Interview: Amos Levitov

The former hostage Gilad Shalit is well on the way to recovery after his ordeal, reveals his friend and adviser.

By Simon Round, March 15, 2012
A smiling and relaxed Gilad Shalit, photographed in January, three months after his release. He has been very willing to talk about his experience as a Hamas hostage

A smiling and relaxed Gilad Shalit, photographed in January, three months after his release. He has been very willing to talk about his experience as a Hamas hostage

If anyone is able to understand what is going through the head of released hostage Gilad Shilat, that man is Amos Levitov.

He was a prisoner of war in Egypt from 1970 until his release after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Levitov now lectures about the psychological consequences his own captivity had for him and he is one of the team helping Shalit to re-adjust to life as a free man in Israel. And the good news is that Shalit is doing just fine.

Levitov, who was in the UK this week as a guest of Magen David Adom to give a series of lectures, says that Shalit has adopted a much healthier approach than he himself did when he was released.

"I didn't want to talk about my trauma but from the moment Gilad landed in Israel he hasn't shut up. He speaks and speaks and speaks."

He adds that Shalit, who was held hostage for five years by Hamas in Gaza, has benefited from an agreement with the media not to harass him while he gets used to his freedom.

Amos Levitov

Amos Levitov

"The newspapers have agreed not to photograph him, not to interfere with his life and so far they have done this quite nicely. Physically, he is doing well. He has had an operation to remove shrapnel from his elbow and he is beginning to recover sensation in two of his fingers. Apart from that, he has vitamins and he has sunshine. He will be OK."

Levitov is also able to reveal how Shalit survived his five-and-a-half-year ordeal. "Gilad wasn't interrogated severely. It was a very short interrogation, and he wasn't hit or tortured by his captors. After a short time he received a radio and he managed to hear what was going on in Israel. It helped him very much to discover that all of Israel was behind him and doing everything possible to get him released."

He adds that Shalit managed to build a relationship with some of his captors. "After a year he was given a TV. He is a football maniac so most of the day he would watch football on TV. His guards also loved football so that provided a point of contact. At one point they took some wax and managed to make a kind of ball and they played football with it."

Levitov adds that despite his long years of captivity, Shalit's treatment at the hands of was not as brutal as some might have imagined. "I understand that he was able to cook for himself for much of his time in captivity, and that he even sat on the floor playing chess with one of his guards."

That said, Shalit is having to deal with the considerable trauma of his capture and years of captivity, many of them in isolation. However, Levitov believes that he might be temperamentally suited to have withstood an extended period in solitary confinement. "When he was a high school student, Gilad used to be alone in his room for days and weeks. So it's almost like they took him from his bedroom and put him in Gaza. It's a situation he could cope with better than a lot of people."

Levitov also thinks that Shalit might even, in a peculiar way, have been helped by the celebrity which followed his release. "He was always painfully shy. When he speaks to you he doesn't like to make eye contact. Beforehand he had very few friends. Nowadays, if he wants to play football, 20 people want to play football with him. Since his release his recovery has gone at an incredible pace."

Looking back at his own time in captivity, Levitov feels he and Shalit have much in common. They were both very young (Shalit was 19, Levitov 20) and both single when they were captured. When they returned, both in the full glare of media attention, Levitov was 24 and Shalit 25. However, there were also conspicuous differences. While Shalit does not appear to have been physically maltreated, Levitov, the author of The Lie of Silence, about his period as a PoW, was brutally abused.

He recalls the moment the F4 Phantom jet he was navigating was hit by ground-to air missiles on a sortie deep into Egypt.

"The plane was in flames so we ejected. We were shot down over an Egyptian fortress and right away we were taken prisoner. We were lucky that there were Egyptian officers there who protected us. From there we were taken to a prison on the outskirts of Cairo. I went through two months of severe interrogation. They hit me with clubs, punched and kicked me. I wanted to fight back but I couldn't. Then they attached electrodes to my genitals, smashed me against the wall and pulled out my toe nails one by one."

After two months of interrogation and torture, Levitov, an imposing man of well over six feet, weighed less than eight stone. He thought that he had betrayed vital secrets about his country's security. "I was sure that I was the first one in the Air Force to give up information. But back in Israel after my debriefing I discovered I knew the least and I had given up the least."

However, that was not the end of his ordeal. Levitov then endured six months in an isolation cell. He passed the time by reading the Bible he had been given. Indeed, despite the fact that he had been brought up in a completely secular family, he believes his faith was one the factors that saved his sanity. "I found myself praying to the creator of the universe, begging him to give me the strength to survive. The love you feel for the ones you have left behind also gives you the will to live, for their sake if not your own. The third thing is the spirit which sets us aside from every other animal on earth. We are optimistic. We think that in another few weeks or months everything will be all right. These three things helped keep my head above water."

Later, Levitov was united with nine other PoWs also being kept in the prison. They shared a seven-by-seven-metre room which led out to a small courtyard. They received letters from their families but this sometimes had a disruptive effect on their mood. "We felt like Moses, who could see Israel but who couldn't get there."

However, the group did manage to bond in the three years they spent together. "One of us, Rami, from my squadron, a very wise man, convinced us to hold weekly Friday meetings. After lights out we would collect sardine oil, dip the ends of our shoelaces in the oil and light them. In those meetings we decided our way of life, the rules, when to get up, when to study, when to shave, and if someone had a problem, we tried to solve it. "

Books also helped There was a steady supply and by the time the prisoners were freed, they had amassed "around 3,000".

Once Levitov was back in Israel, unlike Shalit, he was unwilling to talk about his experiences, telling friends and family that to do so "bored him". He also stopped seeing his Air Force psychiatrist after three sessions. He returned to operational duties which he carried out until the age of 32 when he retired as a major to study economics.

With the benefit of hindsight he believes he should have opened up about his experiences earlier. "I didn't let anyone know I was in distress. If we don't take professional advice or let things that disturb us come out into the open we are making a terrible mistake. From my experience, with a little effort we can change our lives. I did that 10 years ago. I went to a psychologist and started to understand that I had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I had been hurting inside but until then, nobody knew what I had been going through."

As a result of his treatment, Levitov accepted an invitation to talk publicly about his experience and felt the weight of the years of silence had been lifted from his shoulders. Soon afterwards he started work on the book that he wanted but had been unable to write for nearly 30 years. Now he lectures in schools and for the IDF, and works with Magen David Adom paramedics and volunteers who operate in stressful and sometimes traumatic circumstances.

His own experience and his work with others lead him to the conclusion that Shalit should go on to enjoy a productive life despite his experience as a hostage in Gaza. He says: "Each one of us who has been through such a trauma has a scar. The point is whether that scar is bleeding or has healed. I can tell you that Gilad's scars are not bleeding, and that's what counts."

Last updated: 11:55am, March 15 2012