His captors treated him reasonably well. They played chess and checkers with him, let him watch soccer matches on TV and eventually gave him a radio. On occasion, he and the men from the Islamic group, Hamas, with their beards and their AK-47s, even enjoyed a laugh together.
That’s how Gilad Shalit described to an Israeli reporter this week the ordeal of his five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip. In the first televised interview since his release last year, the former Israeli soldier told Israel’s Channel 10 that he survived the odyssey by keeping to a daily routine and finding ways to be active—sometimes by playing basketball with a pair of socks and a wastepaper basket.
The extended interview, which aired exactly a year after Hamas traded him for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, showed Shalit riding a bike, visiting New York’s Central Park, playing basketball (on a real court) and looking generally cheerful. His captivity had been a national trauma for Israelis and his condition after the long isolation was the subject of much speculation.
“I had some dialogue with the captors. There were moments when we had a good conversation or a laugh,” he said.
Shalit was patrolling in a tank when his team was ambushed near the Gaza Strip in June, 2006. The assailants from Hamas killed two of his team members, grabbed Shalit and whisked him into Gaza. He said his unit had trained to prevent kidnapping attempts but he did not take the threat seriously.
“I thought no one could enter the tank and abduct me,” he said.
The captors brought him to a small apartment where he was held in a single room. He said in the interview that he could hear noises from the street, sometimes loud enough to wake him at night.
From the start, Shalit said he was determined to keep track of his days in captivity. He didn’t keep a journal but Shalit used a pen and paper he received from his captors to make lists—of his favorite sports teams or the people who live in his town. He made sure not to sleep away his days, a habit that he thought would make him depressed.
“I tried to be optimistic,” he said. “Maybe if there’s the smallest chance [of release], there’s a reason to continue to live.”
Shalit recalled watching a soccer match with his guards when an Israeli player scored a remarkable goal. “I remember the responses of the guards, how they were impressed ... It was one of the things that helped me remain sane … it helped create a good atmosphere with my captors.”
Once he had a radio, Shalit could follow the Israeli government’s efforts to release him on the news. For several years, Hamas conducted indirect negotiations with Israel over the prisoner swap. But whenever they broke down, Shalit grew despondent.
“I was also afraid that … the negotiation would become no longer relevant … that I’d be forgotten and there wouldn’t be anyone to talk to.”
At one point, new Hamas men showed up to film him. He says he rehearsed the lines they gave him but kept stumbling over pronunciation of the word mujahedin, Arabic for fighters. After several takes, he still couldn’t get it right.
“It's difficult coming back to normal life,” he said. “It’s difficult socially. People have changed, have grown up, you feel as if you were left behind.”
Shalit heard on the radio one day last October that Israel and Hamas had reached a prisoner swap agreement. In the week between the sealing of the deal and the swap itself, he says he hardly slept. He worried that a last-minute hitch would scuttle the agreement or that some other group might grab him on his way out of Gaza.
He described in the interview the feeling of being utterly overwhelmed when he reached Israel and was surrounded by friends and family.
"It’s difficult coming back to normal life,” he said. “It’s difficult socially. People have changed, have grown up, you feel as if you were left behind.”
Shalit said he woke up at 2 a.m. on his first night at home, walked from room to room and stared out the windows at the guards keeping watch on the house.
“There were so many things at the beginning that I wanted to do, to be on the computer, on the Internet, to meet people, friends, just to walk around, to ride a bike,” he said.