Why the Israeli Army Is Dropping Its Controversial Hannibal Directive

Army chief Gadi Eisenkot is determined to rid the IDF of its entrenched conventions, whether that's on the battlefield or at training bases. The actions of politicians and religious leaders don't make his task any easier.

Reuters

An abduction scenario in the occupied territories or on any of the country’s borders remains the biggest nightmare for Israel’s leadership. That’s why the army practices handling the scenario frequently as one of the opening moves that could lead to an outbreak of war. This week, Haaretz reported that Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has decided to revoke the Hannibal Directive – aimed at averting a soldier’s capture, even at the risk of endangering them – and to formulate a new protocol in its place.

Even though it hasn’t been stated explicitly, the incident that seemingly convinced the chief of staff once and for all of the need for change happened on “Black Friday” – the battle in Rafah in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge in August 2014, during the course of which Hamas captured the dead body of Lt. Hadar Goldin. Some of the measures taken during the battle could indicate that at the junior command level, there was a very broad interpretation of the protocol, contrary to the written text.

In a letter then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sent in August 2015, in response to a request from Meretz Chairwoman MK Zehava Galon for information on the Hannibal Directive, he wrote: “The procedure is classified, so therefore I am unable to accede to your request to send the precise wording.” However, the defense minister added, “The procedure doesn’t allow for acting against the principles of international law,” nor “exacting the highest possible price from the civilian population in the area where the abduction was carried out,” as Galon had warned. “Moreover, even though a military action to thwart a kidnapping after it occurs is nearly always accompanied by some degree of risk to the captive’s life, it must be made clear that the procedure prohibits opening fire with the aim of killing the captive.”

However, what was clear to Ya’alon was not perfectly clear on the ground, as seen by Eisenkot’s frequent visits to the division commanders and combat units. This gave birth to an instruction to Operations Directorate head Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon and Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek to replace the wording of the order, which was first formulated after the capture of Israeli soldiers Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh in the security zone in southern Lebanon, in 1986.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot speaking at an event for reserve soldiers at the President's Residence, June 27, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The logic of an operation 30 years ago in Lebanon is no longer relevant to the diverse situations the Israeli army now faces in the territories and on its borders. Each arena brings its own set of unique circumstances, and the series of actions required changes accordingly. In any case, the new orders will also bring what Ya’alon wrote into clearer focus. They will not make the blood of the captured soldier, nor that of enemy civilians, fair game in the spirit that had prevailed on the ground.

The recommendation to revoke the Hannibal Directive is also included in the State Comptroller’s draft report on aspects of international law during the war in Gaza, which was distributed this week.

‘Moral cancer’

Once again, as in previous instances in which he acted to change conventions that had become needlessly entrenched, Eisenkot is facing public criticism – mostly from one very specific political direction – about damaging the status quo. This time it was Rabbi Avi Gisser, head of the Mishpatei Aretz Institute that deals with Jewish military ethics, who protested the IDF’s implied intention of adopting restraint with regard to the Palestinian civilian population while preventing an abduction.

Gisser expressed reasoned criticism, without getting dragged into personal or belligerent words. However, this not the language that characterizes the frequent attacks on Eisenkot and his second-in-command, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, in synagogue bulletins of late. For example, comments Golan made recently on a military forum concerning the need to reduce harm to enemy civilians was widely interpreted as meaning that he was indifferent to the lives of Israeli soldiers. The headline was unambiguous: “Moral cancer in the body of the IDF.”

In articles like this, the top command in the army is depicted as defeatist, a prisoner of the spirit of the Oslo Accords, and obedient to a malicious leftist virus that has infiltrated its ranks – which has its source, of course, in the New Israel Fund NGO, university professors and Haaretz.

When Eisenkot visited a large pre-army preparatory course in the West Bank settlement of Eli as part of Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in May, he was greeted with the appropriate respect. And yet such articles are now also being read by the students who cheered him there, many of whom will soon be assigned to the elite units of the IDF.

