TV show deals with Israel POWs

The wife who waited, the fiancee who didn’t. A young man’s first meeting with his father. The girl, once little, now older than her dead brother.

These are scenes from “Prisoners of War,” a TV series that touches on one of Israel’s most sensitive issues: the return of soldiers from captivity.

The series, which in Hebrew is called “Hatufim” (“abductees”), revolves around three Israeli reservists captured in Lebanon, their fates unknown. To their families, they are seen with something between hope and memory. To society, they are symbols.

Seventeen years later, they return — one in a coffin, two alive and seemingly well enough. The series follows the released captives as they reenter society. In some places, the old lives seem to fit. But they don’t, not really.

The fictional series picks up where public interest often trails off in reality.

“As a society, we’re very busy with ‘bringing the boys back home,’” says creator Gideon Raff, explaining what drew him to the prickly subject. “We’re preoccupied with their return and the price, but few turn their thoughts to the day after.”

His research on former Israeli POWs introduced him to a complex world, layered with post-trauma and conflicting feelings. Intrigued by the “wealth of untouched dramatic potential,” Raff was surprised no one had touched it before.

What have they endured? One side doesn’t tell; the other doesn’t ask. “We teach our soldiers to be heroes in captivity. A returned captive who feels he conducted himself unheroically returns with mixed emotions,” Raff says.

Once home, many feel abandoned and, worse, suspected. Recently, former POW David Senesh said in an interview that the Israeli interrogations were worse than the physical brutality he suffered as a captive in Egypt.

In the show, questions abound — and the answers are troubling.

Exchange deals have a price. In 1985, Israel exchanged 1,150 prisoners in return for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon during the war. The deal was controversial and many believe Israel overpaid, exposing itself to future diplomatic and emotional extortion and the increased threat of terrorism.

Raff says one soldier released in that exchange told him that for years, people would accuse him of responsibility for every terrorist attack that occurred after the swap. Another remarked bitterly in an interview that Israel prefers dead heroes to live returnees.

Since beginning to air last month, “Prisoners of War” has enjoyed high ratings. But some can’t bear to watch.

For Karnit Goldwasser, the ads were enough. Featuring breaking-news-style “abducted” captions and banners, they recalled the two-year campaign to return two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in 2006. One of them was her husband, Ehud. He was returned to Israel along with Eldad Regev. They were dead.

Circumstance had yanked Karnit from a contented, anonymous life, and campaigning around the world for her husband’s return made her a public figure. Accomplished in her own right, she now co-hosts a current affairs television program.

She addressed the subject in her debut appearance on “Status,” underscoring a typical blur between private and public in Israel.

“I found it too painful,” Goldwasser said. “I couldn’t watch.” She didn’t think such a subject should be dramatized and offered as prime-time entertainment.

Raff accepted her invitation to discuss the show. He was sympathetic, but the situation was awkward.

“This is an open wound in Israeli society,” he said, calling it a subject both legitimate and important to deal with. The fictional plot treats the subject with respect and sensitivity, he said, even if it breaks for commercials — the news cuts for them too.

If anything, Raff said, the show has had a positive effect by acknowledging the experience of the 1,500 former POWs living in Israel.

“They live with their captivity every day and can’t get rid of it — and they welcome the interest,” he said he learned during his research.

Howard Gordon, executive producer of the American series “24,” is working with Raff and writer Alex Gansa on a U.S. adaptation of the series through 20th Century Fox. Keshet, the Israeli network behind the show, closed the remake deal even before the cameras started rolling on the Israeli production.

“The show was specific to Israel because of their geopolitical and national reality, but there was a very strong overlap in many ways and resonance with our country, since we’re currently engaged in two military conflicts,” Gordon told “Variety” last month.

Raff agrees. True, it is a very Israeli experience — “it touches us because it can happen to any of us and the collective experience is very powerful. But the human experience would be just as intense anywhere.”

[Update: In a previous version of this post, the TV show was referred to as “the abductees” ]

Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau.