Stigma of surrender

Many Israeli POWs are embittered not only by what they suffered at the hands of the enemy, but by the 'homecoming' they received here.

israel pow 88 224 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
israel pow 88 224
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
On his flight back to Israel in a Yom Kippur War POW exchange, Natan Margalit, who'd undergone nearly two months of torture while blindfolded in an Egyptian prison, was washing his hands in the plane's bathroom when he saw an unrecognizable face in the mirror. For several minutes, he made movements in the mirror until he could no longer deny that the face was his. The lips were badly swollen from beatings. The cheeks were sunken from his loss of 25 kg. Luckily, other marks of his imprisonment, such as the grid of scars on his back from floggings with a wet rope, didn't show. It was late November 1973 and Margalit, today an X-ray technician and father of seven living in Petah Tikva, was a 19-year-old religious boy from Jerusalem. Like the 240 or so other army POWs from the Yom Kippur War, Margalit was given a day's home leave for a big open house celebration. And like the others, he was then driven to a rehabilitation center surrounded by barbed wire in Zichron Ya'acov. Held there for about a month, he answered questions posed by psychologists and intelligence investigators from the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. "They didn't say to my face that I had failed as a soldier by being taken prisoner, but it was in the air," recalls Margalit, a big, gentle man, sitting in his living room. "The sense you got from them was, 'If you fell into enemy hands, you're inferior. We expected Masada.'" For the next 22 years, he suffered from insomnia. He wouldn't learn to drive. "As a POW you learn to be passive, and driving means being active, making decisions," he explains. He would work double shifts constantly to keep his mind occupied. Outwardly he appeared "normal," but he was uncommunicative at home, avoided seeing people and never took a vacation or went to a restaurant or movie because he was incapable of enjoyment. Even though he had fired at the Egyptians until he was hit in his shooting hand, then was taken prisoner at bayonet point, the guilt he'd internalized from "the air" as a returned POW - at Zichron Ya'acov, in the army afterward, from the media, from public opinion - wouldn't allow him to enjoy anything. The Defense Ministry never offered him psychiatric care, and he never asked. Finally, in 1996 the ministry began coming to grips with the by-then well-documented, well-known fact that POWs suffer varying degrees of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and require treatment. "They sent me a letter saying they've discovered that POWs are having problems, so let's be in contact," Margalit says. It took him six months to decide to go for evaluation in front of a committee of the ministry's Rehabilitation Department. "One of the psychologists on the committee asked me what was the worst thing the Egyptians did to me in prison," Margalit recalls. "I told him, 'When they pissed on me.' He told me, 'So, do you want us to give you NIS 10 to buy shampoo?'" Such was the tone of the committee's questions at the IDF base at Tel Hashomer, and Margalit was so badly shaken that when he got off the bus back in Jerusalem, he couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. Over the years, the attitude of the Defense Ministry and its Rehabilitation Department improved greatly, due in part to the pressure applied by the POW organization Erim Balaila ("Those Who Are Awake at Night"), founded in 1998. Like other POWs, Margalit was found to have developed PTSD while in captivity, and was granted IDF disability benefits. The state has been paying for his regular visits to a psychiatrist, which he credits for the "mental revolution" he underwent about eight years ago, leaving him a changed man, able to enjoy life again. "But now [the Rehabilitation Department] wants to cut off my treatments, which for me are like oxygen," he continues. "They say I've had enough treatment, that if I'm not 'cured' yet, it hasn't worked. It's like telling a blind man with a seeing-eye dog, 'Well, you're still blind, so we're taking away the seeing-eye dog.' I try to explain to them that this is what keeps me on an even keel. My psychiatrist is fighting for me, but it's so damn frustrating." IN THE LAST 60 years, according to the Foreign Ministry, approximately 1,270 POWs have come home in prisoner exchanges with various Arab enemies; more than 90% were from the War of Independence and Yom Kippur