TEL AVIV, Israel — On the morning of Oct. 18, 2011, daily life in Israel stopped. Across the country, from the cafes of Tel Aviv to the ramshackle flats of hard-knock Sderot, Israelis stared at their television screens and held their breath. A short drive away, Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who had spent more than five years in Hamas captivity, was being transferred from Gaza to Egypt in preparation for his return home.
When he was finally escorted across the border and changed into a newly starched Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uniform, Shalit -- bespectacled, painfully thin, flitting between a nervous grin and a terrified stare -- showed Israelis that here, in this tiny, turbulent country, it is life that often imitates art.
Two years before, while Shalit was stewing in an underground room deep in Gaza, Israeli screenwriter Gideon Raff returned to Israel from Los Angeles to begin production on a new TV series, Hatufim (Prisoners of War). The opening episode shows two Israeli prisoners of war coming home after 17 years in captivity in Lebanon to be reunited with their families in a sterile airport waiting room.
At the time, no Israeli captive had returned home alive in more than two decades -- Shalit would be the first in 26 years -- and Raff never imagined that his show's pilot would go on to ring so chillingly familiar. The first episode earned its fair share of controversy across Israel, with critics accusing the show of profiting from tragedy. But its biting honesty struck a chord, and by the end of the first season, Hatufim had become the highest-rated drama in Israeli history, as well as an acclaimed one, winning the Israeli equivalent of the Emmy for best drama series from the Israeli Academy of Film and Television.
Hatufim's American version, the wildly popular Homeland, may now be far better known -- after all, even U.S. President Barack Obama has admitted to loving its fast-paced tales of national security intrigue and conspiracy -- but at home in Israel, Hatufim has come to play a unique role as combination national truth-teller and therapist.
"In Israel, when we first got the script, dealing with POWs was a big taboo. It's something that people don't discuss," says Ran Telem, head of programming for Israel's Keshet Broadcasting, the company behind Hatufim, as well as a producer for Homeland. "Hatufim never intended, never wanted, to be based on a true story. It's fiction.… We never wanted to imitate a true-life story, especially Gilad Shalit's, which we didn't even know until he came back."