Once again, in the relations between the IDF top brass and religious Zionism, there’s a sense of persecution and victimhood, which has built as a result of many disputes. One such storm concerned regulations restricting soldiers’ rights to grow beards; another was the limitation of speeches by rabbis at military swearing-in ceremonies; another is the order that sets an upper limit to the age at which battalion commanders can serve – which could hurt the advancement of religious officers, who began their command career late after studying at yeshiva.

In this tense atmosphere, fragments of misinformation become conclusive diagnoses, and unrelated events are explained together in comprehensive conspiracy theories – of which the most recent and most absurd holds that the army wants its religious officers brave and battleworthy, but wants to limit their promotion opportunities to senior ranks.

The military advocate general’s recent decision – to reprimand armored corps battalion commander Lt. Col. Neria Yeshuru for ordering a “revenge barrage” of tank fire on an empty medical clinic in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, in memory of one of his subordinates who was killed, but not to initiate criminal proceedings – was immediately depicted as an insult to the entire religious community and brought in its wake a number of articles protesting the injustice.

However, the sacking of two other battalion commanders this past year – for an accident during training maneuvers in which an officer was killed, and for conducting a romantic relationship with a female officer in the battalion, respectively – haven’t caused any uproar because those battalion commanders didn’t wear skullcaps.

Eisenkot senses that when it comes to relations between the army and religion – like other aspects of its relation with Israeli society – the IDF has lost its way a little in the past decade. And when you go off course in the army, standard procedure is to go back to your last familiar navigation point. This is what the chief of staff is doing now, attempting to reduce external intervention in the army – manifested in the cancellation of lectures by external guests on Shabbat at Basic Training Base 1, and in a general directive to reduce internal discussion with soldiers about rifts and disagreements that are tearing civilian society apart.

The cutest army in the world

This past week, the chief of staff convened a conference of all the new recruit and training commanders in the IDF, in order to get them aligned in advance of next month’s recruitment intake cycle. The main message: The army must make it clear to recruits that from the moment they don their uniforms, they are subject to different rules. “The Spirit of the IDF” is not a poster hanging on the wall, but rather a document that obligates soldiers, male or female, in all their actions, as persons serving in an official organization dedicated to defending the country and, in time of need, securing victories.

By virtue of these stipulations, boundaries are also marked out for the civilian organizations that come into contact with the army – and not everything is connected to the religious sphere. Last week, for example, the General Staff was alarmed by two clear deviations from the army’s principles.

The first, which was revealed in a report on Channel 2 television, is the industry of bar mitzvah visits by Jewish families from the United States to military bases – in absolute contravention of General Staff orders; the second, as reported on Israel Radio, saw soldiers at the Hatzerim Air Base ordered to form up in the shape of the word “Google,” in honor of the company’s top executive, Eric Schmidt, who was visiting.

In the first affair, the Military Police are investigating. The findings of the inquiry into the second incident will be presented to air force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel. In both cases, punishment is expected.

The chief of staff’s battle to stop irrelevant or improper outside influences is encountering difficulty from another direction: the intentional flattening, to the point of infantilization, of the public discourse and clear tendency to favor emotional responses over rational debate. This is a trend that’s consistently encouraged by politicians and media outlets: its most recent manifestation occurred during the Knesset debate on Turkey last Wednesday.

MK Haneen Zoabi (Joint List) got the precise reaction she had hoped for when she aroused the wrath of her Knesset colleagues after calling the naval commandoes who took control of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in 2010 “murderers” (ignoring the fact that some of the fighters had descended from a helicopter onto the deck without live weaponry and were severely beaten with iron bars).

The lawmakers’ loss of control was later echoed, without any apparent hint of irony, by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. His Facebook post included a photo of himself with Israeli soldiers alongside the statement: “There is only one truth. IDF soldiers, our sons and our daughters, are the most moral and cutest in the world. Period.”

Barkat was once a company commander in the Paratroopers Brigade, and he certainly never saw his own soldiers as “cute.” When these saccharine tones prevail, the question remains: What are the odds that Eisenkot’s complex, very nuanced messages can penetrate the barrage of stupidity and sentimentality that bombards the Israeli public on a daily basis?