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In the summer of 1986, three senior officers met at Northern Command headquarters and drew up one of the most controversial operational orders in the history of the Israel Defense Forces. The three were the head of Northern Command at the time, Major General Yossi Peled, the command's operations officer, Colonel Gabi Ashkenazi (now the deputy chief of staff) and the command's intelligence officer, Colonel Yaakov Amidror, whose last post in the army before retiring was head of the National Defense College. The order they formulated had to do with the rules for opening fire in cases in which soldiers were being abducted: "During an abduction, the major mission is to rescue our soldiers from the abductors even at the price of harming or wounding our soldiers. Light-arms fire is to be used in order to bring the abductors to the ground or to stop them. If the vehicle or the abductors do not stop, single-shot (sniper) fire should be aimed at them, deliberately, in order to hit the abductors, even if this means hitting our soldiers. In any event, everything will be done to stop the vehicle and not allow it to escape."

The IDF computer gave the order a random, though particularly exotic, code name: "Hannibal." Field commanders apprised their soldiers about the underlying meaning of the "Hannibal procedure": From the point of view of the army, a dead soldier is better than a captive soldier who himself suffers and forces the state to release thousands of captives in order to obtain his release.

The order generated a furor within the IDF. At least one battalion commander refused to transmit it to his soldiers, arguing that it was flagrantly illegal, and in a number of units lively debates took place about the morality of the order. Some soldiers said they would refuse to open fire at their buddies. A religious soldier put the question to his rabbi and was told to refuse to obey the order. Other soldiers asked journalists and Knesset members to do what they could to get the order changed or rescinded. Indeed, in the past year it has been revised. It now states that soldiers should fire only at the wheels of the vehicle in which soldiers are being abducted, but without risking the lives of the abductees. Nevertheless, some soldiers say that even in the past year, after the revision, they have been briefed in the spirit of the original procedure.

For years, the army denied the existence of this directive, and the military censors did all they could to prevent it from becoming public knowledge. There were occasional media attempts to ignore the censors and make the order public, but the veil of secrecy made any serious public discussion impossible. But then, two weeks ago, Dr. Avner Shiftan, a doctor at Poriya Hospital in Tiberias, told Haaretz Magazine ("Better dead than abducted," May 9) that he had encountered the order in the course of his military service in southern Lebanon and had tried to get it annulled. This time Military Censorship didn't blue-pencil the report. In the wake of the Haaretz article, a lively debate developed on Israel Radio current events programs and on Channel One's "New Evening" program, which in turn elicited passionate responses from soldiers presently serving as well as former soldiers. Dozens of them contacted the three media outlets, described their encounter with the order and expressed their objections to it. Some of them said that its spirit still prevailed among field commanders.

The testimonies indicate that the so-called Hannibal procedure was fully activated when three soldiers - Sergeant Benny Avraham and Staff Sergeants Omar Sawid and Adi Avitan - were abducted in the Har Dov region along the Lebanon border on October 7, 2000. At 12:50 P.M. that day, a Hezbollah squad attacked the Israeli soldiers' security vehicle with rockets and automatic fire, snatched the three soldiers and took them into Lebanese territory. The abandoned vehicle was found half an hour later and the Hannibal procedure was invoked. Attack helicopters were sent into action and opened fire at cars in which the army thought the abducted soldiers were being held.

"It was only after some time that I understood exactly what happened there," says Haim Avraham, Benny's father. Avraham heard about the Hannibal procedure two weeks before his son was abducted.

"I visited him in the army and he told me about the procedure. He told me that the order was that if a group of soldiers was abducted, the vehicle had to be stopped at any price, even if this cost the soldiers' lives. I was appalled. I asked him if he would be willing to shoot at his buddies. He said it was an order. After the abduction, one of the officers told me that in order to stop it, they intercepted 26 vehicles in the area. I remember the number clearly. At that moment, I didn't grasp the meaning of what he was saying, but after some time I connected what the officer said with what Benny told me and I realized that the implication of the procedure is that if my son was in one of those vehicles, they would kill him straightaway."

