The Gush Katif Effect

Sometimes stress caused by betrayal or even feeling isolated and unsupported can be worse than the stress caused by traumatic events.

This may be surprising. It seems counter-intuitive, but let me explain. What really made me consider this was when I heard the story of Gush Katif, a Jewish town that was located within the Gaza Strip. The town was surrounded by their enemies. They were constantly bombarded with Kassam rockets, and when they drove anywhere they often had rocks thrown at their cars. Palestinian militants would try to infiltrate the town to attack them.

Despite all the trauma, the townspeople were amazingly resilient and successful. Possibly because they found meaning in making a stand for Israel, and they felt supported by their country. They even had a sense of control over their destiny, because they had chosen to settle there and not be controlled or intimidated by terrorism. And they did well. They became a vibrant agricultural community that exported organic produce all over Europe.

During the peace process when Israel handed over control of Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, the Israeli Government forced the evacuation of the town of Gush Katif. Many residents did not willingly leave and were forcibly evicted, and their homes were demolished. The Israeli government housed them for years in temporary pre-fab homes in Jewish communities outside of Gaza. After the evacuation the townspeople were no longer subject to rocket attacks and constant trauma. Surprisingly, the people became less resilient generally. They have more stress related sickness, more heart disease, more unemployment, and more trouble with their youth. Why? No more rockets. They are safe now! It doesn’t seem to make sense. But when I looked deeper into their feelings about what it meant, it started to make sense to me. They felt betrayed by their own government. In their minds they were risking their lives in making a stand for the people of Israel, and then Israel turns around and forces them out of their homes.

It made me think of a colleague of mine who, because of his investigative specialty, had been exposed to trauma throughout his policing career. He was able to handle that vicarious trauma on a daily basis without a problem. He found meaning in his expertise and took pride in his work.

Then an incident happened where he felt he had been treated harshly by management. He perceived that he was being persecuted by those above him. That was the beginning of the end of his career. It led to stress leave, health problems and eventually early retirement. After all the traumatic stress he had endured in his career, it was the organizational stress that finished him.

That is not uncommon in policing. People assume that the stress in policing is the trauma and vicarious trauma that officers experience daily; however some research concludes that as much as 80 percent of stress in policing is organizational stress. It’s the office politics that kills! So it’s not unlike most business environments. And it’s not unlike Gush Katif.

Why is betrayal or abandonment particularly distressing? I think that would take a lot more room than I have here, but for anyone who has experienced it, they know that it can shatter their world views. It can suck the meaning out of life.

This is good for leaders to know. Your people need to feel supported, and when they do they can endure other difficult aspects of the job, even exposure to trauma. If they feel betrayed, unsupported or abandoned, then resilience is unlikely.