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Conquering the Israeli Army's Hannibal Directive

According to directive, it is permissible to open fire to thwart abductions, even at risk to soldier’s life, but not with aim of killing them so they won't be taken alive. The nuances are difficult to grasp.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The IDF using the Hannibal procedure in Rafah in August during the Gaza war.
The IDF using the Hannibal procedure in Rafah in August during the Gaza war.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The state comptroller kicked in an already-open door, we learned this week. In the draft of a different chapter of the report on 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Joseph Shapira recommended to army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot that he call a halt to the so-called Hannibal Directive, meant to avert the capture of soldiers.

Eisenkot didn’t wait for the draft’s distribution, which came Monday; in May he instructed the Military Advocate General’s Corps and the army’s Operations Division to scrap the procedure and replace it with a new protocol, which is now being written.

The disagreement over the current version of the directive, which dates to the 1980s, is a direct result of the abduction, 10 years ago this week, of Gilad Shalit. In the minutes after he was taken from his tank by Hamas fighters, there was a point at which it would have been possible to shoot at the soldier and his two abductors. A tank commander who saw three figures crossing the border into the Gaza Strip requested permission to fire a shell, but failed to make radio contact with the battalion commander. As a result, Hamas scored its biggest military success, which ended over five years later with the release of 1,027 terrorists in return for Shalit.

The army later clarified the directive: It was permissible to shoot in order to thwart an abduction, even at the risk of endangering the soldier’s life, but not to shoot with the aim of killing the soldier to keep him from being captured alive. The nuances are difficult to grasp, and they eluded many commanders in the field. Many, even up to the rank of brigade commander, believe that in such cases protocol is one thing and practice another. In their eyes, to avoid a repeat of the Shalit affair – that is, painful Israeli concessions – it would be better if the abductee were killed at the time of capture.

The Hannibal question did not arise in the following abduction, that of reserve soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in July 2006, which led to the Second Lebanon War. But it arose again, with greater urgency, in the events of “Black Friday” surrounding the capture in August 2014 of 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin. It was later determined that Goldin died during the incident.

The Hannibal directive was employed with full force, and in a manner that raises questions concerning two sensitive issues: Was the firepower meant only to effect Goldin’s rescue, or did it in fact endanger his life? (For some hours after his capture his death was not a certainty.) Second, was the extent of the Palestinian casualties resulting from the force that was brought to bear in the effort to extricate Goldin disproportionate? (Dozens of Palestinians were killed, though the exact number is in dispute.)

It seems both Eisenkot and Shapira were troubled by the findings as they related to these issues, and that this was the catalyst for halting the procedure.

But these changes will be incomplete, as former Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser noted in a conversation with Haaretz, if the elephant in the living room – the Shamgar committee report – is not addressed. The panel, appointed by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak during the negotiations for Shalit’s release, compiled a report some four years ago that included a recommendation to avoid a massive prisoner release in exchange for an Israeli held captive by a terror organization. It called for efforts to reach a 1:1 ratio in any exchange (a ratio that Israel has never obtained in past exchanges) and to avoid releasing live prisoners in return for soldiers’ remains.

Both of the issues that presumably disturb the chief of staff and the state comptroller – the fear of killing the abductee and the fear of massive enemy civilian casualties – reflect an attempt to restore some perspective. According to this approach, the terror organizations must not be permitted to turn every abduction of an Israeli into a rewarding event. It takes effort to thwart an abduction as it happens, but it’s not a no-holds-barred situation. And as Hauser noted, the policy shift must include the setting of firm boundaries to the price that Israel is willing to pay in the event of a “successful” abduction.

But the cabinet has never held a serious deliberation over the Shamgar report. The reason is obvious. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who was badly burned in the Shalit affair, agreeing to the kind of concessions he had previously warned against – does not want to hobble himself in future negotiations. The most obvious example is the prospective talks over the return of the remains of Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, together with Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayyad, Israeli civilians whom Israel claims Hamas has been holding captive since they crossed into the Strip voluntarily.

If Netanyahu were to publicly accept the Shamgar committee’s red lines, he wouldn’t have any room to maneuver in the negotiations for their release. The upshot is that Eisenkot’s maneuver, aimed at turning down the level of panic and the overreactions that go with a soldier’s abduction, will not get the finishing touch from Netanyahu on the political side anytime soon.

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