War. (The Defense Ministry's Rehabilitation Department, however, concluded in 1996 that of some 1,200 soldiers listed by the IDF as POWs, only about 850 could be documented as such. And of these, only some 300 have come forward to claim disability benefits and treatment.) Many POWs are embittered not only by what they suffered at the hands of the enemy, but by the "homecoming" they received here. Israel goes to extraordinary lengths to bring its POWs back, including releasing thousands of terrorists and enemy soldiers. It is very hard to square this with the accounts from Margalit and other POWs of the callousness and recrimination they encountered upon their return - and long afterward. "Two or three years ago we had a meeting at the Defense Ministry with a very senior IDF general," recalls Uri Ehrenfeld, a Yom Kippur War POW, deputy head of the Association of Disabled IDF Veterans' Jerusalem branch and, like Margalit, a leading activist in Erim Balaila. "At one point the general told us, 'You know, it's no great honor to be taken prisoner in war.' We stormed out of the meeting." According to Tel Aviv University professor Zahava Solomon, the pioneer of Israeli research into the psychological condition of POWs, this sort of disapproval that was shown to soldiers who were tortured for months or years is rooted in the traditional IDF ethic that an honorable soldier "fights to the death, to his last bullet." By this ethic, he is supposed to die rather than be taken prisoner, which humiliates the army and the nation, and creates the possibility that he will give away secrets under torture. The model POW, Solomon notes, was Uri Ilan, who committed suicide in Syrian captivity in 1955, leaving behind a note that read, "Lo bagadeti" - "I did not betray." The general attitude toward POWs during the country's first decades was one of "blaming the victim," she says, comparing it to early Israeli attitudes toward Holocaust survivors. "Like the Holocaust survivors, soldiers taken prisoner were considered weak, they surrendered, they weren't the invincible 'new Jews' that Israel was creating." But over the years, the public's attitude toward POWs has become far more understanding and sympathetic, she says, yet there remains a large element of denial. Yoske Grof, one of the three POWs from the Lebanon War who returned in the now widely derided "Jibril deal" of 1985, points out that the term commonly used by the media for current POWs Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser is not "imprisoned" soldiers, but "kidnapped" soldiers, which obscures the fact that they, too, surrendered. "Soldiers taken prisoner and held at the mercy of the enemy confront Israeli society with a self-image of weakness, of vulnerability," says Solomon, whose study of POWs with Dr. Yuval Neria was the catalyst for the creation of Erim Balaila and the reforms the movement brought about. Yet while the public's attitude toward POWs has changed greatly, the defense establishment's attitude has lagged behind, maintains Solomon, a former head of research in the IDF Medical Corps' Mental Health Branch and currently head of the board of experts recommending reforms in the Rehabilitation Department's system of evaluating POWs' disabilities. She concurs with the POWs' complaints against the defense establishment, especially the Rehabilitation Department. "This is a very large, very problematic agency that needs systemic and personnel changes," she says. "There are doctors on these committees who are not knowledgeable in the field, who've never heard the term 'complex PTSD,' which affects long-term prisoners. "These people aren't monsters," she stresses, "but many are overworked, burned-out, and some are inadequate. In too many cases, the committees look on the POW asking for help with exaggerated suspicion, as if he's coming to steal the country's treasure. The worst problem, though, isn't that the committee often doesn't give the POW the money he deserves, but that it doesn't give him the respect he deserves." Solomon says elderly POWs who used to be able to cope with their psychological problems now often find it hard to convince the evaluation committee that there's such a thing as delayed-onset PTSD, that it can be exacerbated by old age and that it requires treatment. She mentions the current case of a Yom Kippur War POW who was never treated for PTSD and later became a virtual recluse in Canada, and who, during his visits here to be with his daughter, asked the evaluation committee to give him psychological treatment. "The committee sent him away," she says. HOWEVER, SOLOMON credits the current head of the evaluation committees, Dr. Ori