Sara Hussein, AFP
Last updated: 19 October, 2011

Fragile first days but bright future for Shalit

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, freed after more than five years in captivity, faces a fragile first few days of freedom, but is likely to recover both fully and quickly, psychological experts say.

Shalit emerged from his long years of confinement on Tuesday to a media frenzy, international attention, and the relieved embrace of his family.

He appeared pale and weak, but smiled easily upon being reunited with his family, and even waved to the ecstatic crowd that greeted him on his arrival at his family home in northern Israel.

Experts said his first and most important need will be an environment that is quiet, warm and accepting.

“The experience is going to be very, very extreme,” said Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, a clinical psychologist at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

“He’s moving from a very quiet and dark room, very fast, to a totally different zone and there’s really no way to predict to how he’ll respond to that.

“The first thing that I would think is that he would need to be accepted in a very quiet place, without the media, as much as possible, without the army.”

The Israeli military has reportedly agreed to give Shalit some time alone with his family before debriefing him about the five years and four months he spent as the captive of Gaza militants.

Avi Ohry, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at Tel Aviv University, was himself held prisoner of war in Egypt in 1973. He too stressed the importance of an initial period of quiet, family time for Shalit.

“I believe, even from my own experience, you should give the repatriated prisoner of war a chance to be with the family.

“I think they should let them be together, without interference, without media, without the army.”

Ohry said he believed Shalit would be in relatively good mental and physical health, but could experience some initial awkwardness around his family after such a long time alone.

“It might be that way for a few days, but after a few days, being together hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, they will be alright.”

For Ohry, who returned home in November 1973, one of the most difficult experiences was the enthusiastic welcome he received at his home in the coastal town of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.

“I think half of the population of Netanya were welcoming me outside. It was quite difficult, it was very heartwarming, but I just wanted to be with my wife and my parents and brother and close friends, and it was quite hard.”

As he recovered, he began to receive visitors, but realised some of his friends and colleagues were reluctant to see him, a rejection he remembers more than 30 years later.

“I wanted to see those people, and if you ask me until today I remember quite clearly and vividly those who did not ever approach me to say hello, even by phone, and I fondly remember those who did.”

Danny Brom, director of the Israel Centre for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, stressed that Shalit stood a good chance of recovering quickly, with no major lasting impact.

“There has been some research on prisoners of war in Israel that clearly shows that a majority of people who have gone through it do not develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” he said.

But Brom stressed that the experience of freedom would bring mixed emotions for both Shalit and his family.

“It’s an enormous relief, on the other hand you can finally let your guard down and finally feel everything that has happened,” he said.

Shalit’s family should be prepared for anything, added Tuval-Mashiach.

“It could switch from huge excitement and happiness and relief, to despair and withdrawal and sadness, and to disengagement.”

Brom said Shalit was unlikely to have developed the identification with his captors known as Stockholm Syndrome.

“This is not a random person, this was a soldier in uniform at the border, so the rules were very clear. If you go into the army, you know that bad things can happen to you and that gives sort of a meaning to it,” he said.

And at 25, Shalit has the benefit of having his life ahead of him, Brom said. “Society is there, he can go and study, his future is there as it was before.”

Perhaps most difficult for Shalit will be the novel experience of being recognised wherever he goes, said Tuval-Mashiach.

“Gilad’s situation is really different than that of other prisoners of war we had because I think there is no single person in Israel that doesn’t recognise him,” she said.

“He will need to learn to live as a normal regular citizen in a country that really doesn’t see him as a regular citizen.”