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.
Richard – it is more a matter of interpretation, not rogues taking the law into their own hands. The actual rank and file (and field commanders) have interpreted Hannibal as use of extreme force including killing the captive/prisoner (when the capturing force is not a regular army the term is complex). This interpretation is not impossible given the command itself, even though it is not explicitly stated.
You also must understand that long complex commands at the staff level often boil down into “if so and so happens” – “fire at will” – when you look at how the rank and file remembers the command (including junior field commanders). In the field soldiers don’t pull out a manual each time they face a particular situation but rather react in a general fashion commensurate with what they remember from the written orders.
Of course the written orders themselves often include multiple layers of “ass covering” which soldiers have to ignore when learning.
Part of reason for this procedure were the lopsided exchanges (not one on one, or one to ten – but one to 1,000) in which the value of the exchanged captives were grossly against Israel and were performed against the Israeli interests due to various populist currents.
(and the Israeli army is not a professional army – it is a regular army that utilizes conscription and reserves to fill almost all rank and file position, as well as quite a few leadership positions)
I am trying not to be overly cynical, but it seems to me that you are somehow trying to suddenly portray yourself as a champion of the value of Israeli soldiers’ lives. I find this concern disingenuous.
What would be your position on other situations whereby the value of soldiers life is weighed against other interests, such as international laws, protecting civilians, or other factors? Armies have conflicting duties. For example, when commanders give orders to soldiers to go into a very risky combat situation. knowing that some of them won’t come our alive. And there are other situations where the likelihood of injury by friendly fire is high. Or combat within densely populated areas when soldiers have to take excess risk of being killed in order to avoid injuring civilians. We don’t call these situations “murder”, and whatever one thinks of the directive, the term “murder” is not appropriate for the Hannibal directive either
I know you like to use dramatic or inflammatory terms for rhetorical purposes and that’s what you are doing here.
BTW, avoiding prisoner exchanges is not just an issue of “national honor”. It is a life or death issue. We know that a significant number of prisoners released in such deals end up being involved in terrorist attacks.
This means that “redeeming” one captive comes at the cost of other people’s future lives. Yet the public pressure for freeing of IDF captives “at all costs” brings about these lopsided and harmful exchanges.
lepxii remember that the German army (and SS) in WW2 was not a professional army – it was a regular army that utilized conscription and reserves to fill almost all rank and file position, as well as quite a few leadership positions. Should your rather unclear “military pretext” fit in that case how German army treated the civil population in occupied areas and in case of “non-uniform” resistance in that time?
The notion that an “amateur” army is not so responsible as a professional army is a bit “strange”. A war crime is a war crime, or is it? So when Wehrmacht did shoot indiscriminately in civilian areas it was a war crime, but when the Israeli army did it it was not, because they thought some of their soldier were probably captured. Maybe the Warsaw Ghetto “final” was a German “Hannibal” operation trying to free captured soldiers and the destruction of houses plus arresting the family members was equal to the Knesset order to destroy the homes of the terrorists families. The only what differs is is the scale, the reasoning and pretext are almost equal.
Lepxii by the way does IDF have professional Muslim and Christian clergy in its ranks or only professional “Israeli” clergy?