Despite the pall of military censorship, the Israel and foreign media are beginning, tentatively to air the problematic moral issues about the Hannibal Directive and how it was implemented during the Gaza war. To be clear, there has been a lot of smoke and hokum written on the subject as well. And that even is the preponderance of what is published. But there have been two noteworthy stories written, one by Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz (Hebrew) and one by Ruth Margalit in The New Yorker. Far the most important is Bar’el’s, but Haaretz hasn’t yet translated it into English. Since I don’t know whether it will or not, I’m going to translate the most critical passages below.
But before I do, I wanted to point to Israeli reporting on Hannibal and the Hadar Goldin killing in particular, to illustrate Israel’s schizophrenic nature around this subject. A Ynet article describes (Hebrew) the “heroics” of Deputy Commander “Eitan,” who demanded of his superiors permission to pursue Goldin and his captors into the tunnel in which they had disappeared. The officer had to climb up the ranks of his commanding officers till he finally reached one who approved of his hot pursuit. But the commander told him that before he entered the tunnel he had to throw a grenade into it.
Compare this to this subtitle of the story:
Deputy [Commander] Who Went into Tunnel to Save Goldin…
You simply don’t throw hand grenades into tunnels into which your own comrade has just disappeared if you wish to save him. Another ghoulish aspect of this report is that it features video of Eitan visiting the bereaved Goldin family, where he’s welcomed with open arms. They truly believe Eitan valiantly tried to save their son when instead he tried to kill him (and perhaps did). There is a secret, unconscious code (something like Hannibal itself), which allows everyone to pretend Goldin died a hero and that his comrades did everything possible to save him, when the opposite is the case.
Here is Zvi Bar’el’s Haaretz column:
A Nightmare Called Hannibal
Twice we heard sighs of relief from one end of the country to another. Once when the army confirmed the death of Oron Shaul and a second, when it announced that Hadar Goldin had died. It even seemed that a note of triumph accompanied that sigh: Hamas hadn’t succeeded in kidnapping our soldiers and the country had averted a double trauma.
Who could stand the drafting of thousands of citizen do-gooders to gather at intersections with placards calling for “the return home of the soldiers?” Who has the patience of these parents, who immediately begin to run to European capitals in order to seek support and pressure Hamas? Who has the resources required to conduct negotiations with German, British or Qatari mediators in order to get a bit of information on the kidnap victims? Not to speak of the political pressure, the empty declarations of MKs concerning the “strategic threat” posed by freeing [Palestinian] prisoners in return for [Israeli] hostages. In short, give us those dead bodies and we’ll be satisfied. War, death, funerals, a clean shiva, all of which satisfy. [They offer] formal recognition of our bereavement. This is the desired order of things.
A hostage shatters the picture of victory, the narrative of complete success. A captive is a national fashlah [mishap].
But there is a cure: the army pharmacy invented the Hannibal Directive. A perverted, satanic product which, in common parlance, we may describe as: “let the world go to hell and the kidnap victim too, as long as we’re not shamed.” The practical ramification of the expression is artillery bombardments, aerial bombardment, and destruction of all that moves in the vicinity of the kidnapping, in order to prevent the kidnappers from fleeing. Let a hundred die, even a thousand, let hundreds of homes be turned into dust, let children be made orphans and women in labor roll in their own blood, just so that the kidnappers and perhaps the kidnap victim himself should die.
“You must act, to the extent possible, to stop the kidnapping, including laying down fire, but not in a manner which causes a high likelihood of death to the kidnap victim. This is due to an understanding that the value of the life of the kidnap victim is greater than the price of the kidnapping [ransom],” clarifies Prof. Asa Kasher, who wrote the IDF’s ethical code.
How do you define “a high likelihood?” How many residents may you kill and how many homes destroy in order to prevent a kidnapping? Is 100 Palestinians acceptable? Maybe 150? 100 homes is in the realm of what’s acceptable? It goes without saying that the lives of Palestinians aren’t worth much to begin with, their homes worth even less.
But where did that shrug of the shoulders that was seen among IDF spokespersons and politicians of several days past go, when they troubled themselves to explain that falling captive, just like the death or wounding of a soldier, was an inseparable part of war? If falling captive is so “natural” why do we need to make worlds quake [when it happens to us]? Even when a soldier is killed, the IDF doesn’t purposely destroy a school or clinic. At least this is what we would hope. So why for the sake of a captive does the IDF ignite a a spewing volcano which is likely to pour boiling lava also on the kidnap victim himself?
There is no intent to save [the soldier] in the Hannibal Directive, and certain no ethics or essential [moral] value. The falling of a person into captivity obligates that we do everything to free him…from captivity, not from life itself. Yes, it is permitted, even criticial to conduct negotiations to free him, to exchange him for prisoners or to pay ransom if that’s what is necessary. Nations no less ethical than Israel have done so and continue to do so.
The bluff that we don’t conduct negotiations with terrorists has been exposed for some time. Even now Israel conducts talks with Hamas, with which it signed a ceasefire in 2012. Are ceasefire talks more moral than talks over returning a captive? All the argument for and against exchanging prisoners have been exhausted in the case of Gilad Shalit and his predecessors. In the end, freeing them was considered, in effect, the most humane and ethical act the country could do on behalf of its soldiers. The Hannibal Directive contradicts in an absolute manner this approach. It must be repudiated immediately.
As for Margalit’s article, it is generally quite good. But I take strong issue with this statement:
To be clear, there is no evidence that Goldin was killed by friendly fire.
There are heaping mounds of evidence that Goldin was killed by his own comrades. I’ve reported here that members of his unit wounded him as he was being carried away. You’ve read above that another soldier threw a grenade into a tunnel into which he’d been carried. Every ambulance or vehicle approaching the hospital where he might be taken for treatment was annihilated by IDF fire. How much evidence do you need to say that it’s highly likely Goldin (as well as Guy Levy) was killed by his own?
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.