Hostage Dilemmas: Learning From Hamas to Use Against ISIS

Hamas' abduction attempts and Israel's harsh response raise moral and political choices that many other states with nationals taken hostage by Islamist groups must also confront.

Ariel Colonomos
Ariel Colonomos
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Palestinians look for their belongings in the rubble of houses destroyed in an Israeli strike, Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, August 2, 2014
Palestinians look for their belongings in the rubble of houses destroyed in an Israeli strike, Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, August 2, 2014Credit: AP
Ariel Colonomos
Ariel Colonomos

The Gaza conflict highlighted the dilemma of how states should react to the hostage-taking of their nationals. It is a cruel and problematic issue that now resonates loudly beyond Israel and Gaza with the spate of hostage taking by the Islamic State in Syria. What are the moral and political quandaries regarding abductions that Israel faced in the recent Gaza conflict? Can the strengths and shortcomings of its responses help inform Europe and the U.S.'s actions regarding the seizure of their civilian nationals now?

Hamas and Hezbollah regularly call for Israeli soldiers to be kidnapped; further afield, jihadist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaida and its affiliates kidnap Westerners to finance their activities or for propaganda or strategic gain. Abduction has also become commonplace in Africa and is part of Boko Haram's strategy.

Failing to foil an attempted kidnap means its victim, whether soldier or civilian, is likely to be used as a potent bargaining chip in negotiations, with a high price tag both financially, politically and morally for the hostage's home country. When a kidnapping is known about in real-time, a decision has to be taken extremely rapidly about the kind of response and degree of force to be authorized, or else in many cases the hostage will be beyond all reasonable means of rescue.

Calling Hannibal

When the news broke on August 1, 2014 that the Israeli soldier Lt. Hadar Goldin might have been taken hostage in Gaza, Israel refused to revisit the Gilad Shalit hostage ordeal, in which one of its soldiers was abducted and held by Hamas for five years. It appears that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) exchanged fire with the Hamas combatants and the captive died before he could be taken away by his potential abductors. The attempt to kidnap him was thus aborted in its initial stages. This policy is known as the Hannibal procedure.

In the event of the abduction of one of its soldiers, the IDF reserves the right to launch an immediate search using massive force even at the risk to the soldier’s life. Adopted in 1986, the "Hannibal Directive" has rarely been used and, although widely discussed in closed security circles, it has only recently been made public. Whether the historical resonance of the name is coincidence (as the IDF claims) or whether it was deliberately chosen, Hannibal is remembered for having committed suicide to avoid capture by the Romans.

The Hannibal Directive has sometimes been misinterpreted as transforming the abducted soldier into the primary target in the operation. This is not the case. However, the practice still poses some serious problems.

IDF officers have repeatedly insisted that no soldier should fall into the hands of its enemies, such as Hezbollah or Hamas. In the best-case scenario, the missing soldier is retrieved alive and civilians suffer no casualties. There are two other possible scenarios. In one, massive force is used which causes the death not only of the abductors and probably civilians but also of the soldier. In the other, the use of force fails to rescue the soldier from his abductors, but he remains alive.

Of these last two scenarios, the IDF’s preference would seem to lie on the side of the use of massive force: The unintentional killing of a captured soldier is preferable to his remaining alive as a hostage in the hands of its captors.

This is what makes the Hannibal procedure radically different from more familiar cases of kidnapping where security forces try to rescue people from their captors and the operation is considered a failure if the hostages die.

For any army, the “Hannibal Directive” poses a dilemma, one of many posed by asymmetrical warfare. Yet it also poses unique questions about the limits of force the state authorizes for itself and on whose behalf. I believe that the Hannibal procedure is morally indefensible, and that the problem is a political one.

Hannibal, hostages and moral failures

Notwithstanding the allegations that the IDF has committed war crimes in the Gaza operations, it is very self-conscious about the ethical guidelines its soldiers fight under. There are at least two reasons for this. First, Judaism, in great part, is an ethical discussion of the law. By extension, ethics is part of Israeli culture, and that includes the military. Second, Israel is constantly accused of wrongdoings and defending itself in the legal arena and in the face of moral accusations.

But is the Hannibal Directive consistent with Israel’s national ethical values and with the international laws of war? I think not, for four reasons.

