The Hannibal Directive: Why Israel Risks the Life of the Soldier Being Rescued

For 17 years, the dramatically named directive, one of the most controversial orders in Israeli military history, remained a secret. When it was made public, it got surprisingly little backlash.

2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was feared captured in the Gaza Strip until he was declared dead on Sunday.

The Israel Defense Forces' murky procedure for preventing one of its soldiers falling into enemy hands has an appropriately dramatic name: the Hannibal Directive. But the name for the highly controversial and often misunderstood order was, in fact, chosen at random by an IDF computer almost three decades ago.

The Hannibal Directive was originally drafted in mid-1986 by Yossi Peled, who had just begun his five-year stint as head of the IDF's Northern Command – just months after Hezbollah captured two IDF soldiers in southern Lebanon. Peled clarified the procedures to be used in the first minutes and hours after a possible abduction, when commanders in the field believe a soldier may have been taken by the enemy. The original order, drafted together with Northern Command's operations officer Colonel Gabi Ashkenazi (who would become IDF chief of staff) and intelligence officer Colonel Yaacov Amidror (later National Security Advisor) stated that "in case of capture, the main mission becomes rescuing our soldiers from the captors, even at the cost of hitting or wounding our soldiers." The directive was drafted without seeking legal advice.

Recent reports in the international media suggest that the directive is tantamount to ordering the captured soldier to be shot in order to prevent him being taken prisoner; rather, it is the suspension of safety procedures which normally prohibit firing in the general direction of an IDF soldier, specifically firing to stop an escaping vehicle.

The original order mentioned using light-arm fire, particularly selective sniper fire, to hit the captors or stop their vehicle – "even if that means hitting our soldiers. In any case, everything will be done to stop the vehicle and prevent it from escaping."

Over the years the directive has been open to different interpretation: the limited interpretation included only firing at the vehicle's tires, while the expanded version could even include attack helicopters.

On Friday morning, when the IDF still believed that Lieutenant Hadar Goldin may have been taken alive by Hamas into an attack tunnel beneath Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, the Hannibal Directive was activated to its most devastating extent yet – including massive artillery bombardments and air strikes on possible escape routes. At least 40 Palestinians were killed in Rafah.

For 17 years, the Hannibal Directive, one of the most controversial orders in Israeli military history, remained a secret – though it was widely known and hotly debated among many thousands of regular and reserve soldiers. Not everyone accepted it. Some battalion commanders refused to pass on the directive to their troops. Other soldiers and officers sought guidance from educators and rabbis and even informed their commanders they would refuse to carry out such an order putting their friends' lives in danger. But the Hannibal Directive, in various versions, remained. In 2003, following a letter by a doctor to Haaretz, who wrote that he heard of the directive during his reserve service, the military censorship allowed it to come to light.

Despite the controversy and furious media debate that ensued, there was no public backlash against the IDF. It seemed that many Israelis understood there was a necessity for such an order. That putting an Israeli soldier's life at risk was a reasonable measure to take in order to prevent him falling into the hands of Hamas or Hezbollah.

There were a number of reasons for this acceptance. The first was that for decades Israel has not faced enemy armies of nation-states on the battlefield. When IDF soldiers have fallen in the hands of Palestinian or Lebanese organizations, they have not been treated as prisoners of war; they are denied regular Red Cross visits, proper medical attention and notifications of their families. Instead, their families were forced to go through long years of uncertainty, in many cases to learn at the end their sons had been killed in action and their bodies snatched.

Secondly, because of the disparity between the number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the handful of Israeli soldiers ever captured, exchanges have always been lopsided. The most recent of these exchanges was the Gilad Shalit deal, when Israel exchanged 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – many of them convicted killers – for a lone sergeant, who had spent over five years in Hamas captivity. Following the Shalit capture, there was criticism within the IDF that cannon fire had not been used to prevent Shalit being spirited into Gaza, only machine-guns.

Perhaps the most deeply engrained reason that Israelis innately understand the needs for the Hannibal Directive is the military ethos of never leaving wounded men on the battlefield, which became the spirit following the War of Independence, when hideously mutilated bodies of Israeli soldiers were recovered. So Hannibal has stayed a fact of military life and the directive activated more than once during this current campaign.

In a Haaretz interview in 2009, Brigadier-General Moti Baruch spelled out with uncommon frankness the significance of the Hannibal Directive. It is, he said, "unequivocal" and applies "at every level, beginning with the individual soldier."

The message, according to Baruch, is that "no soldier is to be captured, and that is an unambiguous message. In the end, an incident like this is first and foremost an encounter with the enemy; you must think about the enemy before the capture soldier. Of course you might endanger the abducted soldier, but not only him. You are not just in the midst of an abduction situation; you are also in the midst of an encounter with the enemy."

Despite the unequivocal nature of the order, senior officers have from time to time felt the need to curb some more drastic orders by field commanders. Such was the case when a battalion commander in the Golani Brigade, before leading his soldiers into the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, told them: "No soldier of Battalion 51 will be taken captive. At no price and under no circumstances – even if that means blowing (himself) up with a grenade along with those who want to take him."

In November 2011, speaking to a forum of all the senior IDF field commanders, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz felt the need to emphasize that the Hannibal Directive does not allow soldiers firing directly at their captured comrade to prevent him falling prisoner alive.

If the events of the last few weeks prove anything, it's that the issue of missing and captured IDF soldiers remains as traumatic as ever for both the IDF and the Israeli public. There seems little doubt that the Hannibal Directive will remain in effect, though as part of the lessons it will surely learn from Operation Protective Edge, the IDF will have to make it perfectly clear to its commanders and officers whether that includes devastating bombardments of possible escape routes through civilian areas.