Avraham is unwilling to accept the logic that underlies the order. "It's shocking to think that a soldier will execute his pal," he says. "True, an abduction presents a serious dilemma in terms of the price the state will pay, but hard as that is, I prefer a captive son to a dead son. That way I still have hope. The reason for the existence of the order is that the army doesn't have the necessary determination to rescue soldiers from captivity. Something is wrong with our code of ethics."

Yossi Rephaeloff, who was the commanding officer of the Engineering Corps battalion in which the soldiers served, invoked the Hannibal procedure in the sector. He was booted out after the abduction; today he holds a senior security position.

"It's not a black-and-white thing," he notes in a phone call from Russia. "We're talking about very complicated decisions that are in the gray area - when to shoot and what to shoot - and it's very complicated. Everything is given careful consideration. Shells are not fired, that's unequivocal, but helicopters did open fire. Hannibal makes very problematic shooting possible. It's not that you're allowed to shoot. You shoot only when all other prospects are gone and there is no other possibility."

What do you say to Haim Avraham's contention that you opened fire at 26 vehicles and that his son might have been in one of them?

Rephaeloff: "Don't try to understand the logic of a battalion commander. It's very complex, a whole set of considerations."

Did the thought ever occur to you that by shooting at the cars you might also kill the abducted soldiers?

"Did it ever occur to you that when I saw the [abandoned] Jeep, I realized they were no longer alive? I don't know of any commanders who know that they have a living boy in a car and they destroyed the car. It's a lot more complex. It's a collection of decisions, for some of which senior officers in the air force demanded an explanation from me. I was pleased that the pilots just acted and didn't ask questions."

At any price

Of the circumstances that led to the order, Yossi Peled says: "The need for the procedure arose after the abduction of the soldiers Yosef Fink and Rafael Alsheikh, in February, 1986. I took over at Northern Command in June, 1986. The abduction of the two soldiers was a hot topic at headquarters and there was an oral instruction that said abductions had to be prevented at any price."

Fink and Alsheikh were riding shotgun for a mechanized convoy that was moving into southern Lebanon. Hezbollah ambushed the convoy, killing one soldier and wounding two others; Fink and Alsheikh were abducted. In September, 1991 the Israeli government announced that the two were no longer alive; their bodies were returned in 1996.

Northern Command worked on the formulation of the Hannibal procedure for a few months. "We had to be careful in formulating the order so that there would be risk, but not killing. We wanted to make it clear that if there was going to be killing, you don't do it, and if it meant risk to the abducted soldier, you do it."

Doesn't the order say that the soldiers must be rescued even at the price of hitting them?

Peled: "I would perhaps put it differently. Instead of `even if this means hitting our soldiers,' I would write, `even if this means putting our soldiers at risk.' The question is how far to go in order to prevent an abduction."

How far?

"I wouldn't drop a one-ton bomb on the vehicle, but I would hit it with a tank shell that could make a big hole in the vehicle, but that would make it possible for anyone who was not hit directly - if the vehicle did not blow up - to emerge in one piece. After all, soldiers risk their lives when they set an ambush, too. Some of those who charge the enemies return in coffins, so does that mean we won't charge? Decisions have to be made that endanger soldiers; sometimes there is no choice. The army is supposed to maintain the state's security as the top priority, not the lives of its soldiers."

Don't different rules apply when a soldier is taken prisoner?

"That's why his captors are forbidden to shoot him."

But you have the right to endanger him?

"Of course. Serving in the army is not like writing in Haaretz. In every decision some people return in coffins. In military decisions there is a danger that people will die. The question is what the alternatives are. I would rather be shot than fall into Hezbollah captivity."

What would you say to Benny Avraham's parents if he had been killed in the shooting at the car in which he was abducted?

"We tried, we failed, we're sorry."

If it's all so logical, why did the order cause such a storm in the army?

