Continuation of The Hannibal Procedure

`Moral eclipse'

Ofer Ben Mordechai, now a mathematics student at Bar-Ilan University, heard the order when he served as a radio operator in Ramallah, from 1997 to 2000. Asaf Miarra, a soldier at Ben Mordechai's base, was attacked by Palestinians when he happened upon a demonstration.

"He was an example of an event that we don't want to see again," Ben Mordechai says. "The order was to stop the vehicle, but we are not combat soldiers - we don't know how to aim a weapon - and it's clear that if I shoot at a vehicle, I will kill everyone in it. At the base they knew we didn't know how to aim a weapon, so the order we were given was that if a suspect individual infiltrated the base, we mustn't open fire at him, because we might kill out buddies, but we were allowed to shoot at a vehicle in which there might be an abducted soldier."

Would you shoot in a case like that?

Ben Mordechai: "No. How would I feel if I shot a soldier and then a second later a helicopter would arrive that might be able to rescue him? And I wouldn't want to be shot at, either. I would prefer to be taken prisoner. I have a very strong survival instinct. But in Ramallah you run into so many idiotic orders, and this was just one more of them."

The number of people who knew about the Hannibal procedure over the years adds up to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. Nevertheless, the military censors succeeded in blocking a public discussion of the order and its morality. Only rarely was its existence made public, and even then only indirectly. In June, 2001, for example, one episode of "Politika," the current events television program, focused on a discussion about the order. The program's editor, Itai Landsberg, had been trying for more than a year to air the subject. The army claimed that the order had been changed. Landsberg's sources in the field insisted that there had been no change.

The discussion on "Politika" was a theoretical one: Was it possible that such an order could be given? The show's moderator, Dan Margalit, said repeatedly that the "discussion is theoretical, not concrete." However, a former chief education officer, Shalom Ben Moshe, said on the program that "there is such an order" and stated that he objected to it vehemently.

Dr. Avner Shiftan, a physician in the reserves, decided to place the subject on the public agenda. He served in southern Lebanon in 1999.

"I learned about the Hannibal procedure in briefings before we entered Lebanon," he says. "The procedure was very systematic, there was no place for improvisation or interpretation, the officers read it from a notebook. I was stunned when I heard the order. I told the young soldiers that this was a moral eclipse. They said there was nothing to be done, this was the order, but some of them said they would not obey it, that they had no intention of killing a buddy.'

Can't you understand the cold logic that guided the formulators of the order?

Shiftan: "The order stems from the fact that the army has a problem in protecting the lives of its soldiers. In Lebanon, I saw a company commander who barely got any sleep but who functioned all the time and safeguarded his soldiers, but the battalion commanders are interested mainly in their promotion - they are capable of ordering the soldiers to run without taking into consideration what will happen to them. My son entered the Armored Corps a month ago and was told by the battalion commander that their lives are less important than the lives of civilians. That is the army's conception."

Shiftan says he contacted the education minister and leader of the Meretz party at the time, Yossi Sarid, who says he doesn't remember being contacted or what he did. He also got in touch with Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On, who was a member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

"I understood that the subject was considered top secret and that the order had been changed," Gal-On says.

Shiftan also contacted Dan Meridor, then the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "I talked about it with major generals," Meridor recalls. "I found it problematic. You take a risk, but the question is one of proportion. If there is a high probability that the soldier will be killed in order to save him, that is an internal contradiction."

Shiftan also approached Prof. Asa Kasher, a philosopher from Tel Aviv University who drew up the IDF's code of ethics. "I was absolutely shocked," Kasher says. "I spoke to Gabi Ashkenazi, the divisional commander at the time. The first reaction I got was that it was apparently a marginal misunderstanding and that there was no reason to get upset. But every few weeks I heard something similar, soldiers called and wrote, and then I started to talk about the directive in talks I gave in the army, and always, to my astonishment, there were many in the audience who had already heard about it. Some thought it was right to die in order to facilitate the government's position in negotiations with Hezbollah. I tried to convince them that the order was not compatible with any ethical or moral principle, or with the value of friendship and professionalism. When I encountered more and more cases of the kind, I realized that it was not a marginal phenomenon and I got in touch with the military advocate general, Menahem Finkelstein, who launched a process to get the order changed."

`We don't like prisoners'

The disclosure of the existence of the Hannibal procedure came as a surprise to former POWs and to the families of missing soldiers.

"No mother would want her son to be killed rather than be taken prisoner," says Pnina Feldman, whose son, Zvi, has been missing since the battle of Sultan Yakub in Lebanon, in June 1982. "You prefer to wait until he returns, even if it goes on for very many years."

Mordechai Fink, the father of Yossi Fink, whose abduction brought about the formulation of the order, says that on the one hand, he can understand it, but says: "The nightmare we went through for 10 years is indescribable, but despite that, I would not agree to have the buddies of an abducted soldier try to save him even at the price of killing him. As long as there is life there is hope. I am also positive that the soldiers would refuse to obey the order and would not kill an Israeli soldier. What about the effect of the order on the soldiers' morale? A soldier who is taken prisoner has to know that everything will be done to rescue him without killing him."

This is not the army I would want us to have, says Yair Dori, who was taken prisoner by the Egyptians during the War of Attrition (1967-1970).

