What I Learned as a Captured Israeli Soldier

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Nesher was a 23-year-old rookie in the Israeli secret service when he was captured May 1,1984 by Syrian forces, who occupied parts of Lebanon at the time. Israeli and Syrian forces were facing off over the Bekaa region — the area near Syria that Israel attacked earlier this week, including bombings on the town of Baalbek. There were fears that Nesher's capture would touch off a large-scale confrontation. He was brought to Damascus where he says he underwent two months of interrogation and torture. He was eventually released as a part of an exchange for more than 300 Syrian prisoners held in Israel. He says his experience in captivity made him a better man, and he explains how far Israel will go to get one of its soldiers returned.

I had been working in an unofficial office in the coastal city of Dbayeh in Lebanon for only a few days. I arrived there after being dropped off by helicopter in the middle of the night since it was so dangerous. We landed around 11pm. Local guys picked us up and we went to the house in a pro-Israeli Christian area where our office was located.

One day we were sent to do a mission — I cannot give more details than that — but we lost our way. I was driving the car with two friends, both 24 years old. We passed two checkpoints manned by the Lebanese army and were waved through. We approached a third checkpoint and all of a sudden I saw Syrian flags. About 70 to 80 m away, I stopped the car immediately.

It was a big American car, and we wore civilian clothes. We had maps and guns in the car. As we reversed quickly, the Syrian soldiers fired at us, hitting the front window. The car skipped over onto an embankment. By then, we were shooting back using pistols and machine guns, and escaped on foot.

We ran into the Lebanese soldiers who had been guarding the previous checkpoint. It should have been members of a Christian battalion, which were our allies, but the night before they were replaced by Shi'a soldiers. Still, we felt safe to be captured by the Lebanese.

The Syrians caught up to us and surrounded the Lebanese battalion. They threatened to kill the Lebanese commander's family if he didn't turn us over to them. So the commander agreed, and they put us in a truck. We were brought to an air force base that was already surrounded by Syrian troops.

We thought the Lebanese would protect us, but the government had no influence on the warriors in the field. We were taken to a prison in the middle of Damascus. The prison, run by the secret police force, was built underground to protect it from Israeli air force attacks.

The three of us were separated and interrogated. They wanted information about Israel. We were tortured for two months. From my cell I could sometimes get a glimpse of the other two. I knew they were still alive. The door to my cell was iron, but there was a small place where I could see into the corridor. I stood there for hours in order to get a view.

At the time, there were three more soldiers who had been in captivity for two years. An exchange for them was being negotiated, but was held up by one of the demands. Eli Cohen, a famous Israeli spy, was hanged by the Syrians in the 1960s. The Israelis wanted his body returned for a proper burial. Every time an exchange was proposed, the Israelis demanded his body. The Syrians would not agree to this.

I had received training on how to withstand abuse. It's not about the pain or physical torture. In training, you can't induce the fear of the unknown — you always know the exercise will end and you'll go home. The worst thing for us would have been to lose the sensation for life. I thought I would end up like Eli Cohen, hanging in the city square. You lose faith in reality. You can train people to survive the pain but not the unknown.

Since us three were a part of the Israeli secret service, the Syrians were worried about the possibility of a rescue mission. We were not considered POWs at first and did not have the same rights as civilians. The only time I had a visit from a Red Cross representative was 24 hours before my release.

On the morning of June 28, 1984, my captors came to shave me and take my picture. The three of us were brought together and we met a representative from Switzerland. We didn't believe him when he said that we, along with the other three soldiers, were being exchanged for 350 Syrian prisoners. We were so frightened.

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