Sandbank, for seeking improvements. In an interview in his office at the Defense Ministry's Tel Aviv compound, Sandbank says it was a sign of the department's good faith that he appointed Solomon and other critics, including two psychologists who are themselves POWs, to recommend how to improve the evaluation system, which determines the extent of the benefits POWs receive. Furthermore, he says that in recent months, following "a lot of complaints" from POWs about disrespectful behavior from the four or five psychiatrists who used to evaluate their cases, he has replaced these psychiatrists. Sandbank stresses that he does not know if the POWs' complaints were justified or not, and that finally it was their word against the psychiatrists'. But at any rate, he has advised the new psychiatrists on the evaluation committee "that the personal attitude they show the POWs is more important than anything." In all, he speaks up for the Defense Ministry's treatment of POWs, saying that while there may be individual instances of insensitivity, as a rule the ministry errs on the side of generosity, that "money is not a factor" in decisions about treatment, that no POW's psychiatric treatment is stopped without his psychiatrist's agreement and that the treatment the Rehabilitation Department provides POWs suffering from PTSD is of the highest international standard. Sandbank also credits the Defense Ministry for "taking the initiative" in 1996 to search out POWs and urge them to come forward to claim disability benefits and get help. I ask him if this would have happened without the pressure from the POWs themselves. "Why not?" he replies. "There are always advances being made in health care, improvements in how to treat people." Asked why it took the Defense Ministry until 1996 to do it, he says the timing reflected a change in attitudes toward POWs. "Society no longer saw it as a stigma, and instead felt that 'you were heroes, you survived, you came back, and we owe you.'" Partial payment came in 2006, when all POWs were granted monthly stipends, now NIS 1,250. "This is in recognition of the economic difficulties they might have had as a result of their problems, during the years before they began getting treatment," says Sandbank. "Of course, I'm not saying the NIS 1,250 makes up for it." THOSE LOST years and decades are embodied by Yitzhak Levy. A Yom Kippur War POW who spent eight months being tortured in a Syrian prison, he's tried suicide by overdosing on pills, by slashing his chest and, most recently, by driving to Sderot and praying for a Kassam to hit him. He takes numerous pills every day and sleeps very little; his wife, Bracha, attests to his nightmares, saying, "He talks to his captors in his sleep, he relives it night after night." Says Levy, 53, a father of three who hasn't worked in 12 years, a shut-in in Rishon Lezion: "It's like a groove that was burned into my brain. I can't get rid of it. Every day I curse God for not killing me with the rest of them." The rest of them were the 12 other soldiers in his Mount Hermon unit who were killed in a Syrian surprise attack on the first day of the war. He has to fight back tears as he recalls the army doctor who stood behind him in the outpost during the attack. "He kept whispering, 'Oh my God. Oh my mother.'" The doctor was later killed. During the attack, Levy says he fired at the Syrians until his ammunition ran out, then blacked out from a grenade explosion. "When I woke up, the barrel of a Kalashnikov was at my head." Bloodied all over from the grenade, he and another survivor were marched off, but the other soldier was too badly wounded to get far, so the Syrians shot him. Sitting on his living-room couch in his shorts, leafing through his scrapbooks that include photos of him in captivity, news clips, documents and letters to and from Israeli authorities, Levy says he was beaten "with rubber hoses, with bamboo sticks. They placed electrodes to my genitals, to my ears." Refused medical care, he once used a razor blade to lance the infection in his testicles from the shrapnel of the grenade blast. The only memory that makes him smile is of being on the plane back from Syria and seeing two Phantom jets join up - meaning the prisoners had reached Israeli airspace - on the way to Lod airport. "There were thousands of people waiting for us. It was like the liberation of Paris," he recalls, showing his family's home movies of the arrival and the big party at their Jaffa home. "I was in a daze. The whole neighborhood was there, I had no idea who half of them were. Everybody was kissing me, giving me presents, drinking champagne." Two days