Traumatized Israelis living near Gaza turn to unusual source for help: lizards, birds and other animals

At the animal therapy center in Sderot, Israel, animals such as reptiles can help children traumatized by war confront fears in a safe environment. (Elana Sztokman)

SDEROT, Israel — Whenever Efraim Rozenfeld hears a plane flying overhead, his body tenses up.

The 52-year-old father of seven and grandfather of seven is a longtime resident of Sderot, the Israeli town near the Gaza border that is a regular target of Palestinian rocket attacks. Rozenfeld’s physical response to plane noise is the result, he says, of having normal life frequently interrupted by sirens, dashes to shelters and then breathless waiting to hear whether an incoming rocket barrage will strike nearby.

When the border zone is active during periods of violent escalation, these interruptions can happen dozens of times per day. The intensity, unpredictability, and violence take a heavy toll — not only in fatalities, injuries and property destruction but also in the form of mental and physical strain for the 70,000 or so Israelis who reside in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip known as the Gaza envelope.

“It affects everyone here,” said Rozenfeld, who is originally from New York. “I feel the pressure on my body. Not just airplanes overhead — also sounds of a door slamming, a motorcycle revving, or a microphone being turned on affect me. Some people are more affected than others, but everyone here is affected. I once came to a house where the children would not leave the safe room, not even to brush their teeth.”

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