As long as Zionism continues, so will Israel’s mental health epidemic
Coverage of suicide within the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) has resurfaced lately, making headlines. Suicide has been a leading cause of death among IOF soldiers since the 1990s, peaking at 43 soldiers in 2003 following the Intifada – more than the number killed in combat. Despite the rate dropping to 14 suicides in 2022, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg, pointing us towards a mental health epidemic that the IOF and Israel’s Ministry of Defence hide from their citizens to prevent their own accountability.
The repeated denial when it comes to recognising these ongoing issues mirrors how Israel repeatedly refuses to recognise Palestinian suffering. Ironically, the same government and military that oppresses Palestinians also oppresses their own soldiers.
A settler colonial state in denial
Since 2002, lone journalists attempted to warn the government to recognise and ‘factor in the human psychological price’ of occupation and to consider its long term impacts, ‘before the abnormal’ became ‘the norm’. 21 years later, the settler colonial government remains in denial.
''Zionism is a dehumanising ideology that persists at the expense of Palestinian suffering, and trauma should serve as a poignant wake-up call. As long as Zionism is ongoing, post-traumatic Zionism disorder (PTZD) will remain undiagnosed - only treatable as a physical condition, through chemicals and escapism.''
So far in 2023, 5 suicides were attempted in January alone, and 8 soldiers committed suicide during their service between the new year and May, with many others battling ongoing trauma or mental health issues.
The trauma that current and former Israeli soldiers suffer is a social and political concern, however, the settler colonial state either denies it or frames it as an individual, deviant case - perpetuating stigmatisation that causes shame for those impacted, as well as their families.
For Israel, soldiers suffering pose a threat to their militarised masculine ideology that sustains the recruitment of volunteer soldiers from abroad and the continuation of the mandatory conscription. These issues, mainly suicide, have been said to be “[p]assed from general to general like a hot potato, and no one in the IDF wants to be responsible.”
Israel portrays itself as a democratic state that cares for its citizens, legitimised and unified by the narrative of collective victimhood associated with the memory of the Holocaust. Yet the politics of mental health in Israel reveals its strategic use of victimisation, whilst failing to care for its 125,000 soldiers and the society in general.
Two-thirds of Israeli soldiers are conscripts, and the rest are mercenaries/foreign volunteers brought over mainly from the USA. Referred to as ‘lone soldiers’, half of these volunteers cannot speak Hebrew, nor have Israeli parents. The sense of isolation they feel leads to around 14% dropping out, and between 2014 and 2016, 6 committed suicide (out of 45 soldier suicides overall). Yet, Haaretz conducted an investigation looking into ‘What’s Killing Israel’s Lone soldiers?’, framing suicide and mental illness as an external problem, imported through inadequate psychological screenings and checks on alcohol/drug abuse for foreign volunteers.
The Haaretz report includes testimonies from lone soldiers who said that joining the army was “as easy as signing up for a library card”, and how the IOF didn’t bother checking their medical or psychological profile. Most soldiers lie about their history of drug and/or alcohol abuse and/or other severe mental health issues. For many of these volunteers, the IOF is an escape from their educational failure or drug abuse back home.
Israeli critics call the program a pointless drain on the system, given the budget allocated to manage lone soldiers’ well-being and the numbers of suicide and dropouts. Absent from this analysis, however, is the fact that the Israeli army is a fertile ground for fanatics, extremists, and aggression addicts from around the world, which is why the project continues to be funded.
As for those conscripted in Israel, even though a psychological check is required prior to being drafted, the IOF is cautious about exempting citizens, accusing those presenting themselves as mentally ill, of making fraudulent claims to be excused from serving. In the end, many soldiers are forced to serve despite their mental health issues.
The numbers of soldiers attempting to avoid conscription because of mental health issues has been rising steadily, jumping from 7.9% in 2020 to an expected 13% in 2023. As a response, the IOF launched a program to reduce the number of psychological exemptions and make it harder for soldiers to be released on psychological grounds.
Although the IOF offers mental health resources, testimonies from soldiers reveal a toxic stigma surrounding those who seek help. Indeed, despite the institution being aware of individuals’ suicidal tendencies, instead of exempting them from service, their access to firearms is reduced and they are more heavily surveilled.
The suffering of Israeli soldiers continues beyond their military service. Facebook groups such as ‘Stories from Lebanon – What happened at the outposts’ and ‘Yom Kippur War’ were born from a desperate need for Israelis to share stories of PTSD. These groups have over 45,000 members, and reveal the trauma and ongoing suffering that the military produces.
In 2020, a freedom of information request revealed that “5,192 of the Israel Defence Forces’ disabled veterans have been recognized as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their military service. ” There was almost 600 cases between Operation Protective Edge (2014) and the end of 2019.
In reality, these statistics remain inaccurate, much like the data on suicides, as figures could be much higher.