later, he was driven to Zichron Ya'acov, where he remained for about three weeks. "You sit there opposite three people who ask you questions all day. It was like being back in Damascus," he says, except, of course, there was no physical torture. "They'd ask you the same question 10 times to try to catch you lying - 'Why were you taken hostage?' - in a very unsympathetic tone, like you betrayed your country's values. They threatened to court-martial me." I asked Levy, Margalit and Ehrenfeld, all of whom went through Zichron Ya'acov, if they received a word of sympathy or encouragement there, or if they heard any sort of "summation" at the end - if they were told they'd "passed," or hadn't passed, or told anything to clarify the outcome of the inquiry. All three said no. The questions asked by intelligence investigators were aimed, in large part, at determining if the POWs had given away any security secrets under torture, says Ehrenfeld. As far as he knows, none did, because of the some 300 POWs in Erim Balaila, none were tried or imprisoned, although a couple were jailed under suspicion for a couple of weeks, then quietly let go. Margalit, Grof and Levy say they couldn't have given away any national security secrets to their torturers because as young, low-level recruits, they knew none. After Zichron Ya'acov, Levy, then 20, was expected to resume his normal life, but he wasn't normal anymore. He quit job after job, often lasting no more than a few days. "I couldn't get along with anybody and I always thought it was their problem, I didn't realize it was my problem," he says. The Defense Ministry gave him pocket money in disability payments for the roughly 50 shrapnel fragments in his head from the grenade. "I had to go back for reevaluation every two years, and every two years I asked for psychiatric treatment and they never agreed." In the middle of the night in 1996, he reached the point where he was holding a gun to his head. He called Tel Hashomer army base, sent a letter there pleading for help, and very shortly afterward was called there for psychiatric evaluation. Levy was hospitalized for a full year. Since then he's been seeing a psychiatrist and staying medicated. "The pills don't do much good anymore - I've built up a tolerance to them. I've built up a tolerance to the psychiatric sessions, too." He fights with the Rehabilitation Department over everything - for a better contraption for his wounded leg, for a computer, for computer courses, for financial help to pay off his debts. A few years ago he was evaluated as beyond rehabilitation, terminally unable to work, and since then he gets around NIS 7,000 a month in benefits. "But I spend it without thinking. We have no money for Pessah - look in the refrigerator, there's nothing there." A couple of years ago he tattooed the Rehabilitation Department's logo, his military ID number and the Nazi SS insignia on his arm. He has been barred from a disabled veterans' clubhouse he used to attend for alleged violent behavior, a charge he denies. He sent a letter to the Rehabilitation Department saying the officials there "were no better than the Syrians, maybe worse." On January 15, he parked his car in the department's handicapped parking lot, put up a couple of signs and began a hunger strike, which, as of this week, he was still on. (He's lost 25 kg., but since he was quite overweight before, Levy still looks big and strong as an ox.) Going from one doctor's visit to another, one battle with the bureaucracy to another, his bitterness and self-pity and self-obsession only get deeper, with no bottom. It's like he's trying to fix something that got broken a long time ago, that can never be put back together, but he can't leave it. He was 19 when the Syrians captured him in 1973. He was 20 when Israel freed him in 1974, then forgot him until 1996, when it was too late. AMONG POWS, Yitzhak Levy is an extreme case. Margalit says no POW has shot up his neighborhood during a flashback or anything like that, but a few have become violent at home. A few others, he says, are "zombies." Explains Solomon: "The POWs range all the way from those who function normally to those who don't leave their homes." Yoske Grof, who was imprisoned for two years and nine months in a military camp near Damascus run by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, works as a computer systems manager at a bank. He's soft-spoken, very thin, fully in control of himself - too fully. "I never lose control," he says in his Modi'in apartment. "When I'm in the car listening to the radio, I can't allow myself to sing along with the music." This, along with keeping a diary, was