The use of the hand grenades that were thrown into Gilad Schalit'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.
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Somehow, Schalit 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. Schalit, 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 Schalit, and Schalit 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 Schalit 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 Schalit, 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?” Schalit 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 Schalit at the top of the tank and Schalit shouted to him in Hebrew, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.”
The militant realized that Schalit was handing himself over, and leveled his weapon at him. He then shouted at Schalit in Hebrew, “Come with me.” Schalit 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, Schalit 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. Schalit 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 Schalit 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. Schalit 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 Schalit of his army uniform and dressed him in civilian clothing. Schalit was firmly in their hands, and five and a half years of captivity had begun.
Humus and Soccer
Schalit 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, Schalit 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 Schalit 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.
Schalit 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. Schalit 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.
Schalit 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 Schalit is a difficult one, full of failure. It is about the failure of his tank team, of Schalit 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.
Schalit 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.
Schalit 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 Schalit 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 Schalit 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 Schalit 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 Schalit 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 Schalit himself.
If I were Schalit, 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 him home, if for no other reason than to feel good. Maybe this will still happen. But first he must enjoy the freedom that he has truly earned. He may not be our hero, but he still is our antihero.
Translated by Amishai Gottlieb.