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For Israel's Shalit, freedom will start a long road to recovery

JERUSALEM — Dr. Mickey Zeifa knows better than most what captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will face when he is released Tuesday. While much of Israel prepared to celebrate Shalit’s return in a prisoner exchange that will see 477 jailed Palestinians also go free Tuesday, Zeifa prepared to welcome a new member to his support group — Awake at Night — whose members are Israeli soldiers who were captured or held hostage in the line of duty.

More than 300 former soldiers belong to the group, Zeifa said.

Some spent several days in captivity, others several years. Together they confront the unique set of challenges that emerge once they are released.

“It is a trauma when you are captured, but it is also a trauma when you are released,” Zeifa said. He should know. In 1973, Zeifa was captured by the Egyptian army, along with dozens of other Israeli soldiers.

He was held for six weeks, under conditions he describes as “unimaginable,” until his release was negotiated.

When Shalit — who was captured by Palestinian militants in June 2006 and held for five years in Gaza — is released, his first experience will be “the shock of everyday life,” Zeifa said.

“When you are captured, as a soldier, you go from being a free man to being in a prison built by your enemies. They decide when you eat, drink, go to the loo. Your life is in the hands of people who really don’t like you very much,” Zeifa said. “Then, just as suddenly as you were captured, you go free. And you are expected to return to everyday life even though it is just as much of a shock as getting captured was.”

Some suffer from “mild post-traumatic stress disorder,” others from a range of psychological disorders, and they find that they are unable to return to their normal lives.

“I know some people who never leave their homes. Some who after being a hostage, couldn’t talk to people normally again,” he said.

When a soldier is taken captive, he said, there is a similar pattern of interrogation and torture.

“They try to break you down in every way possible. Mentally and physically,” Zeifa said. “You are kept alone, in solitary, and they interrogate you at every stage. For us, there was the physical torture to contend with as well. It is a struggle not to give in.”

Palestinian officials said that Shalit was treated well during his captivity, and that they have a tape documenting his time in Gaza that proves he was never tortured or abused. They said that the Red Cross, and other international organizations, were denied access to Shalit because they couldn't be trusted not to reveal his whereabouts to Israel.

Shalit’s parents have expressed concern for their son’s condition when he emerges Tuesday, especially because of the intense media attention that's been paid to Shalit’s case. Zeifa agreed that the scrutiny will be another challenge.

“It won’t be easy for Gilad. He went into Gaza 19 years old, a shy boy that nobody knew. Now he is an icon that the whole country knows. I don’t think he’s aware of that and it will likely shock him,” he said.

Israeli officials said that they would try to limit Shalit's exposure when he is released Tuesday.

On Monday, Israel’s High Court worked through dozens of legal challenges to the release of the Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of involvement in some of Israel's most notorious terrorist attacks. As expected, none of the challenges was upheld, and there were no expectations that the prisoner exchange would not go ahead as expected.

Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, made an appearance at the court where relatives of victims of the attacks criticized the release, saying it would only perpetuate more terrorism. While most of the families said they sympathized with the Shalits doing “everything possible” to bring their son home, others accused the family of working against the country's best interests by setting a precedent that exchanges one soldier for hundreds of prisoners.

Once the court's work is completed, President Shimon Peres will sign an order commuting the Palestinians’ jail sentences and ordering their release.

On Tuesday, Shalit is expected to be handed over to representatives of the Red Cross and Egyptian intelligence in the Gaza Strip.

Simultaneously, Israel will release 27 female Palestinian prisoners.

After this, Shalit will be moved into Israeli territory, examined by medical personnel and taken to the Tel Nof air force base, where he will be reunited with his parents. His family is then expected to take him to their home, in a small village in northern Israel.

In total, 1,027 Palestinians are to be released: 477 Tuesday and the remainder in about two months.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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