Gilad Shalit: the real Prisoner of War (GUARDIAN UK) Harriet Sherwood 05/10/12)
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The Israeli drama Hatufim is the inspiration for the US hit Homeland.
But the ordeal of Gilad Shalit, the young soldier held captive by
Hamas for five years, tells an even more complex story
Tension. Anxiety. Relief. These are the words Noam Shalit uses to
describe his feelings at the moment of reunion with his Israeli
soldier son, held captive by Hamas for more than five years. "But
more than anything, we just wanted to see him, to touch him, to feel
him, to see that he was OK. It´s difficult to recall those moments,
to re-live it again, to retrieve these feelings. There was a release
of the tension of many years. And of course a great feeling of
This is the real-life version of a wrenching scene in Prisoners of
War (Hatufim), a 10-part Israeli television drama that begins airing
in the UK tonight and which was the basis for the just-concluded US
series, Homeland. The story of two captured Israeli soldiers who
return home following a prisoner exchange deal, Hatufim depicts what
happens after the "happy ending" of the triumphant homecoming: the
struggle to rebuild lives, the difficulties of readjustment, the
psychological scars of isolation.
When it was broadcast in Israel, in the midst of the Shalit family´s
relentless campaign to secure their son´s freedom, it got record
ratings. Noam Shalit only watched a couple of episodes. "I was too
occupied in reality to watch fiction," he says. But thousands of
Israeli families who send their sons and daughters to serve in the
country´s conscript army were riveted by the drama that spoke to
their visceral fears.
Corporal Gilad Shalit was 19 when he was captured in June 2006 by a
squad of Palestinian militants who had tunnelled from Gaza into
Israel to attack his tank near the border fence. He disappeared into
the labyrinths of Gaza´s densely populated cities and refugee camps
for five years and four months. Last October, he was released in
exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. By then, he was a symbol of
national unity, the face on millions of posters and T-shirts, the
reason for yellow ribbons tied to countless cars, the inspiration for
songs, the cause of thousands of dedicated campaigners.
Gilad is not yet ready to describe his ordeal and its aftermath to
the media, says his father. "But of course he suffered a lot from
these many years of captivity," says Noam. "He was in total
isolation, apart from his guards, for the whole time. He was kept in
the dark except for a few times when he was transferred from place to
place, when he was blindfolded. Sunlight was a shock for him."
Noam and his wife Aviva have avoided questioning their son too
closely about his captivity. "We don´t want to push him. But he´s
told us he had some interaction with his guards. They weren´t the
people who kidnapped him, they were soldiers obeying orders. But
there were conversations partly in Hebrew, partly in English."
Gilad, he says, picked up a smattering of Arabic.
Within days of the abduction Israel launched a punitive military
bombardment of the tiny Gaza Strip, causing the family terrible
anxiety, repeated during subsequent military assaults on Gaza, over
Gilad´s safety. It was followed by many attempts to broker a deal to
secure the soldier´s release. The parameters were established early
he would be freed only in exchange for a large number of Palestinian
prisoners but the deal was repeatedly aborted.
Noam says his son could have been freed much earlier if "strategic
errors" had not been made. Eventually, prime minister Binyamin
Netanyahu took "a brave decision, against his beliefs, against his
political DNA" to agree a prisoner-swap that was hailed by most of
the Israeli public but condemned by some particularly families who
had lost members to the conflict as a price too high.
"Of course we´d be happy if the price was much lower," says Noam. "We
can understand that some are angry at the release of the murderers of
their loved ones. We don´t argue with them, we just say: you have the
right to oppose this deal, but we have the right to fight for our
The only indication that Noam and Aviva Shalit had of their son´s
condition during his captivity was a video released as proof of life
three years after he was abducted. "After the deal was signed, our
first worry was how will he be, what will be his physical and mental
health? A video cannot tell the whole story, and time had passed,"
Their first glimpse of Gilad rake-thin, ghostly, but smiling was
an interview conducted by Egyptian television minutes after he was
handed over to the Israeli security officials. "It was a real
ambush," says Noam. "He didn´t feel well during the interview, he was
pale, he had difficulty breathing. His blood pressure was very low
and he was dehydrated. The first thing he needed was a drip."
Almost seven months on, Noam says his son is making good
progress. "He´s surprising us. He´s regained weight, he´s playing
sport, riding his bike, playing basketball, going out with friends.
He has a big desire to catch up on things he missed in his years of
Noam and Aviva encourage him to be independent, occasionally forcing
themselves to crush their protective instincts. "We know it´s
impossible to lock him up in the house. Of course we sometimes worry,
especially my wife, that something might happen. But we can´t limit
One of Gilad´s biggest problems has been dealing with the inevitable
attention he attracts. After being alone for so long, "it was
difficult for him to be in a crowd. When he goes out, everyone comes
to him, wanting to greet him, shake his hand, touch him, wish him a
good life. He is still followed everywhere by photographers and
Gilad´s army service formally ended last month, almost four years
later than scheduled, although he has been granted the status of a
disabled veteran. Treatment for a hand injury sustained during the
abduction is continuing, but Noam declines to say whether Gilad is
undergoing psychotherapy or trauma counselling. "I don´t see anger in
him over losing five years of his life, but maybe that will come
later. For the moment, he´s quite OK. He´s living his life, taking
his time, he´s not in a hurry."
Noam has also had to make an enormous adjustment after more than five
years of obsessively campaigning for Gilad´s release. "I reached a
junction in my life, I had to decide what to do." Now he is hoping to
run for the Israeli parliament as a candidate of the Labour party, of
which he has been a member for 16 years.
Hatufim´s creator, Gideon Raff, has said his drama is not based on
the real-life experiences of any particular individual although he
interviewed around 10 former captives when researching the series.
One was Hezi Shai, who was captured by the Popular Front for the
Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon in 1982, and released in a
prisoner exchange three years later.
Shai visited the set of Hatufim when the family reunion scenes were
being filmed. "Hezi watched take after take of that scene, and it was
so emotional. He said that´s how it was: the silence, the not knowing
how to act, and not knowing who it is in front of you," Raff told the
Jewish Journal. Shai, who declined to be interviewed by the Guardian,
said last year that not all those released "are in good shape or have
a good life".
Israel´s long track record of deals to recover its soldiers, both
alive and dead, is a measure of their emotional value in society, and
the unwritten contract between government and families that
everything possible will be done to return those captured or killed.
Gilad Shalit is home and recovering, but the backdrop to his ordeal
continues. "I understand the Palestinians´ fight for an independent
state and against the so-called occupation," says Noam, while
stressing that the kidnap of soldiers or civilians as bargaining
chips is unacceptable and unlawful. "But the people who kidnapped
Gilad are extremists, they don´t represent the Palestinian people.
"We [Jews] fought against the British in the 1940s for our
independence, and I believe the Palestinians are fighting for theirs.
I am in favour of two states. I assume that if I was a Palestinian, I
probably would have fought the Israeli armed forces for independence."
Does his son share this view? "Yes, I believe so." (guardian.co.uk ©
Guardian News and Media Limited 2012 05/10/12)
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