welled up inside, and I thought no one should ever experience such horror ever again.

In the museum’s bookshop I had acquired the first of the 10-part manga series Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, loosely based on his own experiences as a Hiroshima survivor (the books should be on every school library’s shelves). On finishing it on the train on the way out of Hiroshima, the tears that I had been suppressing for days finally flowed. I had to go to the toilet to avoid the curious gazes of my fellow passengers, and to cover up my embarrassment, although there was nothing to be self-conscious about really.

But that is the problem with PTSD, it can rear its head at any time, and in strange ways: being emotional, sad, suddenly angry. I cannot fully imagine what Palestinians, Lebanese, Afghanis, Yemenis, Syrians have experienced for far too long. The toll is ultimately unquantifiable, but it has made Palestinians have one of the highest rates of mental illness in the world – as discussed in the latest Latitude Adjustment podcast.

But as Palestinian psychiatrist Samah Jabar has argued, here and here, the Palestinians’ experience goes beyond the PTSD label, being largely a Western construct: “PTSD better describes the experiences of an American soldier who goes to Iraq to bomb and go back to the safety of the United States. He’s having nightmares and fears related to the battlefield and his fears are imaginary. Whereas for a Palestinian in Gaza whose home was bombarded, the threat of having another bombardment is a very real one. It’s not imaginary. There is no ‘post’ because the trauma is repetitive and ongoing and continuous.”

I fit into that category with returning soldiers, as many foreign correspondents know only to well, exemplified in Andrew Feinstein’s brilliant documentary about the global arms trade and the damage it causes, Shadow World.

What is particularly scary about ongoing trauma is that it can be handed down to to the next generation, through epigenetics. While psychotherapy may reverse epigenetic changes caused by trauma, for Palestinians and those experiencing ongoing occupation and conflict, there is no post-trauma. It is ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder. The dust from the bombings never truly settles.

Paul Cochrane is an independent journalist covering the Middle East and Africa. He lived in Bilad Al Sham (Cyprus, Palestine and Lebanon) for 24 years, mainly in Beirut. He is also the co-director of a documentary on the political-economy of water in Lebanon, “We Made Every Living Thing from Water”.