This news came like a lightning bolt: after three decades the IDF has finally abandoned a military directive which approved the outright murder of Israeli soldiers who were captured by the enemy during wartime. The Hannibal Procedure, as it’s called, in addition invokes massive firepower to destroy the territory to which the captors have fled with their captive. That is how Black Friday came about during Operation Protective Edge: after the capture of Hadar Goldin, Israel shelled the neighborhood to which the captors fled. They also shelled the hospital to which the captors might’ve taken themselves and Goldin if any of them were wounded. In the ensuing slaughter, at least 150 Palestinians were killed. Amnesty International has called this massacre a likely war crime.
As I’ve written here and elsewhere, the reasons for Hannibal are complex. But they boil down to an almost pathological aversion to exchanged convicted Palestinian militants for dead or living captured Israeli soldiers. For decades, the IDF and Israeli society adopted the approach also observed by the U.S. military: leave no man behind. So when an Israeli was captured Israel did everything possible to free him including negotiating prisoner exchanges.
But as Israeli politics drifted farther and farther rightward, nationalist diehards began objecting vociferously to freeing “terrorists” with “blood on their hands.” In other words, Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis in terror attacks. When faced with the prospect of abandoning the long-cherished traditional belief that redeeming captives was one of the greatest mitzvot (“religious commandments”), Israelis preferred to do so rather than face the shame of releasing Arab terrorists.
This is a further example of the cheapening of the value of life in Israeli society. A willingness to sacrifice the life of the individual in order to protect the honor of the nation.
After Gilad Shalit’s release, which won the corresponding release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the Netanyahu government appeared to make a decisive break with the past. Palestinian prisoners would no longer be exchanged for Israelis. That’s one of the reasons Israel has refused to bargain for the release of two Israeli citizens held for several years in Gaza (along with the bodies of two soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge).
But even more critically, it explains why the Hannibal Procedure became standard operating procedure during Protective Edge. It was invoked at least twice: in the case of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who are the two whose bodies are held by Hamas.
Though Israeli and foreign media focus rightly on the barbarity of the massacre that followed Hadar Goldin’s capture, they entirely ignore the equally disturbing murder of Israeli soldiers by their own comrades. That’s why you’ll find Amos Harel falsely portraying Hannibal in his Haaretz report (note below he also misidentifies the Israeli combatants as “kidnapped” rather than captured prisoners):
The order calls for soldiers to thwart captivity even at the expense of a fellow trooper’s life.
…The procedure requires soldiers to try and [sic] thwart being captured even if doing so – for instance, by shooting at the abductors – might endanger the captured soldier’s life. Though the procedure doesn’t permit soldiers to intentionally kill a kidnapped comrade, many officers and soldiers in the field have interpreted it in this way.
Isabel Kershner in her NY Times report also euphemistically calls Hannibal the use of “maximum force to foil captures.” It “foils captures” in the same sense that American soldiers said in Vietnam: “to pacify the village we had to destroy it.”
She also calls Hannibal “the use of maximum force to prevent the capture of Israeli soldiers, even at the risk of harming them.” Note how she tiptoes around the fact that the goal of Hannibal is not just to “risk harm,” but to actually end the possibility the soldier will live and later be used as bait in a prisoner exchange.
In this passage, she claims outright, offering no supporting evidence that:
The procedure does not allow for the intentional killing of soldiers to prevent their capture, or for action that would lead to the certain death of captive soldiers, although many soldiers and commanders are said to have interpreted it that way.
Note how she explains away the certain death of most of the Hannibal victims by saying IDF subordinates misinterpreted the Procedure. The problem with this explanation is that the IDF is a professional army in which there is a strict command and control process. Subordinates don’t improvise when it comes the lives of their comrades. The notion that rogue soldiers take the law into their own hands and kill their fellow soldiers is preposterous.
My own Israeli security sources and Israeli journalists like Ronen Bergman have explicitly contradicted her. Yet she and willing stenographers like Harel continue spreading the comforting lies about Hannibal.
The chief of staff is dumping Hannibal as a precursor to a report by the State controller, which will review IDF conduct in Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. In his report, a draft of which has been publicly released, the controller recommends abandoning Hannibal because of the likelihood it contravenes international law. He is referring to the massive firepower the IDF brings to bear against entire neighborhoods as happened on Black Friday.
But this official analysis doesn’t even deal with the essential depravity of Israeli troops killing their own in order to avoid the future prospect that Israel may have to trade Palestinian prisoners to get the soldier or his body returned.