By Ben Caspit / JPost.com

Gilad and Noam Schalit reuniting (Photo: Reuters)
Gilad and Noam Schalit reuniting (Photo: Reuters)

In conversations with a psychologist after his return to Israel from five years in captivity, Gilad Shalit expressed fears over the IDF investigation he would undergo. Shalit knew exactly what he was worried about – he knew all too well the circumstances that led to his captivity. He knew that there was no military glory in what had happened there, on that night. He knew that he did not do his duty as an IDF combat soldier and did not even do the minimum to prevent his own capture.

Shalit knew that he had effectively given himself up on June 25, 2006, been taken captive without firing even one bullet, despite the fact that he could have prevented the entire situation with relative ease. He was very concerned indeed over his meeting with the military investigators.

But in contrast to other cases of soldiers being taken prisoner or abducted, the IDF was handling Shalit with kid gloves.

The soldier had become “the child of us all,” whose years of absence were etched on the national consciousness – and it was a sentiment that had infected the IDF as well.

There weren’t real investigations; there were neither interrogation rooms nor investigative tricks. Shalit was not subjected to the same treatment as former Hezbollah captive Elhanan Tannenbaum, for example. He was treated as the nation’s sweetheart.

The experts who examined Shalit identified his fears and alerted the investigators to possible trauma. He continued his military service. He became a superstar, with a life of privilege.

He delighted in the massive wave of warmth that washed over him, all the benefits that were showered upon him. He had given years of his life to his country; it may not have been a voluntary act, but even so it was one that was duly noted.

The day of his release, October 18, 2011, became a kind of national holiday. Traffic of streets was at a standstill, the collective tears of happiness flowed freely and even IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz branded him a “hero.”

Watching Shalit’s return, it was impossible not to have been teary-eyed. It happened to me, too, despite my years of writing opinion pieces against the deal-in-the-making, and even presenting a list of arguments as to why a rational country could not take such a step of capitulation. It seemed to me to be a national failure.

But ultimately, and after changing his own stance and betraying his own ideological principles, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to pay the high price for Shalit’s freedom. Even today, I still don’t know if he did the right thing.

In the meantime, another intifada hasn’t broken out, and Israel has survived Shalit’s release. True, some of the prisoners who were freed have since been re-arrested, and launched a hunger strike that threatens to ignite the Palestinian territories, but the bottom line is that the soldier came home and started a new life, and Israeli society held firm to the solidarity for which is it famous. Only history can judge who was right, if it is at all appropriate to say if anyone in this whole affair was in the right.

This story is the story of Gilad Shalit. This is his version, as told to the IDF investigators who questioned him. As stated, he feared his encounters with them; 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.

Shalit has a phenomenal memory, he knows exactly what happened on each day of his captivity, when he was moved from place to place, what he ate, what was done and what happened.

And thus, for his interrogators, Gilad Shalit went over the details of the attack that led to his capture. Here is Shalit’s version, almost in its entirety (which the exception of the details that were redacted by the censor).

The attack took place in the pre-dawn darkness. Shalit’s tank crew was on guard duty outside the Gaza Strip. During the night, the crew took it in turns to rest – two keeping watch and two sleeping.

With the dawn, everyone was supposed to be awake, in his place and battle ready. At this stage, there is a communications check with the rest of the troops in the field, as well as with the operations room, and everyone reports that they are ready. This is what Shalit’s tank team should have been doing.

In reality, just one of the four-man team was awake – the rest were sleeping the sleep of the just. The driver was in the driver’s seat, the gunner (Shalit) was in his place, the comms guy in his, and the commander in the commander’s turret.

Shalit was what is known in the army as “rosh katan” (literally, small head, and meaning someone with little or no initiative).

He was assigned for operational duty without knowing what was going on around him, the makeup of the area, or where the enemy lay. He had attended meetings and briefings before setting out on the mission, but had not immersed himself in the details. He was, after all, a member of a team, and trusted in his commander.

If he had listened to the company commander of the sector, who had issued detailed briefings, he would have known that there had been an explicit warning from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) about a possible Hamas infiltration from Gaza, perhaps via a tunnel, and an attempt to kidnap a soldier. If he had been aware that in his vicinity – and just a few minutes away – there were reinforcements, perhaps it could have changed the face of the battle and even prevented the abduction.

In the briefing before the operation, it was clearly stated where everyone was located in the field, the deployment layout and more. A unit from the Engineering Corps had been situated 200 meters from Shalit’s tank, next to the border fence, throughout the night. Col. Avi Peled, the senior commander in the sector, who was suffering from a manpower shortage, had wanted to give back-up to the tanks in the field, and had brought in the team from the Engineering Corps, assigned as a personal favor.