First, the Hannibal Directive deeply violates some of the values emphasized in the IDF ethical codes stressing the moral value of Israeli soldiers. In practical terms, this means that the IDF should never abandon its men and women and should bring them back even if the cost of doing so is very great (and even if they are dead). This obligation is spelled out in Jewish law, according to which ransom should be paid to save or bring back any member of the community who has been taken hostage. One could question the value of this norm and its practical implications. Notwithstanding this, the Hannibal procedure breaks a social and moral contract between the state and its soldiers, and goes against a tradition that might have given false hopes to the soldiers’ families.

Second, for the IDF to kill one of its own soldiers violates the laws of war. A soldier is liable to be killed, but by being targeted by your opponents. Moreover, your own soldier does not constitute a threat; what is threatening is how his captors instrumentalize him. Finally, this procedure radically negates the human rights of soldiers, which, some argue, are rights that must also be protected in time of war.

Third, I do not believe the death can be morally justified as a case of so-called “double-effect.” This doctrine justifies collateral deaths when they are unintentional. In the Hannibal case, one might argue for the moral acceptability of foreseeing the death of collateral innocents because they are declared to be unintended consequences of the action. However, in this case, stricto sensu the death of the innocent soldier cannot be glossed as unintentional; overall, it is his death that would allow the outcome to be described as 'positive' (i.e. the soldier has ceased to be a bargaining chip in the hands of the enemy).

Finally, as the example of Lt. Goldin shows, the massive use of fire is likely to violate the rule of proportionality (i.e. the rule whereby the damage caused by a military operation should not outweigh the military advantage that is being sought). When the news broke that Lt. Goldin had been kidnapped, the IDF launched massive artillery bombardments and air strikes in Rafah aimed at destroying possible escape routes. This caused the death of dozens of Palestinians, including many civilians. One could also argue that if the soldier had been kidnapped this could have prolonged the war (given that Israelis would not have accepted Hamas’s demands and could have launched a massive ground attack to try to retrieve him), and therefore have increased the suffering of civilians. However, the rule of proportionality would still have been breached and the hypothetical overall saving of innocent life (i.e. the consequences of the kidnapping actually taking place a la Gilad Shalit) would also need to be properly established.

Sacrificing hostages - a kind of euthanasia

What the Hannibal Directive confronts us with is the tension between individual morality (the approach usually favored in discussions of the ethics of war) and political responsibility. Hannibalism is a political decision, which has hardly anything to do with the current standards or norms of warfare that prevail both in Israel and at the international level. It is a political gesture and not a moral decision. Israel is no Hannibal. Like Alexander the great, it decides to cut the Gordian knot using radical means.

Israel shows it is prepared to define the boundaries of the ethical realm: It accepts the obligation to honor the moral value of its soldiers, but set limits to that obligation since the price of the ransom for abducted soldiers would be too high. Indeed, even the Torah says “captives should not be ransomed for more than their value, for the sake of the general welfare.”

Usually, the alternatives are clear: either you pay the ransom and accept the conditions set by the kidnappers, or you do not pay, the hostage is killed, and you face political pressure based upon moral and emotional grounds. A third, more radical, way is to put an end to the abduction process in Hannibalistic situations.

What we see in this example is the tragic situation of military and political euthanasia. The life of the abducted soldier is likely to be a nightmare for him, for his family and, most of all, for his political community. His death becomes a lesser evil than his life as a captive.

This shows how values change, whether a situation is interpreted as an individual dilemma or whether a decision is part of the larger body of politics and strategy. The analogy with euthanasia is all the more valid given that some IDF soldiers openly state that if they were to fall into the hands of the enemy, Israel should not negotiate for their liberation and should therefore expose them to death at the hands of their abductors. In doing so, these soldiers want to communicate that they are, above all, members of a political community and a military entity, and that this identity comes first.

The Hannibal situation also involves a different approach to sacrifice to that with which we are used in Western democracies. In Europe and in the United States, it is often assumed that soldiers are not willing to sacrifice their lives, and states should therefore be all the more cautious when conducting risky operations. In France, for example, some members of the families of soldiers who died in Afghanistan have sued the army for negligence. In the UK, the human rights of soldiers have been adopted as a binding set of rules.

The case of Lt. Goldin shows that different states have different interpretations of sacrifice. It is noteworthy that, so far, no public protest in Israel has been made against Hannibalism. Here, silence equals consent.

