Life after death

Former Israel Police spokesman traumatized by the 48 suicide attacks he dealt with.

Suicide bombings 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Suicide bombings 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Once the face and voice of Israel, Gil Kleiman is recovering slowly but steadily from the devastation that he suffered as an Israel Police spokesman during the second intifada from 2000 to 2005.
Palestinian suicide bombings killed 524 Israelis during those five years. Ironically, first responder Kleiman also became a victim of those attacks. His frequent visits to suicide bombing sites just minutes after the blast eventually led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As the police foreign press spokesman, Kleiman, now 54, often appeared on television, providing details and analyzing the worst spate of suicide bombings ever launched against the Jewish State. It was at once the most exciting period of his career – and the most upsetting.
As news broke of each of 48 suicide attacks in Israel, the Brooklyn-born Kleiman understood that to do his job, he had to drop everything, jump into his car and rush to the site. From other first responders at the bombing site, he pieced together details of the violence that he immediately disseminated to the gathering media. Behaving with clinical detachment, he knew that to win the propaganda war against the Palestinian bombers, he had to get as much airtime as possible.
All too aware of what he would find upon arriving at the bombing site – dead bodies, body parts, perhaps a headless Palestinian terrorist, the severely wounded screaming in agony, doll carriages, babies’ bottles, and general chaos – Kleiman was clearly on edge. Still, he went back time after time until the day came when he acknowledged to himself that he had seen too much.
Normally gregarious, at times emotional and fast-talking, someone who loved to gab, Kleiman gradually found himself tonguetied and distracted. Anesthetizing his emotions, pretending that he could do his job without becoming psychologically harmed, Kleiman realized that his numbness had gradually morphed into a cumulative trauma that led to full-blown PTSD in 2005.
“What I saw was something that people should not have to see,” Kleiman tells. “It wasn’t natural.”
Before his visits to the bombing sites, Kleiman had been a man of many trades while serving with the Israel Police. From 1983, he was a bomb squad technician, an attorney, a security-training officer, a homicide detective, and a police spokesman.
In 1980, he obtained an undergraduate degree as a history major from George Washington University and, in 1991, a law degree from Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
At first, after performing his grim task at each bombing, Kleiman would occasionally burst into unexpected tears, but he kept his calm, sometimes for months at a time.
By the middle of 2002, the most intense period of suicide bombings against Israel, Kleiman became increasingly depressed.
Conversations with a friend from his bomb squad days “charged my batteries,” Kleiman recalls. Their discussions enabled the police spokesman to serve two more years as the face of Israel. “I was on the verge of a breakdown, but I managed to perform my job,” Kleiman says, recalling those days of concealed torment. No one knew his secret – he kept his mental slide a secret from all but his wife, Ilanit, a fellow police officer.
By early 2005, suicide bombings in Israel had fallen from a record 55 in 2002 to 14. Finally, the dam broke for Kleiman. On February 25, 2005, a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked the Stage Club along the Tel Aviv promenade on the Mediterranean beach, killing five and wounding 50 others.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” says Kleiman.
Yet the mere notion that a police officer might have a mental issue often led him to keep silent for fear of losing his job.
Kleiman knew it was time to get professional help.
Meeting with a police mental health officer and his family physician, Kleiman no longer felt compelled to remain secretive about his mental collapse.
“I had nothing to be ashamed about.I was not to blame. I had done nothing wrong,” he says.
Recovering from PTSD was not easy.
In March 2005, Kleiman returned to his spokesman duties but, still numbed by what he had witnessed, he could not absorb what people were saying to him. He had been under the illusion that he could return to full health in just a few months.
But when that time passed and he had not recovered, he discovered to his disappointment that his police superiors had removed him from his post as a spokesman.
Kleiman vowed to himself that he would return to “normal” – whatever that meant.
He remembered an expression that friends from his Brooklyn days often used: “We don’t get even; we get better.” He vowed that he was going to get better.
For nearly a year, he showed up at Israel Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, spent four or five hours behind his office desk with the door closed, surfing for hours on the Internet. He was told not to use a phone and to do no police work. Left with little choice, in February 2006 he retired from the police. He was 47 years old.
As he continued his recovery from PTSD, Kleiman was displeased to realize how ill-prepared the Israel Police had been to deal with his mental disorder.
Forced to turn to private medical psychiatric help, he was aghast to hear another police spokesman tell journalists with a straight face that the police had psychologists available for police PTSD victims – when in fact they did not. For Kleiman it was difficult to fathom why he could not get the help he needed.
“The police provided flak jackets to personnel to protect against metal fragments, but they gave us no psychological flak jackets,” he says.
After retiring from the police, Kleiman was recognized as a disabled veteran with benefits that included psychological treatment for PTSD. One benefit allowed him to pursue a favorite hobby and study for an instructor’s degree in the Chinese martial art T’ai Chi from the Wingate Institute in Netanya.
He began teaching T’ai Chi to students and traumatized war veterans, but the veterans displayed a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm.
“I thought it would give them the same peace of mind that it gave me, but it did not,” he recalls. “The war veterans were too agitated to let themselves calm down and enjoy the T’ai Chi. In fact, they were bored.”
Kleiman often worked together with a close friend, former NYPD homicide detective Mordecai Dzikansky, on assignment from New York to monitor and analyze Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel.
Training Dzikansky left the NYPD in 2008, two years after Kleiman left the Israel Police, and they set up a global security consultancy business, lecturing law enforcement agencies, universities, and academic think tanks, teaching the lessons they had learned in responding to terrorism. Their training course for Colorado first responders proved especially useful. After getting advice in 2009 from Kleiman and Dzikansky to become more conscious of possible suicide bombers in their midst, a week later the Colorado officers used that increased consciousness as they helped in the probe and capture of suspected suicide bomber Najibullah Zazi.
Eager to use the lessons he learned from visiting suicide-bombing sites in some orderly fashion, Kleiman wrote a reference book in 2011 on how to defend against suicide bombing. It was his greatest post-police satisfaction and served as one more step in his march to recovery.
Today Kleiman remains active in his consultancy: He has been training American fire department first responders to become more effective should they have to respond to a terror attack on American soil. He also consults for the Ministry of Internal Security, returning to a spokesman’s role for the ministry on an ad hoc basis for particularly sensitive incidents.
Kleiman knows he paid a high price for his years as the public face of Israel at that time but he has the warmest recollections of his 23 years as a police officer.
“Today, I feel fully recovered,” he says. “I feel healthier than I used to be. What I did visiting those suicide bombings was not normal. Today I feel normal.”