It would have been possible for Shalit to call on this backup, had he known that they were there, but he had not been paying attention when the information was imparted.

“I didn’t listen,” he admitted to the investigators. “The commander was listening, and that was enough. I trusted him.”

When the attack began, he was sleeping in his gunner’s seat, deep inside the tank. His personal weapon was on the floor underneath him; he wasn’t wearing his helmet, his bulletproof vest was hanging on the back of the chair, and maybe his flak jacket was on. Maybe not.

As it turns out, the vest and the flak jacket saved his life. Shalit went to sleep at 4:35 a.m. Until then, he had been on guard in the commander’s post, and had been relieved by a team member. Twenty-five minutes later, he was awoken by the impact of a rocket-propelled grenade striking the tank. He looked up to see the tank commander, Lt. Hanan Barak, and the driver, St.-Sgt. Pavel Slutzker, climbing out of the tank at speed.

“Gilad, get out of the tank!” Barak yelled at him. From beneath him, he could hear the voice of Cpl. Roi Amitai, calling “Hanan, Hanan,” but Barak and Slutzker were already out.

The command to leave the tank contravened operational orders. An RPG cannot do significant damage to a Merkava 3 tank, and this was a light strike on the side. Yes, it caused shock and agitation, but even so, this was no reason to abandon the tank – it wasn’t on fire, the grenade had caused minimal damage, the electronic systems were working, and no one on the team had been wounded.

Following the attack, after it was all over, an army technician went to the tank, turned on the engine and drove it away. The tank that Shalit had been in was capable of continuing to fight. A tank like this is a powerful war machine, with an effective, precise, and swift cannon; it has three machine guns, primed and ready at the touch of the trigger, not to mention all the other advanced weaponry on board.

And yet the crew fled. I’m not here to place blame. Under fire and in the heat of battle, people make mistakes, people don’t always stick to their orders; it has happened, does happen, and will happen in every Israeli war. It was a judgment call at that moment, and ultimately, that call cost Hanan Barak and Pavel Slutzker their lives. Two people died in the tank attack, and their names far less familiar to Israelis than that of the captive for whose protection they made the ultimate sacrifice.

The officers questioning the post-captivity Shalit asked him if he had left the tank.

“No, I didn’t leave,” he replied.

“Why?” “Because the tank seemed safer than there, outside,” he said. “Outside is dangerous. Inside was protected.”

With the departure of Barak and Slutzker, Shalit heard the rattle of light weapons being fired. It was this gunfire that killed the two crew members, and they fell from the tank onto the ground. Shalit heard them fall, then quiet, and realized that the two, one of whom was his commander, were either dead or seriously wounded.

Cpl. Roi Amitai, who had been fast asleep at the time of the attack, was trapped in his spot in the tank. Shalit understood that he was alone. He decided to stay in the tank, and not get out and fight.

He had options, however, from inside. There was the machine gun, set up to be operated by the gunner without any need to stick his head out of the vehicle; he could have let off a few rounds and let the world know that the Merkava was still operational and in the fight. Yet he stayed put, in his seat, and hoped for the best.

Outside, at the same time, there were a total of two militants. The cell which had infiltrated from Gaza was seven strong. Two struck at an IDF post, wounded several soldiers and tried to flee. Both died.

Three more attacked an empty IDF armored personnel carrier some distance away, and the other two hit the tank. If the tank crew had remained inside the tank, it would have been easy to take out their attackers.

Even Shalit, alone as he was, should have been able to manage it. At this point Shalit was sitting in the gunner’s seat, praying for it to just be over. Then one of militants approached and threw two or three grenades into the turret. Shalit doesn’t recall the explosion of the grenades, but he does remember the smoke very well.

His bullet-proof vest and his flak jacket, hanging on the back of the chair, absorbed most of the impact. The chair was completely shredded.

Shalit, miraculously, was lightly wounded with shrapnel in his elbow and rear. He was scared, shocked. He stayed in the tank for a minute or two until the smoke spread throughout the turret and he found it hard to breathe. Then he decided, finally, to leave. He left unarmed. His gun, a deadly M-16, he left on the floor of the turret. In military terms, this is called abandoning your weapon.

If only Shalit had taken his gun with him when he left the tank; if only he had seen the militant approach the tank and start to climb up it. He could have taken him out easily, but he was not in battle mode. This is what Shalit himself told the investigators. Shalit’s tank did not fire a single bullet.

Part 2

On June 25, 2006, IDF Corporal Gilad Schalit was abducted by Palestinian militants from Gaza, who had infiltrated into Israel by tunneling under the border fence. An attack on Schalit’s tank led to the deaths of two of the tank crew, and Schalit, frozen in the face of an assault, freely admitted that he had acted in such a way as to facilitate his capture. After more than five years as a hostage in Gaza, Schalit gave IDF investigators an honest and often unflattering recount of the events surrounding the attack. The second part of an exclusive two-part feature.