"Because soldiers don't think deeply and look at things superficially. The procedure obliges them to act as though they are endangering their buddies, but they are endangering their buddies' lives all the time. In the army, orders lead to a situation in which soldiers die in some cases. In our view, this was one of a million decisions that are made every day at headquarters."

Peled says that when the order was formulated, he insisted that weapons be used, even if it endangered soldiers, "but only light arms. We mustn't use tank ammunition or anti-aircraft ammunition or attack helicopters, because their use is a death sentence for the abductees."

But doesn't light-arms fire also kill?

"So what should we do? Stand aside and say, `Take them,' without doing anything? In my view, I found the most appropriate way, in which there is risk to the soldiers but there is no killing."

Legal angles

The order was updated several times over the years. According to one of the revisions: "Tank fire will be used at the discretion of the commanders." The use of attack helicopters, as in the case of the three soldiers abducted on the Lebanon border, was part of the procedure. Amos Lapidot, who was the commander of the Israel Air Force at the time the procedure took root, says: "We were never asked to bomb a car that was suspected of containing an abducted soldier. In principle, I think there is no such animal, and if something like that were to come up, I would express my opinion of principle."

Similarly, Eitan Ben Eliahu, who was the commander of the air force until a few months before the Har Dov incident, thinks that this is a completely baseless matter. "In my life I never heard of anyone asking that we blast a car containing one of our soldiers," he says. "There's a limit to irresponsibility."

According to Amidror, the formulators of the order consulted with the staff personnel at Northern Command headquarters and with divisional commanders, but not with the IDF's legal department.

"The military advocate general is of no relevance here," he says. "What business is it of theirs? The legal department can't intervene in the issuing of orders on the field of battle. I go into action knowing that 40 percent of the soldiers are liable to die, so do I have to consult with the military advocate general so he can tell me if 38 percent dead is all right for going into action? There are no lawyers on the battlefield."

Judge Amnon Strasnov, who was the military advocate general at the time, says he is not familiar with the order: "The way you describe the events, the subject sounds problematic," he says. "It would have been better if the commanders had consulted with the legal authorities before issuing the order."

According to Prof. Emanuel Gross, from the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa, the legal experts should have been involved. "Orders like that have to go through the filter of the Military Advocate General's Office, and if they were not involved that is very grave," he says. "The reason is that an order that knowingly permits the death of soldiers to be brought about, even if the intentions were different, carries a black flag and is a flagrantly illegal order that undermines the most central values of our social norms. The order was understood as saying that even if people's lives were put at risk by opening fire, the soldiers should open fire nonetheless. An order that takes into account a clear and present danger to soldiers' lives puts their lives up for grabs."

That was also the feeling of soldiers and officers in the field, especially in Northern Command, where the order was issued, but also in the south and in the West Bank, which is under Central Command, where the order also applied. In the mid-1990s, a battalion commander in the north refused to transmit the order, arguing that besides the fact that it was flagrantly illegal, he could not morally ask his soldiers to kill their buddies. His refusal triggered a major debate in the battalion, in which some officers backed the commander, while others thought the order was proper.

In the period in which the order was applied, many soldiers voiced their objections to it. Yossi Mimi, from Haifa, who drove trucks and tank transporters in the army, encountered an early version of the Hannibal directive back in 1982: "For nine years, beginning in 1982, I entered Lebanon hundreds and even thousands of times, and before we entered there was always a briefing in which the commanders said that if a soldier was abducted, we were to open fire in order to stop the vehicle, even if that meant hitting the vehicle's occupants. I heard it so many times that I remember the order by heart. At first it sounded very weird - to shoot our own soldier? Because it's impossible to hit only the abductors, you know. We talked about it among ourselves. Some said they wouldn't shoot, others said they would. People found it hard to swallow, but after we heard the order hundreds of times, it became `the one and only.' Everyone knew the order like robots and if anyone asked questions, the commanders said this is the order and in the IDF you don't ask questions, and let's get moving into those vehicles."