how he preserved his sanity in prison, where he was tortured during interrogation with beatings and electric shocks - by deciding to do nothing in his cell that he wouldn't do in public. He stuck to this decision by pretending that his captors had hidden a TV camera behind a tiny hole in the ceiling and were watching him every moment. Twenty-three years after his release, the habit of mind stays with him. After two years and nine months of sensory deprivation, Grof, 46, now notices every detail in his environment - helplessly, all the time. "I can't turn it off," he says. "Do you know how much energy that takes?" Unlike other POWs, Grof has no complaints against the Defense Ministry over the disability benefits and treatment he's received, noting that he was found to have developed a heart condition in captivity, and has since undergone open-heart surgery. Instead, his conflict is with society at large. If POWs from earlier wars were blamed subtly, implicitly for their capture, the blame for Grof and the seven other soldiers in his unit taken prisoner in Lebanon on September 4, 1982, tended to be unsubtle and explicit. None of the eight had a bullet in his rifle, and their field radio was turned off when four Palestinian guerrillas ambushed them at their lookout post, then marched them down the mountain to vehicles that took them to prisons. "There were dozens more Palestinians coming out of the bushes as we marched down," says Grof, who was a medic at the time. "It would have been suicide to resist." He says the soldiers were so nonchalant on duty because at the time, the IDF seemed in complete control of the country. "There were no terror attacks going on then," he says, noting that he had hitchhiked alone through Lebanon to the IDF base where he did his medic's training. The ambush came on his fifth day in the country. The incident was so embarrassing to the IDF that the media reported that military officials suspected the captured soldiers to have been involved in a drug deal, which was pure invention. Later, the anger at Grof and his comrades would only grow. On May 20, 1985, he, his comrade Nissim Salem, and Hezi Shai, who'd been taken prisoner in battle, were released in return for 1,150 Palestinian security prisoners - the "Jibril deal." (The six other soldiers ambushed with Grof and Salem had been released in late 1983 in return for more than 4,500 prisoners, mainly Palestinians who'd fought in Lebanon.) Many of those 1,150 prisoners traded for Grof, Salem and Shai immediately took their places as militant Palestinian leaders, and at the end of 1987, they would be instrumental in launching the first intifada. Grof, who'd by then gone to live on a kibbutz, became a national scapegoat. Even before the intifada, there was considerable opposition to the Jibril deal. "I heard it all the time. I still do, including from strangers. I was ready for it. I knew it would come," he says. "I understand that it's hard to release terrorists, but if there's another way to free POWs, I don't know what it is." As for the personal blame he received over the intifada, he says this is going a bit far. "How long could we go on pretending that the Palestinians didn't exist? If the intifada hadn't broken out then, it would have broken out another time." He echoes Zahava Solomon by saying, "POWs don't match the myth of fighting to the last bullet, of Trumpeldor's line, 'It is good to die for your country.'" And he echoes Yitzhak Levy by saying, "This country doesn't like live POWs. It prefers that you come home in a coffin." I MENTION this last statement to Solomon at her Herzliya home, and she nods her head, as if to confirm that it didn't come out of nowhere. She tells of being appalled at a televised dispute years after the Yom Kippur War between Shlomo Lahat, a former IDF general and Tel Aviv mayor, and a soldier from the unit at the mezah, or "pier" outpost near the Suez Canal, which surrendered to the Egyptians under IDF orders. Lahat, she recalls, echoed the position taken by military leaders - that no such order had been given, and that the soldiers "had the choice" to surrender or go on fighting. "The soldier," she recalls, "said to Lahat, 'So you prefer that I would have been killed?' And Lahat told him, 'You know what you were supposed to do.'" Because of their surrender, the POWs from the mezah outpost had an especially rough reentry to the country, she says. Uri Ehrenfeld, a leading activist in Erim Balaila and the Association of Disabled IDF Veterans, was one of the soldiers in that unit. "The order to surrender came over the communications radio. It's on tape," he says, adding that the order was