The use of the hand grenades that were thrown into Gilad Shalit’s tank casts doubt on the view that the main goal of the attack was to kidnap a soldier. If the militants had wanted to kidnap a soldier, it is unlikely that they would have thrown a grenade into the tank. They wanted to kill, to cause as much damage as possible and then get away quickly.

Somehow, Shalit survived the grenade blasts and exited the tank. As he left the tank, he saw the terrorist climbing the front of the tank which on the Merkava is referred to as “the knife.”

In order to climb, the terrorist needed to use both hands, which meant that his personal weapon – a Kalashnikov – was strapped across his back. At this point, he was in close range, making him an easy target. Shalit, who was sitting on the dome of the tank, where the tank commander has a view of the surrounding area, saw the militant climbing toward him but could not see the second militant on the other side of the tank.

The militant had still not seen Shalit, and Shalit could have easily moved his hand 10 cm to take control of the .50 caliber tank machine gun and shoot him, cutting him to pieces in seconds. The .50 cal is not a weapon that you would want to have fired at you — its firing speed is lethal, and squeezing the trigger is quick and easy. But that is not what Shalit did; in fact, he did nothing. It is plausible to assume that if the machine gun had been fired, it would have killed the militant climbing the tank and caused the second man to flee. Even if it had not occurred that way, taking control of the machine gun would still have given Shalit, who was inside the tank with three guns and the main tank cannon at his disposal, a marked advantage over his adversaries.

“You never thought to shoot the terrorist?” Shalit was asked during the investigation.

“No,” he answered, “I was completely confused. I did not think about anything. I was in shock.”

Seconds later the terrorist noticed Shalit at the top of the tank and Shalit shouted to him in Hebrew, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.”

The militant realized that Shalit was handing himself over, and leveled his weapon at him. He then shouted at Shalit in Hebrew, “Come with me.” Shalit climbed down from the tank, shaking wildly. The second militant joined them, the two immediately understanding what a prize had fallen in their laps: a live Israeli soldier who was not fighting back. This was the prize that Hamas had dreamed of for years, and now here it was in front of them.

The three of them, Shalit and his two captors, moved quickly to the Gaza fence. At 5:21 a.m., they blew a hole in the fence and entered a small tunnel underneath. Shalit went with them quickly the entire way, without attempting to slow them down to save time until the second tank or other back up could arrive. He simply went along with them and ran toward the fence.

One of the militants crawled underneath and told Shalit to do the same, the latter complying immediately. The militants told him to move more quickly and he rushed to obey. Afterward, his bullet proof vest was found next to the fence; it appears he took it off in order to move more freely.

After passing under the fence, the three headed deep into the Gaza Strip, with all possible haste. An IDF tank arrived at the scene and at an observation post locked a fix on the three, but permission to fire was not issued. It was still not known that a soldier was being kidnapped. They were already more than a kilometer in Palestinian territory. Finally the tank opened fire, but only with its machine guns.

They did not receive permission to fire heavy weapons, and the machine guns missed their target. Shalit and his captors reached the first line of houses where a tractor was waiting for them. They boarded the tractor, which took them to a car, which in turn took them to another car. On the way, the terrorists stripped Shalit of his army uniform and dressed him in civilian clothing. Shalit was firmly in their hands, and five and a half years of captivity had begun.

Humus and Soccer

Shalit remembers his time in captivity clearly. He was not held in basements and he was not tortured other than slight “annoyances” in his first days of captivity. Though they hit him a bit and tied him to bars, they quickly understood that he was fragile and would die in their hands if they beat him too badly. They did not want him to die, that would have been a catastrophe. At that point, Shalit was the Palestinian people’s greatest asset.

During his captivity, he was passed among several Palestinian families around the Gaza Strip. He watched television, listened to the radio, and was even occasionally allowed to surf the Internet. He heard all of the news reports during “Operation Cast Lead” in winter 2008-9, and watched all of the 2010 World Cup games. He specifically remembers the game he saw when he was moved from one family to another — it was a game featuring Spain, the world champions. All in all, he was treated reasonably.

The main problem was food. There were not many culinary options and Shalit was forced to eat what Gazans eat, which is mainly humus. Understandably he was in a depressed state, which affected his appetite, which in turn caused a dramatic drop in his weight. He did not go on a hunger strike, and indeed never considered the option. One day he ate with a family on their rooftop in Khan Yunis and from their roof he could see the Mediterranean. Under other circumstances, he could have believed that he was on vacation.