The rabbi's order

Captain Lior Rotbart, a former chairman of the national Students Union and today a media consultant, served in an Engineering Corps battalion in the north of Israel in 1989. "In briefings we were given orders to shoot at any vehicle containing an abducted soldier, in order to kill everyone in the vehicle."

Including the soldier?

Rotbart: "Obviously. And that seemed to us the right and natural thing to do, because it's not pleasant to fall into captivity of the Shi'ites, and it was made clear to us that it would not be convenient for the state, either. That was the general spirit of things. It was clear in that period that an abduction would cause tremendous damage, first of all to the person who was taken prisoner - he might undergo torture and no one would know what happened to him - and it is also not good for the state, because if Hezbollah had prisoners, they could win in a terrorist attack for hostages.

"There were soldiers in my company who raised questions about different things, such as Israel's attitude toward the Palestinians, about which we held deep discussions, but there was a consensus about this order. We said it was better for the soldier to die; we developed black humor about the subject. It was clear to us that if one of us were to be abducted, that's how the others would behave, and he would do the same if someone else was abducted. Soldiers tend to identify with military thinking, so it's easy to resolve moral dilemmas in an absurd way."

What do you think about it today?

"Today I see it differently. I think it is very immoral for soldiers at a checkpoint to decide the fate of a soldier. There are enough ways to solve the abduction of a soldier. You can't decide a person's fate when it is still possible to rescue him. In the perspective of 14 years later, the logic behind the order is absolutely incredible. It is unacceptable to kill the person in the vehicle just to get him out of an abduction."

Eli Leon, a marketing person from Tel Aviv, served in an artillery battalion in the north in 1991. He was given an unequivocal order: "We were told that the abducted soldier should lie low in the vehicle and that the soldiers in the area should shoot with the intent to kill. It was clear that the possibility existed that the soldier would die, too. We in artillery had the task of shelling major junctions and shooting at the vehicle if we were in the area. We were told that if we found ourselves in that situation, we should try to shoot at the vehicle using a rifle."

How did the soldiers react to the order?

Leon: "The majority accepted the order with understanding. Each of us felt that he could be the one who was abducted, and if I were in that position, I would accept that other soldiers would open fire to eliminate the terrorists, and if they hit me, that would be good for me, because I wouldn't want to go through the experience of being abducted."

In 1989, Ronen Weil, now a teacher in Beit Shemesh, was a tank commander in the regional brigade that was stationed in Kiryat Shmona.

"In the briefings we were told more than once that the military goal in an abduction event is the death of the soldier, because the IDF prefers a dead soldier to an abducted soldier," Weil recalls. "As a soldier, I understood that, and I understand it today, too. For the army, dead soldiers are definitely preferable."

Yaniv Akiva, from the West Bank settlement of Elon Moreh, who is now a Jewish Agency emissary in Montreal, found the order morally problematic during his service in the north in 1995: "In one of our first briefings, we were told to try to stop the vehicle with the abducted soldier in any possible way, and if the vehicle tried to cross the red line, we should fire a shell at it," he says. "When we asked what would happen if the soldier died, the commanders said a dead soldier was preferable. We were told that if we were abducted, we should try to lie as low as possible in the vehicle, because soldiers would shoot at us."

In his first furlough, Akiva consulted with the rabbi of the yeshiva in which he was studying.

"He told me that to the best of his understanding, this was definitely forbidden and that I would have to refuse to obey the order and inform my commanding officers," he relates. "When I got back to the unit, I told the officer who gave the briefing that I would refuse to obey any such order. He said that if so, he would do it. It didn't sound insane to anyone in the unit. Sometimes the most insane things sound logical to soldiers. It was clear to me that I was not going to shoot at a vehicle containing an Israeli soldier. Today, after some years have passed, I am even more shocked. Did they expect me to kill a soldier just because it's hard for the defense establishment to deal with a prisoner?"

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