later reversed, "but by that time we were mentally on the way to surrendering." The order came down, he continues, because many soldiers in the unit had been horribly wounded and the army doctor had no anesthetic with which to operate. Ehrenfeld himself was wounded three times during Egyptian shellings. "I was one of the infantrymen who fought to the last minute," he says. "After fighting for eight days and nights, we surrendered." He spent nearly two months in an Egyptian prison cell where "they beat me, gave me electric shocks, put out cigarettes on me, broke my teeth, pulled out my fingernails. I got gangrene in my leg." After the prisoner exchange, he was taken by ambulance to Zichron Ya'acov for about 10 days of questioning, prior to being hospitalized. "There was a clear attempt at Zichron to prove that soldiers were traitors," he says, adding, though, that he himself was never accused outright of anything. Still, being questioned under suspicion day after day after what he'd gone through "was a very, very deep insult, a disgrace." Today, at 55, he is 100% disabled from his war wounds and torture, and "nearly all" his treatment needs are seen to by the Defense Ministry. "But what hurt me was that I had to fight for my rights. Everything the POWs got, we had to fight for," he says, noting that they used to have to get approval to "have a cavity filled at the dentist" until they demanded and won paid dental care. "We gave our lives and our health for this country, and I don't think we're less deserving than some Knesset member who never lifted a finger for Israel's security but gets all his doctor bills and medicines paid for him." This, Ehrenfeld says, is the key goal for POWs today - to gain recognition that captivity and torture left many of them with lasting health problems, and the state is financially responsible for the unusual health care costs many of them incur. "Israel doesn't have to do them any favors in return for their sacrifice," insists Solomon, "but it does have to ensure them a decent existence." In his Petah Tikva living room, Natan Margalit recollects some of the "highlights" of his time in an Egyptian prison cell - waiting out the night for the threatened execution because he refused to convert to Islam, hearing the guards unlocking neighboring cells to take the prisoners off to interrogation, knowing by the sound of the turning lock how many more cells it would be before they came for him again. But his torment came not only from the Egyptians; it came also from his conscience. "I had very bad conflicts in prison," he says. "I felt guilty that maybe I didn't fight hard enough before I was taken prisoner." POWs also blame the victim - themselves, he says. It's related to survivor's guilt. Of the 45 soldiers in his unit on the Suez Canal, only 13 survived the sneak attack. They were taken prisoner next to their armored personnel carrier. Later, Margalit found himself doing reserve duty with the commander of that carrier. After nodding hello at the beginning of duty, they would avoid each other's eyes from then on. "We reminded each other of something we didn't want to remember," says Margalit. Much later, around 2000, after a few years of psychiatric treatment, Margalit experienced his breakthrough: He realized that he wasn't to blame for being taken prisoner, that he had fought as hard as he could have, that he'd been shot and had a bayonet at his back when the Egyptians, in an overwhelming surprise attack on the first day of the Yom Kippur War, took him prisoner. Evidently, his APC commander had gone through a similar awakening, because when they saw each other at a reunion a few years ago, "we had our first real conversation since the war." Later Margalit overheard the commander "telling everyone how I had fought. We've become friends." These days Margalit is making up for lost time. Remarried, he and his second wife take vacations as often as they can. "I drive everywhere," he says, "I'll never give up that car. It's my mobility." He sees family and friends regularly. "My brothers tell me it's like the Natan they once knew has come back to life." He has his relapses, though, into passivity and fearfulness, but they pass. Yet some instinctive reactions he developed in prison remain. "If somebody comes up behind me, I jump. I think every POW does." After our interview, Margalit showed me to the door of his apartment. I hadn't noticed, but it was open a few inches. He didn't close it after me, either. Standing in the doorway, smiling with self-awareness, he said, "Wherever I am, I keep the door open. The neighbors don't understand, and I don't try to explain it to them."