newsIsrael at War

Expert calls for patience regarding hostage interviews

Eiyar Segal, a clinical social worker and former IDF mental health officer, talks to JNS about the psychological impact of acute trauma.

Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, speaks to reporters in Tel Aviv after Hamas released her, Oct. 24, 2023. Photo by Gideon Markowicz/TPS.
Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, speaks to reporters in Tel Aviv after Hamas released her, Oct. 24, 2023. Photo by Gideon Markowicz/TPS.

A mental health expert has cautioned journalists to be very careful about interviewing Israeli captives released by Hamas. The warning comes on the heels of a Tuesday press conference in which 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz shared her experience as a hostage in Gaza with reporters outside of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, where she is recuperating.

She was released along with 79-year-old Nurit Coope on Monday night. Both are residents of Kibbutz Nir Oz, and both have husbands still being held by Hamas along with more than 200 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 captors, Eiyar Segall told JNS.

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 told JNS. “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 took issue with one particular statement made by Lifshitz: “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. And 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,” said Segall.

“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,” she explained.

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 [1973] Yom Kippur War that there are many disassociated events. It’s like black holes in their memory,” she said.

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

“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,’” said Segall.

“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 this man is abusing you and he might kill you and your friends and your family. You start giving reasons for his evil,” she added.

Segall insists that no hostage should be judged or blamed for the syndrome.

“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,” she stressed.

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 (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 dynamic. It would be very difficult for her to put things in order. Anyone would be confused in that situation,” she 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,” she added.

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 by an Egyptian journalist, looking dazed and confused, before the Red Cross was able to give him a checkup.

“It’s a different issue. Shalit was there for more than five years and that’s a long time,” Segall said. “At that point, Shalit had been a 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 called on the Israeli press to display more patience regarding hostage releases.

“I don’t expect anything from Hamas, but from the Israeli press I would expect a little more patience.”

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,” Segall explained. “It’s not fair to take an interview so immediately after being freed.”

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