Military trauma results in full-blown disorders that paralyze an individual, with a spillover impact on society. Many of those suffering from PTSD are pressuring the IOF to recognise their disability with no success, accusing the government of abandoning its responsibility to care for (former) soldiers.
Most recently, an IDF veteran set himself on fire after his request to be recognised as disabled was rejected, and another killed himself whilst waiting for his PTSD to be recognised by the Defence Ministry.
Getting recognised as having PTSD can take up to 8 years, and a high legal bill, as well as evidence that it happened during or because of their military service, which is incredibly difficult to prove, are all necessary.
All the while, unrecognized trauma impacts not only the individual, but society in general. Israel’s denial is breeding a society of traumatised people that have aggressive and violent tendencies, leading to an epidemic of violence against women and children. In 2013 the Association for Rape Crisis Centres in Israel received 40,000 calls – a rise of 12% compared with previous years. Of the callers reporting assault, 31% were under 12 years old, and 33% were aged between 13 and 18.
In 2022, i24NEWS reported that more than 200,000 women in Israel are victims of domestic violence each year, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, a study shows that there was a 315% jump in domestic violence.
The consequences of war & occupation
The Israeli government cannot recognise their soldiers’ suffering because this would force them to acknowledge the heavy price their citizens pay for an unjust wars and occupation, and would make Israel unattractive to foreign recruits. As a result, many soldiers have attempted to flee Israel.
In response, Israel has been pouring millions into trauma research and treatment. The government has already legalised cannabis for PTSD sufferers, and more recent developments include an injected anaesthetic procedure called SGB treatment, which is now available through Israeli private healthcare. The system of settler colonial violence is so unsustainable that Israel must drug its soldiers for them to cope, and use new military technologies such as drones and AI-powered guns to reduce the impact of direct confrontations on Israelis’ mental health.
Most recently, we have also seen a rise in attacks on Palestinians by the newly ‘imported’ terrorist militias, protected by the IOF, who storm and burn Palestinian villages like Hawara - allowing the government to evade responsibility for any resulting soldiers’ trauma and settlers’ violence. Israel therefore creates a hierarchy in the occupation troops, with the newly joined settlers found at the bottom of the social and military ladder. In exchange for accommodation and money, these terrorist settlers directly confront Palestinians - protected by formal soldiers as backup.
Between 2010 and 2019, these settlers killed 22 Palestinians, and injured over 1200.
Ultimately, Zionism relies on a toxically masculine oppressive military, and daily violence against Palestinians to sustain its settler colonial project which is enforced through mandatory conscription and foreign mercenaries. In the absence of a full-blown war, Israeli society is prone to mental collapse: the voices of Palestinian suffering, alongside the sounds of bullets fired and bombs dropped shakes Israeli soldiers in their sleep. This pushes many of these soldiers towards suicide, domestic violence, sexual violence, and drug abuse.
As a settler-colonial state, Israel can only sustain its tranquillity with chaos in order to avoid the flashbacks of violence inflicted upon Palestinians. Paradoxically, whilst Israel needs this chaos to survive, it is also the source of Israelis’ suffering.
Zionism is a dehumanising ideology that persists at the expense of Palestinian suffering, and trauma should serve as a poignant wake-up call. As long as Zionism is ongoing, post-traumatic Zionism disorder (PTZD) will remain undiagnosed - only treatable as a physical condition, through chemicals and escapism.
As for Palestinians, the violent tactics of Zionist settler colonialism generate an archipelago of suffering. These tactics constantly mutate to impact Palestinian bodies and minds across different geographies in historic Palestine and around the world. Zionism’s violence leaves scars and wounds on the Palestinian psyche, often labelled by Western mental health practitioners as emotional distress, illness, or other diagnosable mental disorders. These psychological terms which have been developed in the West, however, psychopathologize and depoliticize Palestinians’ suffering as apolitical disorders rather than the product of Zionist violence.
It is essential to acknowledge the harsh reality of Palestinian suffering, but it is equally important to recalibrate the mental health discourse to emphasise the role of the oppressor in causing Palestinian suffering, and to challenge narratives that portray Palestinians as helpless victims.
Palestinian suffering is acknowledged through sumud (steadfastness), the Palestinian collective care for each another, and through continuing the struggle on behalf of those who’s psychological and/or physical wounds have become unbearable. The mental wounds and traumas, induced by Zionism, serve as fuels that guide Palestinians toward liberation.
Those who critique Palestinian resistance against Zionism would do well to remember that it represents a profound, rebellious, humanising gesture that doesn’t just aim to liberate Palestinians from oppression. As Paulo Freire reminds us: “It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves”.
The path to liberation is a painful journey involving different episodes of death, loss, displacement, refugeehood, and longing. Resisting these episodes in all forms, remains the antidote that ‘keeps Palestinians sane’.
Rami Rmeileh is a social psychologist and a doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter - Institute of Arab and Islamic studies.
Follow him on Twitter: @RamiRmeileh
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.