Shalit communicated with his captors in Hebrew and English, and his guards were changed throughout the duration of his captivity. For the most part, he was guarded by a special squad who worked in shifts. Shalit knew exactly what was happening in Israel; he followed the elections in 2009, and knew what was going on in world events. He was never in danger during “Cast Lead,” though it was suspected that since the operation was an attempt to save him it might anger his captors.

Shalit complied completely with his captors and interrogators at all times, though there was little new information he could provide. The scant details he did know, he told them. When asked, he provided information about Israeli fortifications and the Merkava tank. It was important to him to please them and give them information in order to receive good treatment.

The story of Gilad Shalit is a difficult one, full of failure. It is about the failure of his tank team, of Shalit himself, and the lack of intelligence, which was the responsibility of the Shin Bet security service, which had had no success in tracking him for more than five years. Two soldiers died in the initial action, defending Israel. They did not perform their duties as well as possible, but the history of the IDF is full of stories of failure. That is just the way of war.

Shalit may have handed himself over to the militants without putting up a fight, but it is unfair to criticize him. It was a normal, human reaction. I served as a tank commander and I have no idea how I would have acted in the same situation. It is entirely possible that I would have responded just like him. “Do not judge a man,” it is written, “until you are in his place,” and in this case there is no way to judge him. He has already been judged by spending more than five years in captivity. On the other hand, it is important to know the circumstances behind this terrible event and to learn lessons from it. There will be similar situations in the future and we must hope they will end differently than this one.

Shalit is an introverted young man who is both emotional and fragile. It is likely that he should not have been placed in a tank unit in the first place. Perhaps he simply was not fit for it. When his tank was hit, he went into shock and lost the ability to act. The term “hero,” which was given him by IDF Chief Benny Gantz when Shalit returned to Israel, is misplaced. Brigadier General Avigdor Kahalani, a tank commander in 1967 and 1973, was a hero. Major Roi Klein, who died in the 2006 Lebanon War by jumping on a grenade to save his comrades, was a hero. Lieutenant Colonel Avi Lanir, tortured to death by Syrian soldiers during the Yom Kippur War, was a hero. The history of Israel and the IDF is checkered with many stories of bravery, and Gilad Shalit is far from being among them. He is in a way a type of anti-hero. He was a soldier who was placed in a difficult situation and chose a path of submission. There is no heroism in this story. This story is one of humanity that is both sad and touching.

It is possible that Shalit was never fit to serve as a combat soldier. Still maybe it is the very fact that he served in the tank unit and fulfilled his duty to his country even so that is his badge of honor. Yet after all of this, we cannot forget that there is a state to protect, one that is surrounded by enemies. Israel cannot afford to allow herself too many stories of “bravery” like this.

So what is the lesson of this story? There is no lesson. It is a good thing that Shalit returned home and received a new lease of life, which I am happy about. He is traveling, which is great, but if I were in his stead I would somehow try to take the public adulation and celebrity, and attempt to make a positive contribution — even a symbolic one — for the benefit of Israeli society.

The State of Israel paid a heavy price for his return, one that is hard to swallow. His story will not be included in lessons on combat tradition, and he knows this. There are those that think that this is the beauty of it all, that the lesson to be learnt here is the strength of Israel in its concern for every single soldier, without exceptions, but I am not among them.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that there is no other nation that knows how to invest itself so completely in the safety of each and every soldier. Yet along with the celebrations and joy, there must be some soul-searching on the part of the state, the IDF, and Shalit himself.

If I were Shalit, I would devote some of my time and energy to some form of volunteer work that would give back to the state. Something symbolic, that would show thanks to the country that compromised many of its essential interests in order to bring me home, if for no other reason than to feel good. Maybe this will still happen. But first Shalit must enjoy the freedom that he has truly earned. He may not be our hero, but he still is our antihero.


One thought on “Gilad Shalit’s capture: In his own words

  • Shalom and thank you for your article. So very interesting and thoughtprovoking. Bitter truths. Me and my husband (who are non-Jews but friends of Israel) were among those who visited the Shalit tent outside the Prime Ministers residence in support of the family’s demand to get Shalit out of captivity, but of course we could never dream of the price it would take! One of our Jewish friends here in Sweden said that “of course we should release the prisoners to get Gilad home, but maybe that’s easy to say by a person who doesn’t have to live in fear of the terrorists in Israel…?

    And now Israel is (again) willing to comply to the demands of the “Palestinians” in the talks in Washington by promising to release another 104 prisoners with blood on their hands just to get the P. to the negotiating table. What have THEY done as a token of their willingness for peace? Nothing! Yes, we are real friends of Israel, but sometimes Israel makes this difficult by being too ready to please “the other side”, not to speak of the different presidents, who seem to want to make a name for themselves in the history books as the “one who brought peace in the Middle East”…

    Am Yisrael chai – and may it continue that way!

    Shalom from Ewa in Sweden

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