Israel-Hamas war: How can Israelis beat Hamas’s psychological war?

Science and Health

One of the most challenging experiences for any human being is the loss of a loved one. The pain is indescribable. Yet, not knowing what has happened to them can sometimes be even more unbearable.

In such cases, the external memory of the deceased cannot be internalized by family members and friends, due to the uncertainty surrounding their fate. The possibility of their survival perpetuates this agony. 

In addition to the unresolved grief caused by the inability to internalize their memory, the very uncertainty itself is an overwhelming source of suffering. Waiting for medical test results is a prime example of how the waiting period can be more difficult than receiving the actual news.

For instance, during the AIDS epidemic in the last century, many individuals found the waiting period for test results so distressing that they chose to abstain from sexual activity altogether, to avoid experiencing this agonizing uncertainty again. Similarly, the pain of love can stem from the uncertainty between hope and insecurity about the longevity of a relationship.

At present, thousands of people in Israel find themselves in this exact situation. There are hundreds of bodies that have undergone such severe mutilation that it is impossible to inform families whether their loved ones have been kidnapped or killed. 

Paradoxically, knowing that a loved one is deceased, as horrifying as it is, can be easier to bear than the ongoing uncertainty.

The families of those who have been abducted also experience profound uncertainty. Even if they witnessed their relatives being taken to Gaza on that dark day, October 7, it remains impossible to ascertain their whereabouts or their condition. Are they still alive? Where are they being held? Under what circumstances? Are they being subjected to ill-treatment? These tormenting questions, among countless others, haunt their thoughts.


Abigail’s ordeal

We were all touched by the heart-wrenching case of three-year-old Abigail from Kfar Gaza, whose parents were tragically murdered, leaving her alone in Gaza without any family. 

The uncertainty of the abductees’ families can be paralyzing (credit: Roni Cnafo)

The uncertainty surrounding Abigail’s well-being functions as a megaphone of sorts: What is happening to her? Who is caring for her? Soothing her? Wiping her tears? Lulling her to sleep?

This situation is unbearable and inhumane. Uncertainty creates a void in which a multitude of distressing questions gather, and the answers to these questions often result in overwhelming anxiety, which can sometimes even be paralyzing. Anxiety is a natural survival mechanism that produces imagined certainty.

Therefore, I propose an active approach to combat the terror brought about by anxiety – an exercise that can offer some emotional relief. This psychological exercise is based on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and therefore can be applied in everyday life, particularly during times of uncertainty.

Its aim is to cultivate a sense of stability, which is sorely lacking at the moment, and to provide a sense of certainty in what is still within our control. The exercise is part of a method that can restore a feeling of control during moments of anxiety and fear. It consists of grounding, engaging in activities, guided imagination, and normalizing thoughts. 

While each step complements the next, in cases of extreme uncertainty and stress, it is advisable to focus on and continually repeat the first and most important step: grounding. 

  1. What thoughts are swirling in my mind?
  2. What do I truly know?
  3. Am I anxious about something negative?
  4. Could it be that the situation is not as dire as it seems?
  5. Could it be that the situation is more favorable than I realize? 

If the information or rumors I hear are not from a reliable source (which is likely the case), or if the source has questionable intentions (again, likely so), is there another reliable source that can confirm the survival of our loved one? Have I seen any concrete evidence of their well-being? Are they able to walk? (If unsure, the answer is likely no).

The purpose of these questions is to sift through the sea of uncertainty in your mind and distill the reality as it stands. It is evident that you currently have no control over the situation of your loved ones in captivity, but you can control the information that comes your way and avoid accepting unquestionably false or hearsay information. 

Falsehoods often arise when the answer consistently leans towards the worst-case scenario, prompting the question – am I viewing the situation in a negative light, or is it possible that there is a more positive outlook? 

Whenever negative thoughts begin to dominate your mind, immediately ask yourself if it is possible that the situation is more positive than you perceive it to be. In the face of rumors, which are abundant and perpetuated by Hamas as part of their psychological warfare against us, it

Dr. Nir Essar is the founder of the Psagot Institute, an expert medical director and an instructor in cognitive behavioral therapy