Palestinian prisoners - Reuters - 30102011
Palestinian prisoners, freed from Israeli jails, as part of the Shalit exchange deal. Photo by Reuters
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Every order has to have parentage. Every order has a source for its authority, someone whom you believe is after your own good and whom you are prepared to obey because you trust him. The Hannibal policy is an orphan order. It has no parents and has no commanders. Its existence is even denied, but it is with us nonetheless, hovering like a ghostly spirit that refuses to leave. It can be encountered in conversations with the worried parents of soldiers. It can be read about on the Internet. It is present anywhere there are soldiers.

The Hannibal policy is not written down anywhere. It is part of the oral law that provides that a dead soldier is better than a soldier taken captive. As a practical matter, this means that soldiers must not be allowed to be taken prisoner. Their comrades, under such circumstances, must shoot them. That's policy. That's the order and that's how it must be understood. But stop! Wait a minute, you say. Have you ever seen such an order? Has anyone seen it? In fact the Israel Defense Forces spokesman denies it exists. Military reporters don't write about it. It's not an order. It's a fabrication.

There is no official confirmation regarding the Hannibal policy. But there isn't regarding Israel's nuclear capabilities either. So what? It trickles down. It doesn't exist on paper, but it does in people's consciousness. It is undisputed that the policy is illegal, but there is a dispute over its morality. The idea was spelled out 25 years ago by then GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yossi Peled, who is now a cabinet member. He was assisted in its formulation by Col. Ya'akov Amidror, who is now the prime minister's national security adviser and by Col. Gabi Ashkenazi, who recently completed his service as IDF chief of staff and is now a candidate for some kind of political messiah.

All of them are currently in positions of influence. And all, it can be assumed, would prefer that a soldier be killed rather than captured. It's possible all of the members of the public are ardent supporters of the Hannibal procedure, unless God forbid the soldier in question is a member of their own families. In a 2003 article in Haaretz by Sara Leibovich-Dar, Peled explained that the intent was not to kill the soldier but to rescue him, but Amidror added: "The army is supposed to maintain the state's security as the top priority, not the lives of its soldiers." For his part, Haim Avraham, whose son Sgt. Benny Avraham was abducted in 2000, said: "It's shocking to think that a soldier would execute his comrade."

The person who was the sector commander in South Lebanon suggested leaving the decision on a course of action to "the fighter on the ground." The decision always ends up being passed along to the fighters on the ground, so they are the ones who have to wrack their brains. They can always be accused of faulty interpretation of orders. Over the years, the policy gained force, but it remained vague.

It resurfaces every time a prisoner exchange deal is in the works. Every time one soldier is exchanged for hundreds of terrorists, it is presented as an ideal alternative. The bitterness over the deal for the release of Gilad Shalit raised it again. If the Hannibal procedure had been enacted, people have said under their breaths, we would have avoided this whole mess.

Future messes are the responsibility of more junior ranking people like MKs Zevulun Orlev, Zeev Elkin and Miri Regev. Their proposed law embodies Zionism and patriotism. The Knesset, their proposal provides, would be a full partner in negotiations over a prisoner release. The guiding principle in negotiations over the release of prisoners, they believe, must be one for one: one soldier for one terrorist.

Their proposed law is a kind of political Hannibal policy, but it also reflects the regional context. However much we laughed about the 72 virgins who awaited their "martyred" suicide bombers, now we have our own martyrs for the cause. The bill proposed by Elkin and Co. is just a sorry version of that Islamic paradise. They die awaiting supreme delights. On our side, however, they will happily die because that way it will spare our prime minister humiliating negotiations.