Sacrifice is essentially a temporal dilemma. What this dramatic case shows is how a political community orients itself toward the future. We generally tend to “discount the future”, and we find this phenomenon in other areas such as the environment or inter-generational justice. Present lives are more valuable than future lives. In the case of the Hannibal (or rather the Alexander) doctrine, it is the precise opposite: Future lives are not discounted - rather, the future of the political community outweighs individual lives in the present.

The future is taken into account at another level, as the potential future effects of this doctrine also seem to matter. The operation of the procedure in the case of Lt. Goldin is said to have a potentially deterrent effect. It sends a message to Hamas and other groups that challenge Israel, which now know that attempts to abduct Israeli soldiers are likely to fail.

The hostage dilemma goes global

The UK and the U.S. have made a radically different choice from Israel and its Hannibal procedure in trying to deter groups like the Islamic State from taking their nationals hostage. They have chosen not to comply with these groups' demands and have favored inaction rather than the massive force employed by Israel.

This policy, however, appears to be changing, not least by the U.S. following the shockwave unleashed by the abduction and beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The U.S. has also revealed that there was a failed but proactive attempt by Special Forces to save James Foley in Syria over the summer.

How can we define the difference in terms of moral choice and political action between the hostage taking of civilians (journalists, aid workers) in Syria and that of (for example, Israeli) soldiers?

The Hannibal Directive is a fortiori problematic when the abducted person is a civilian, as is the case for those (now) high-profile hostages in Syria. The unintentional killing of the hostage by its home nation in a deterrence mission could never be considered a lesser evil.

But are the two cases of soldiers and civilians really radically different? Not, at least, from one perspective. A hostage is a person whose universal human rights have been severely violated, whether he is a soldier (and he is not a prisoner of war) or he is a civilian. It becomes then the responsibility of the international society of states to free him.

Unfortunately at present states decide by themselves their own policies without reference to wider international norms. They can use financial incentives or harsher methods to free them; they can decide to hide from their own public the basic fact that fellow nationals have been abducted. Indeed the precise number of British and American hostages held in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq remain unknown to the public. But this policy has not deterred ISIS or other groups from the practice of kidnapping.

As both inaction nor the Hannibal Directive/massive use of force are neither efficient nor moral options, it becomes absolutely necessary to negotiate a solution with the hostage takers who will then bear the legal consequences of their actions once the hostages have been freed. This above all is a political issue - and one that needs to be dealt with multilaterally.

How much force should we use to free a hostage?

What is troubling about the Hannibal procedure is that, overall, a strategic and political objective defined in negative terms – no soldier should be taken captive – trumps a moral value defined in positive terms – a soldier’s life is preferable to his death.

The immediate, massive use of force in searching for a soldier - and for a Western civilian in Syria – at risk of abduction is morally problematic. It requires strong political will and is grounded in raison d’Etat, which might stand in time of war but should be questioned when swords have been put back in their scabbards.

The critical debate about a hostage-taking scenario regarding the use of force, whether for Israel or for states whose nationals are held by the Islamic State and other groups, must be held at both the domestic and international levels. One of the few positive outcomes from the Gaza war could be just such a debate within Israel's own political community about the broader consequences of actions that relate to the value of life and death, with this case being just one of them.

As in the broader context of Israel’s policy in its relations with the Palestinians at large and their political community, Israel as a democracy has to show clearly the direction it wants to pursue when it authorizes for itself the use of force. It is a policy in development that other states in the international community will be watching as they find themselves faced with their own hostage dilemmas.

Ariel Colonomos teaches at Sciences Po in Paris and he is a senior research fellow at CNRS (CERI).

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Trump and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, in 2020.

Three Years Later, Israelis Find Out What Trump Really Thought of Netanyahu

German soldier.

The Rival Jewish Spies Who Almost Changed the Course of WWII

Rio. Not all Jewish men wear black hats.

What Does a Jew Look Like? The Brits Don't Seem to Know

Galon. “I’m coming to accomplish a specific mission: to increase Meretz’s strength and ensure that the party will not tread water around the electoral threshold. If Meretz will be large enough, it will be the basis for a Jewish-Arab partnership.” Daniel Tchetchik

'I Have No Illusions About Ending the Occupation, but the Government Needs the Left'

Soldiers using warfare devices made by the Israeli defense electronics company Elbit Systems.

Russia-Ukraine War Catapults Israeli Arms Industry to Global Stage

Flame and smoke rise during an Israeli air strike, amid Israel-Gaza fighting, in Gaza City August 6, 2022.

Israel Should End Gaza Operation Now, if It Can