"I want us to have an army that will save lives in every case. Something terrible has happened in our army, and I say this with a great deal of pain. I survived the captivity, I have children and grandchildren - there is always a chance. The heroic thing is to stay alive. When I was a prisoner, they killed one of our pilots, and his last moments in captivity were hard, but there are those who did get back, and for that chance everything has to be done. I also would not like to leave the consideration of whether to kill in the hands of our soldiers. The next thing is that we will start to blow ourselves up. That kind of thinking belongs to a terrorist organization, not an army."

Hezi Shai, who was taken prisoner by Ahmed Jibril's organization in June, 1982 and released in May, 1985 - Shai and two other Israeli captives were freed in exchange for the release of 1,150 prisoners that Israel was holding, including Kozo Okamoto, who was serving multiple life sentences for his part in the Lod Airport massacre of 1972 - says that there was "only one time in captivity that I wanted to die. That was then they started to talk about exchanging me for prisoners and I understood that the state would have to pay a high price for my release. I told myself that if I killed myself I would really fix them, because they wouldn't be able to demand so much for my release. But apart from that, I would go into captivity again and suffer, but stay alive, rather than be killed."

The army says that terrorists who were released in exchange for you later perpetrated attacks in which dozens of civilians were killed. So your rescue, in effect, came at the price of civilian lives.

Shai: "The terrorists will strike at us whether we return prisoners or not."

Yossi Grof, who was also released as part of the Jibril deal - he was taken captive in September, 1982 along with seven soldiers of the Nahal paramilitary brigade - says: "Looking at it coldly and logically and without emotions, maybe the right thing really is to try to rescue the abductee even at the price of his life, because then you spare both the person who was taken prisoner and all kinds of institutions a great deal of embarrassment."

Grof now works with computers and lives in Modi'in; he is married and has three daughters.

"Still, I personally find it difficult to accept the order. A soldier has to know that the army will do everything to ensure that he comes back alive and not dead. In the first week of captivity you might prefer to die, but in the end, the life instinct triumphs and you are ready to do everything to survive. I sat in isolation for three years, totally cut off from the world, but I still think it's preferable to be taken prisoner than to have soldiers shoot me."

In Grof's view, the order stems from the general attitude that exists in Israel toward POWs: "The state doesn't like POWs, not even after they return," he observes. "Prisoners of Zion get a monthly allowance from the state, but I, as a redeemed prisoner, get nothing. It's not appropriate for the IDF that its soldiers should be taken prisoner and it doesn't take this possibility into account. The army perceives a POW as a soldier who didn't fight. When I returned from captivity, some officers told me that they would rather get coffins with dead soldiers than living soldiers."

Risk vs. risk

According to sources in the IDF, the order was changed in the past year. "During an abduction," the new order states, "the primary mission is to rescue the abducted soldier from his captors." The words "even at the price of harming or wounding our soldiers" were deleted.

"IDF orders stipulate that everything possible, including the use of fire, must be done to stop the abductors and rescue the abductees," the IDF Spokesperson says in a written response to a question from Haaretz. "However, there is an explicit prohibition, for obvious reasons, against opening fire in a way that will certainly, or almost certainly, bring about the death of an abducted soldier. This is based on the understanding that the value of the abducted soldier's life is higher than the price of the abduction."

Some soldiers say that they were briefed about the order in its original version even during the past year. In response, army sources say that "if needed, the procedures will be refreshed for commanding officers and soldiers."

An officer who was discharged from the army a few months ago says that he, at least, was apprised of the new version. Based on the new formulation, he told his soldiers in the past year that if a soldier is abducted in a vehicle, they are allowed to shoot only at the wheels.

"Even when you shoot at the wheels there is a risk," says Dan Shomron, who was the chief of staff in the period when the procedure took root (1987-1991). "But it's risk versus risk. What do you think, that someone is standing there with a copy of the Geneva Convention, or a lawyer who is going to go to court?"

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who was chief of staff from 1995 to 1998, and was very familiar with the procedure, also notes that "when you shoot, the abducted soldier is certainly also at risk, but it's still right to try to stop the abduction, because the situation of the abducted person is liable to be worse in Hezbollah captivity. Most cases of abduction have ended in death, and therefore it's right to prevent the abduction of soldiers at any price."

Doesn't the procedure have an adverse effect on the spirit of the army - which purports to do all it can to rescue soldiers?

Amidror: "The order is perfectly logical and appropriate to the spirit of the army. It is not crueler or less logical than other orders that are issued every day and endanger the lives of a great many more soldiers."

According to Kobi Marom, from Neveh Ativ, who was commander of the eastern sector in Lebanon from 1996 to 1998: "The spirit of the order reflects a tremendous sensitivity to human life. To prevent our suffering from the national point of view, we put soldiers at risk, but that is a reasonable risk. The state drags the abductees like a scar that doesn't heal, so there is a great deal of logic to the order. `Let's protect the soldiers' lives and let Hezbollah abuse the state' - is that what you are saying? The trauma we experience because of the captives makes us take risks, and I say this frankly and candidly, and I said the same to the soldiers. It's an order that generated a great many questions - soldiers asked whether it meant shooting at our soldiers. I told them that I rely on them to shoot the abductors, but in the end, you have a soldier with a pulse of 200 who has to cope with the event."