Mounting tally of over 6,000 injured troops presents tough challenge for health system

Group aiding disabled veterans triples manpower, adds therapists, upgrades rehab centers to meet overwhelming needs of new cadre of wounded soldiers

Illustrative: IDF soldier Jonathan Ben Hamou, 22, wounded in the war with Hamas, in his room at Sheba hospital's rehabilitation division, in Ramat Gan, December 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Illustrative: IDF soldier Jonathan Ben Hamou, 22, wounded in the war with Hamas, in his room at Sheba hospital's rehabilitation division, in Ramat Gan, December 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Igor Tudoran spent just 12 hours inside the Gaza Strip before a missile slammed into his tank, leaving him with a life-altering injury.

“Even while I was still in the tank, I understood from the condition of my leg that I would lose it. But the question was how much of it I would lose,” he said, sitting on a bed in the hospital where he has been treated since he was wounded last month.

Tudoran, 27, a reservist who volunteered for duty after the devastating October 7 Hamas massacres in southern Israel which triggered the war, lost his right leg beneath the hip. He has kept up a positive attitude — but concedes that his hopes of becoming an electrician may no longer be possible.

Tudoran is part of a swelling number of wounded soldiers, a sizable and deeply traumatized segment of Israeli society whose struggles are emerging as a hidden cost of the war that will be felt acutely for years to come. Given the large numbers of wounded, advocates worry the country is not prepared to address their needs.

“I have never seen a scope like this and an intensity like this,” said Edan Kleiman, who heads the nonprofit Disabled Veterans Organization, which advocates for more than 50,000 soldiers wounded in this and earlier conflicts. “We must rehabilitate these people,” he said.

The Defense Ministry said in mid-December that over 6,000 members of the country’s security forces — including police and other agencies — have been wounded since Hamas terrorists stormed into southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking over 240 people hostage — mostly civilians — amid horrific acts of brutality. Nearly 900 of those are soldiers wounded since Israel began its ground offensive in late October, in which troops have engaged in close combat with Hamas fighters in Gaza. More than 160 soldiers have been killed since the ground operation began.

IDF soldiers wounded in the war with Hamas walk in the rehabilitation division of Sheba hospital in Ramat Gan, December 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“They add up,” said Yagil Levy, who teaches civil-military relations at the Open University, of the wounded. “There could be a long-term impact if we see a big rate of people with disabilities that Israel must rehabilitate, which can produce economic issues as well as social issues.”

The war has also brought unprecedented suffering to Palestinians in Gaza, where the Hamas-run health ministry says more than 21,000 have been killed, though these figures cannot be independently verified and are believed to include both combatants and civilians, some killed by misfired Palestinian rockets. The same authorities in Gaza report close to 55,000 wounded and say amputations have become commonplace. Most of the tiny coastal enclave’s population of two million has been displaced.

Israelis still largely stand behind the war’s objectives — to destroy the terror group’s military and governance capabilities and to secure the return of 133 hostages still believed held by Hamas.

In a country with compulsory military service for most Jews, the fate of soldiers is a sensitive and emotional topic. The names of fallen soldiers are announced at the top of hourly newscasts. Their funerals are packed with strangers who come to show solidarity. Their families receive generous support from the army.

But historically, the plight of the wounded, though lauded as heroes, has taken a backseat to the stories of soldiers killed in battle. After the fanfare surrounding tales of their service and survival recedes, the wounded are left to contend with a new reality that can be disorienting, challenging and, for some, lonely. Their numbers have not had a significant bearing on public sentiment toward Israel’s wars in the way that mounting soldiers’ deaths have.

The exceptionally large numbers of wounded in this war, however, will provide a visible reminder of the conflict for years to come.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized their sacrifice during a recent visit to wounded soldiers at Sheba Medical Center, the country’s largest hospital, which has treated and rehabilitated many of the injured. “You are genuine heroes,” he said.

Prime Ministry Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US Representative Brian Mast (R) visit soldiers wounded in the war with Hamas in Gaza at the rehabilitation ward at Hadassah-Mt. Scopus hospital in Jerusalem, December 27, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

At Sheba, soldiers and civilians wounded in the war spilled out into the corridors on a recent day and passed the time with their families on an outdoor deck. Soccer paraphernalia adorned the wounded soldiers’ hospital beds, as did the Israeli flag.

One man who had lost a leg when he was attacked by Hamas terrorists at the Supernova outdoor music festival on October 7 — where 360 people were killed and dozens more were assaulted and taken hostage — lay in the sun on the hospital grounds, his wheelchair parked nearby. The pop diva Rita handed out hugs to some wounded soldiers. A military helicopter carrying more wounded troops landed nearby.

The Defense Ministry said it was working at “full capacity” to assist the wounded, and that it was cutting red tape and hiring employees to deal with the influx.

IDF soldier Jonathan Ben Hamou, 22, wounded in the war with Hamas, practices walking with crutches during a physiotherapy session in Sheba Hospital’s rehabilitation division in Ramat Gan, December 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Jonathan Ben Hamou, 22, who lost his left leg beneath the knee after Hamas gunmen in Gaza fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the bulldozer he was using to help clear the way for other troops, is already looking forward to the day when he can use a state-funded prosthetic.

Ben Hamou, who mostly uses a wheelchair since the incident in early November, said that he eventually plans to pursue his goal of attending a military commanders’ course.

“I’m not ashamed of the wound,” said Ben Hamou, who filmed the RPG’s moment of impact as well as his evacuation to the hospital. “I was wounded for the country in a war inside Gaza. I am proud.”

But Kleiman, who himself was wounded in an operation in the Gaza Strip in the early 1990s, said he thinks authorities are not grasping the severity of the situation.

The disabled veterans group is ramping up efforts to address what he suspects will be the overwhelming needs of a new cadre of wounded soldiers. He said the organization is tripling its manpower, adding therapists and employees to help wounded veterans navigate bureaucracy and upgrade rehab centers.

Kleiman said the number of wounded is likely to stretch close to 20,000 once those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are included.

A soldier wounded in the war with Hamas walks with crutches in the rehabilitation division of Sheba hospital in Ramat Gan, December 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

He said if wounded soldiers don’t receive the mental and physical care they need, including making their homes or cars accessible, it could stunt their rehabilitation and delay or even prevent their reentry into the workforce.

“There are wounded whose lives have been ruined,” said Idit Shafran Gittleman, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv research center. “They will have to contend with their wounds their entire lives.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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