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Return of hostages by Hamas has played out like a dark psychological thriller

Israel, as a nation, is no stranger to dramatic, or even extreme, terror attacks and wars, yet the Oct. 7 massacre has brought a whole new level of terror, fear, and anxiety

It’s been a week since Hamas began releasing Israeli hostages as part of a U.S.-Qatari-Egyptian mediated ceasefire. The nightly dribble of freed people, including elderly women, mothers, and children, has played out like scenes from a soap opera or dark psychological thriller.

Many of the roughly 240 hostages kidnapped by Hamas terrorists during its brutal attack on Oct. 7 have already become household names. Their faces, as well as their personal details and the terrifying stories of their abduction, appear on billboards and lampposts throughout the country, and their desperate relatives have been featured prominently in Israeli media demanding the Israeli government and the international community do everything to get them out of Gaza as soon as possible.

For more than seven weeks, even as the IDF launched its ground assault into the Palestinian enclave and dysfunctional Israeli politics reared its ugly head, Israelis have not stopped talking, thinking or standing in solidarity with the hostages, the youngest of whom is just 10 months old, and praying they will be safely returned home – both to their loved ones and to a deeply concerned and traumatized country.

Israel, as a nation, is no stranger to devastating terror attacks and wars. Through various rounds of violence and fighting – from attempted military invasions to deadly rocket fire to incomprehensible suicide bombers in the early 2000s – Israelis have experienced untold amounts of bloodshed and pain.

Yet, the Oct. 7 attack, which saw thousands of terrorists from Hamas and other Palestinian groups breach the border fence from Gaza, flood Israel en masse and murder more than 1,200 people in some 22 civilian communities, army bases and a music festival in a single day, has brought a whole new level of terror, fear and anxiety.

The slow return this week of nearly 100 hostages, including 3-year-old twins, children, teenagers, mothers and elderly women, has not only sent the country on a roller coaster of emotions but also made clear that this time around, the trauma runs deeper than ever.

“I see it from my patients, even those not directly affected in any way by the recent events, they are very traumatized by everything that is happening,” Prof. Ofrit Shapira-Berman, a psychoanalyst and lecturer from the School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Jewish Insider this week.

One of two Israeli-Russian hostages (C) taken by Hamas militants on the October 7 attack, and released on November 29, 2023, looks on as she is transported in a vehicle at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan.

“It was the most vicious terror attack that any of us has ever witnessed,” continued Shapira-Berman, who along with a team of physicians and other psychoanalysts has been volunteering to treat the hostages, their families and the survivors of the Oct. 7 massacre.

She said that many people in Israel grew up with legendary horror stories of past terror attacks: the 1974 massacre in the northern town of Ma’alot, where 115 Israelis, mostly school children were taken hostage by terrorists from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine group, with some 25 people ultimately murdered; or the attack in Kibbutz Misgav Am in 1980, when terrorists from the Arab Liberation Front took young children hostage in the kibbutz’s sleeping quarters, to name a few.

“Such stories became part of our nightmares,” said Shapira-Berman. “That someone could enter your home and murder you, metaphorically or literally, in your sleep.”

These past traumas, as well as the perpetual ghosts of Holocaust atrocities for Jews in Israel, are now being combined with the overwhelming feeling that on Oct. 7, “the government failed to protect us,” she continued.

Shapira-Berman pointed out that for most of the past year – since the current coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to power – a large percentage of the population has been protesting government policies and expressing a profound mistrust in their country’s leaders.

“People feel helpless, they feel there is no one to protect them, they feel they could be slaughtered any minute, and this is all very traumatic,” she said, acknowledging that psychological warfare is also part of Hamas’ terror strategy.  

This week, the trauma that has hung heavy in the air since the Oct. 7 massacre took on a new shape as small groups of hostages were released from Hamas captivity. The process agreed upon as part of the mediated truce saw the terror group handing Israel a list of around a dozen names they planned to free each day. In return, Israel gave them a list of Palestinian prisoners, mostly women and minors convicted of terror offenses, that it would release.

As the Israeli media, government authorities, the hostages’ relatives and the public counted down to the scheduled release time, Hamas seemed to take advantage of the anxiety.

For example, despite Israel’s requests to keep families together or to release the youngest children first, Hamas did expressly the opposite. Children were released without their mothers, siblings were released alone, and, on Wednesday, Hamas said the youngest hostage – Kfir Bibas, 10 months, his 4-year-old brother, Ariel, and their mother, Shiri, were dead.

The Bibas family

The terror group shared a haunting video of Yarden Bibas – Shiri’s husband and father of Kfir and Ariel – receiving the news that his family had been murdered while he was their captive. Not aired by Israeli or international media outlets, Bibas, clearly distraught and forced to transmit the recorded message, blames Netanyahu for their deaths.

“People feel relieved [the hostages are being released] and there is more optimism about how it will all end,” Shapira-Berman told JI. “But for many people who are directly affected as victims, survivors, relatives and friends, the story just does not end.”

“I see how the mental and emotional health of those directly affected is beginning to get worse, not better,” she said, pointing out that those who lost loved ones in the attacks are only now beginning to realize their loss.  

“They are getting weaker and sadder and the stories in the media about the return of the hostages, even though physically they appear to be in relatively good shape, means the trauma is just staying with us,” she said.

Prof. Asher Ben-Arieh, dean of the School of Social Work and Social Welfare at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Haruv Institute, a center that trains professionals and researches methods to help children suffering from abuse and neglect, has been working on a comprehensive program to help therapists, such as Shapira-Berman, and others working with the massacre victims, since Oct. 11.

“The Ministry of Social Services approached us even before we knew the exact number of people who had been kidnapped,” Ben-Arieh, a social worker who mainly works with children, told JI.  

“We knew that one day those children would return, and we needed to have a protocol to deal with them,” he continued.

Together with a team of professionals, Ben-Arieh researched past examples of similar events but even the most famous cases such as the 2014 Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria or the kidnapping of children by Russian troops in Ukraine, which is still ongoing, did not offer enough suitable information for what is happening in Israel.

“We had to look at other events such as people, not necessarily children, who were held captive during wars or children kidnapped for sexual and criminal abuse,” he said.

Based on that, the team built a model for all those who might end up interacting with the returning hostages, including soldiers and other members of the security forces. The plan was in place two weeks before the first round of hostage releases, said Ben-Arieh.

Now, Ben-Arieh’s team is working on several different models aimed at helping those impacted by Hamas’ atrocities on a variety of levels, although, he said it is still far too soon to tell what the long-term effects will be for the direct victims and Israeli society as a whole.

“We are still digesting what we are seeing and hearing,” he concluded. “And some of it is simply indigestible.”

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