The Real-Life Drama of an Israeli P.O.W.'s Return from Captivity

"Prisoners of War," currently airing on KCET on Mondays at 10:00 p.m., features the story of three Israeli soldiers returning from 17 years of captivity. The inspiration for the emotional plight of these returning soldiers is reflected in the real-life P.O.W.S that endured similar experiences. Below is the story of one such figure, IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit.


If you were in Israel during the years 2006 to 2011, you saw him everywhere, even though he was nowhere to be found: Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Corporal Gilad Shalit, a combat soldier originally from the Israeli town of Nahariya, had been kidnapped by Hamas on June 25, 2006. His image was plastered over billboards and in newspapers across the country -- sometimes with soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who had been captured by Hezbollah a few weeks after Shalit -- with the imperative to “Bring Our Boys Home.” Because in Israel every family has someone in the IDF, one son in captivity is everyone’s son in captivity; bringing back captured soldiers is a task that brought the nation together…for the most part. 

In 2009, three years after Shalit had been snatched, his family moved to a protest tent set up in front of the Prime Minister’s Jerusalem residence, an attempt to pressure the Israeli government into taking negotiation action on behalf of their missing son. There they took interviews and talked to the many passers-by -- including on one occasion, this writer -- about Gilad, passing out pamphlets, sharing numbers people could call to register their demands that he be redeemed, and urging everyone to not let the government forget him. Their dedication was beyond belief: they lived in the tent, in a fairly busy pedestrian area, for nearly 16 months, until the deal for Gilad’s release was reached on October 18, 2011.

gilad shalit jerusalem
"Where are you, boy?" notes for Shalit in Jerusalem/Adiel lo/C BY-SA 3.0

Orchestrating the release was complicated and lengthy. Because the Israeli government had a policy of not directly negotiating with Hamas, the negotiations were conducted in cooperation with Egypt, a country that could peacefully speak with both parties. Initial deals were opposed by the directors of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agencies. Many on the negotiating team had been involved in Israel’s 1976 rescue of hostages at Entebbe airport, where Jonathan “Yonatan” Netanyahu (brother of the current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) had been killed. Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister for most of Shalit’s captivity, considered deals demanding the release of a rogues’ gallery of terrorists, but ultimately decided it was too high a ransom for Israel to pay.

When Netanyahu succeeded Olmert as Prime Minister and started negotiations, everyone was surprised: Netanyahu had a long record of opposing terrorist negotiations. He also decided the Egyptians weren’t being effective mediators and brought in German intelligence to help. In addition, American peace activist -- and Netanyahu critic -- Gershon Baskin had offered his help and his connection to Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, and, according to an extensive and fascinating New York Times Magazine article about the release recounting all of the above and more, this relationship proved pivotal to the negotiations being ultimately successful.

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​Shalit had gone into captivity as little more than a child, with a narrow face and a slight build, and he returned gaunt, hollow, and frail. Physicians indicated that he had shrapnel embedded in his body -- the result of the tank attack during which he was captured -- and that he suffered from malnutrition. On an airport tarmac, Shalit reunited with his father in an emotional embrace, a moment that was captured by cameras and photobombed by a grinning Bibi Netanyahu. This gave rise to a moment of levity in a very serious story: launching a series of “Bibibombs” memes, in which the Prime Minister’s head was inserted into other photographs.

After Shalit returned, he was a hot story, photographed as he went about his life, embracing family and thanking the supporters who had worked for his freedom. Then, he dropped into the shadows, occasionally emerging to visit the set of "Homeland" -- where he was photographed with Claire Danes -- or to attend sports games. He has since worked as a sports reporter and gotten married, both of which have yielded some additional short-term interest from the media.

But the return wasn’t all celebrations and moving forward. After his return, Shalit had questions to answer, specifically from IDF investigators about what happened in his tank during the skirmish. Why had he left his tank when it was operational and could have both protected him and taken out the attacking militants? Why had he abandoned his weapon inside the tank? What did he tell the militants who had interrogated him after he was captured?

After he answered the IDF’s questions, it became clear that Shalit’s actions had contributed to his own capture, and that the incident had put him into shock, making him unable to act on his own behalf.

“A live Israeli soldier who was not fighting back,” writer Ben Caspit wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “was the prize that Hamas had dreamed of for years, and now here it was in front of them.” He called Shalit “an introverted young man who is both emotional and fragile” and who likely “should not have been placed in a tank unit in the first place.”

“He was ashamed of what he had to tell them, yet he did so with an honesty that truly inspires respect. He didn’t try to conceal the truth; he told them he’d failed and acknowledged that he had not done his duty. He said this willingly, without any coercion or pressure,” Caspit wrote.

However, Caspit objected to calling Shalit a hero:

While Shalit’s fragility and humanity certainly resonated with Israelis after his release, for many, the issue of the “price tag” for Shalit’s return remains a steady refrain. Especially after terror incidents in Israel reveal connections to prisoners released in the Shalit deal, people began to realize that many of the released prisoners had committed terror attacks on Israeli citizens -- according to the New York Times Magazine, they were collectively responsible for the deaths of 600 Israelis and for wounding thousands. Because of this, there is a significant number of Israelis who feel that the price for Shalit’s return was too high.

How did Gilad Shalit, with a face known to the entire country and an experience behind him others could only imagine, reintegrate into society after the trauma of capture and captivity, and his release into a world where everyone felt like they know him and own part of his story? How did he date? Reintegrate with family? 

Perhaps it was finding a supportive environment with family, friends, and community. Perhaps it was outstanding counseling from the IDF that helped him reintegrate. Perhaps the kind of captivity he underwent was mild in comparison to what many of us might have expected from TV shows like “Prisoners of War” and “Homeland” -- Shalit described having watched all the World Cup games on television, and sitting on the roof of the family he was with, looking at the Mediterranean.

Or possibly, it’s a bit of all those factors swirling into his unique and personal experience in captivity. Only Shalit himself knows. 


Top Image: Gilad Shalit salutes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 18, 2011​/Israel Defense Forces - Gilad Shalit Salutes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu/CC BY-SA 2.0

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