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Gilad Shalit: the real Prisoner of War (GUARDIAN UK) Harriet Sherwood 05/10/12)Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/09/gilad-shalit-real-prisoner-of-war GLOBE AND MAIL GLOBE AND MAIL Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 victory."

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 son´s life."

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," says Noam.

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 captivity."

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 his steps."

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 television crews."

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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