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Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit held captive for 1,941 days tells his story

By Catrina Stewart in Jerusalem

The former hostage Gilad Shalit has spoken to Israeli television for the first time since his release from Hamas captivity a year ago, describing how he and his Islamist captors shared brief moments of companionship through their passion for sport.

In the Channel 10 interview scheduled to air last night, the former Israeli soldier, 26, offered the first glimpse into what life was like during his 1,941 days in captivity in the besieged Gaza Strip, and spoke of his fear that he would never make it back.

Snatched at the age of 19 from an Israeli tank idling on the Gaza border, Corporal Shalit was whisked off into to captivity deep inside the coastal enclave, with only occasional indications that he was still alive released to his family and the Israeli government in the next five years.

Faced with mind-numbing tedium, he came up with improvised games that would keep him from dwelling on his captivity and the fear that he would be forgotten and become another Ron Arad, the Israeli airman who was captured in Lebanon in 1986 and never returned.

"I would make a ball out of socks or a shirt, and throw it into the rubbish bin," he said, according to excerpts published by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

He said sport had helped him and his captors bridge their differences, if only for a short while. "There was a common denominator between us, sport. During the day I would play all kinds of games with them. Chess, dominoes.

"There were moments when a kind of emotion would arise, a kind of laughter, when we watched a good [football] game on television or a movie," he said, recalling their reactions to an Israeli goal during a Champions League match.

When he was able, he focused on the positives, which were "whatever I was allowed: television, radio, reasonable food, the fact that they [the guards] did not abuse me too much".

The first account of Mr Shalit's time in captivity has been keenly awaited in Israel, where the soldier's fate transfixed the nation for more than five years. His family's encampment outside the Prime Minister's residence was a constant reminder of his plight, and his face became one of the most recognisable in Israel.

One year ago, a gaunt and wan Mr Shalit, dressed in a baggy uniform, was finally returned to the embrace of his family after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a lop-sided prisoner exchange. More than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were released to the West Bank and Gaza to scenes of jubilation.

Many in Israel criticised the deal, warning that it would encourage such abductions in the future, and that the life of one Israeli soldier was not worth the exorbitant price paid.

Aside from a minority of detractors, though, there was a national mood of elation, accompanied by an onslaught of media attention. For the most part, the Israeli media agreed to leave Mr Shalit in peace to allow him to recover from his ordeal.

Mr Shalit, who now writes a sports column for Yedioth Ahronoth, said it was difficult to return to a life where his friends had moved on. "People have changed, have grown up, you feel as if you were left behind," he said.

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