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The Israeli Army Learns to Cry

She is 18 years old, a slight young woman from Beersheva, in the anonymous khaki pants and shirt of Zahal (Israel Defense Forces, or IDF). A few feet away is another young woman, a baby in one arm and two toddlers hanging on to her long skirt. Cursing and screaming from under her headscarf: ‘I will torment you when you are pregnant! My eyes will haunt you when you are in labor! You will never build a home of your own!”

With extraordinary restraint, the soldier smiles at the children, stretches out her hand to them, and gets on, as gently as possible, with the grim mission at hand: trying to facilitate Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip by making the evacuation of Jewish settlers in Gush Katif fast, efficient and non-violent.

The soldier, and some 700 other female forces with no previous combat experience, were prepared for their difficult job in the disengagement process last August by a special project of the IDF, in conjunction with the Advisor to the Chief-of-Staff on Women’s Issues and the Counseling Center for Women (CCW), Israel’s only mental health center dedicated to the empowerment of women. CCW was founded as a not-for-profit in 1988 by ten feminist therapists, mostly immigrants from the U.S.; since then it has been a major force in bringing feminist psychotherapy to Israel and has acquired unique expertise and experience in the treatment of women, especially during times of crisis and trauma. Nevertheless, it was with some hesitation that Israel’s army—a prototypically male organization—accepted CCW’s proposal to help train women soldiers charged with evacuating the women and children from Gush Katif.

“Zahal tends to view male coping mechanisms as the most efficient way of dealing with these types of missions,” says Rakefet Ginsburg, coordinator of the project for CCW and herself a former member of the IDF’s mental health division. “Female coping mechanisms are seen as weaknesses in the army. This put female soldiers, as a group, at great risk for crisis and trauma both during and after the disengagement.”

Political issues also emerged among the Center’s staff: some therapists did not believe that the disengagement would solve Israel’s problems, and it was an effort for them to accept helping the military rather than the settlers.

“What ultimately made the decision for us,” recalls Karen Shachar, a CCW psychologist, “was that all of our children go into the army at 18. In Gaza, many of the soldiers felt they were doing something against their own people. They’re trained to protect Israel, not deal with disengagement… .We have no choice; the defense of Israel is primary.”

During the intense weeks running up to the disengagement, as the military and the public prepared for a variety of cataclysmic scenarios, CCW fanned out to military bases throughout the country. In 100-degree heat, in drab army dining rooms and on bunk beds in windowless bedrooms, therapists conducted 49 four-hour workshops aimed at sensitizing 700 young, apprehensive women to the events that were about to take place, helping them find inner resources to cope with traumatic experiences, reinforcing their assertiveness.

According to Rakefet, “Our message was: your ability to identify with the women and children of Gush Katif, and your courage to say what you’re feeling.'”

CCW’s team taught the soldiers how to use relaxation techniques, avoid aggression, defend themselves against physical and verbal violence, express their feelings and support each other. One delicate young woman, from a religiously observant family who opposed the disengagement, was torn: Should she give in to her parents’ pressure and withdraw from her unit, or perform her civic duty and serve with her comrades? The CCW workshop gave her the strength to cope with her doubts, and she did participate in the evacuation.

Another soldier, typical of many, was worried. “I’ll be heartbroken if have to tear a crying child out of her mother’s arms,” she declared, at the end of a workshop. “But if that child looks up and sees my caring face and warm smile, perhaps she will always remember it as a ray of light on that dark day.”

Moriah Shlomot, director of CCW, summed up the experience: “An army equipped with genuine tears—and not just tear gas—can develop a more effective dialogue with the civilian populations.” The women soldiers, she adds, were “the true heroines of the evacuation.”