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Expert: Beware hostage ‘exit interviews’

By Pesach Benson

JERUSALEM — A mental health expert cautioned journalists to be very careful about interviewing Israeli captives released by Hamas.

The 85-year-old hostage spoke with Israeli reporters shortly after her release Oct. 23.
(Gideon Markowicz/TPS)

The warning comes on the heels of a Oct. 24 press conference in which 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz shared her experience with reporters at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, where she is recuperating.

She was released along with 79 year-old Nurit Cooper on Monday night. Both are residents of Kibbutz Nir Oz, and both have husbands still being held along with 220 other captives inside Gaza.

Returning hostages will be very cautious about saying anything that endangers other captives and will be dealing with psychological trauma that can lead to “black holes” of memory and even sympathy for their terrorist captors, Eiyar Segall said after watching a video of the press conference.

Segall is a clinical social worker who spent 20 years as a mental health officer in the Israel Defense Forces. She stressed that she has never met Lifshitz and was only making general observations.

“What I saw in the interview, first of all, is a person who is quite shocked,” Segall said.

“A person who is kidnapped is in a continual trauma. The trauma doesn’t just pass away after the first day. She was in a traumatic situation since the kidnapping and only now will she start to recover. It will take time and she’s going to suffer like everyone else and I’m sure with many, many symptoms.”

Many Israelis criticizing the interview on social media took issue with one particular statement when Lifshitz said, “Each person had a guard watching him or her. They took care of all the needs. They talked about all kinds of things, they were very friendly.”

Survival mechanisms

Segall said that comment was probably the result of a psychological protective mechanism called “splitting.”

“A psychological split is when we divide the world between good and bad. The man who kidnapped her was very brutal and she never saw him again. Then she went into this room and she was there for more than two weeks and she saw a different group of captors again and again who treated her more nicely,” Segall said.

“We’re all human beings and we have to make meaning, so we tell ourselves that this was the bad part and now this is the better part.”

Another issue that Segall raised is called disassociation.

“The brain disconnects from reality in especially terrifying circumstances, for example in cases of rape.

People don’t recall what happened. We know from interviewing prisoners of war in Syria and Egypt after the Yom Kippur War that there are many disassociated events. It’s like black holes in their memory,” she said.

That’s in contrast with a survival mechanism known as the “Stockholm syndrome,” in which captives “start to understand and sympathize with problems, issues and the human part of their kidnappers,” Segall said.

“There is a limit to how much you can be afraid. So you start off by saying, ‘He didn’t kill me yesterday and he’s not killing me today, so I can trust him. I can talk to him. I can try to convince him to give me this, or to help me do that and I’ll give him some smiles,’” Segall said.

“You put on the kidnapper all of your human abilities, and you make him human when you start to treat him like a human like yourself. You start to sympathize with him. You forget that that this man is abusing you and he might kill you and your friends and your family. You start giving reasons for his evil.”
Segall insists that no hostage should be judged or blamed for having Stockholm syndrome, being a psychological survival mechanism.

“It’s only natural. I want you to add that the way I know myself, if I was in the same situation, I’m quite sure I would go through this mechanism also.”

Frame of mind

In the hours leading up to the press conference, Lifshitz was being held captive in Gaza, freed, taken by helicopter to Tel Aviv, reunited with her family and debriefed by the Israel Security Agency, the Shin Bet.

“I’m sure that she was exhausted during the press conference and she’s not experienced with being questioned by the Shin Bet. It’s all very new and very flowing. It would be very difficult for her to put things in order. Anyone would be confused in that situation,” Segall said.

“I’m sure no one interviewed her without permission, but after being held captive for two-and-a-half weeks, I doubt that she had the power to say no. The kidnappers took that away from her.”

Segall didn’t agree with drawing parallels between Lifshitz and Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for more than five years. When Shalit was freed in 2011, he was interviewed looking dazed and confused by an Egyptian journalist before the Red Cross was able to give him a checkup.

Psychologically, “It’s a different issue. Shalit was there for more than five years and that’s long time,” Segall said. “At that point, Shalit was captive for a quarter of his life. He was younger so I’m sure it influenced his identity. This woman’s captivity, we are happy to say, was only two-and-a-half weeks. That’s a long time to suffer, but brief compared to Shalit.”

Segall also stopped short of calling the press conference a media victory for Hamas.

“I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer. But the more we hear that they were nice to her, this gives Hamas some points. But I don’t want to blame Lifshitz for what she said. I don’t judge her whatsoever.

“I don’t expect anything from Hamas, but from the Israeli press, I would expect a little more patience. It was a mistake to have the press conference, but it’s not necessarily a victory for Hamas.”

While Israelis are hopeful more hostages will be released, Segall cautions journalists to give returning captives time before interviewing them.

“Give them three days,” she insisted.

“When you’re in full survival mode, your cognitive abilities are not with you in full. It takes the brain 48-72 hours to deal with the acute stress reaction to trauma, it takes about three days to set your mind again and start being with your cognitive abilities,” Segall explained. “It’s not fair to take an interview so immediately after being freed.”

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