JERUSALEM — An Israeli military tactic that allows overwhelming fire to stop the capture of soldiers — even at the risk of killing them — is facing criticism after its use in the Gaza war killed some 100 Palestinians.
The military used the “Hannibal Procedure” after soldiers feared militants had captured an officer, unleashing heavy shelling on the southern Gaza town of Rafah. Now, a group is calling on the military to abandon the practice, saying it puts captured soldiers at unreasonable risk and can lead to civilian deaths.
In an army with a strong ethos of “no soldier left behind,” there is a near obsession with preventing the abduction of Israeli troops, in part because past cases have ended in painful, lopsided prisoner exchanges after years of protracted negotiations. New recruits learn that if they see a soldier being captured and rushed away in a car, they should shoot at the vehicle to stop its progress, even if it risks the soldier’s life.
The “Hannibal Procedure” was designed in the mid-1980s by Yossi Peled, then head of Israel’s Northern Command, after Hezbollah guerrillas captured two soldiers in southern Lebanon.
The actual order was drafted along with two of his top staff officers, Col. Gabi Ashkenazi, who later became the Israeli military chief, and Col. Yaakov Amidror, who recently ended a term as Israel’s national security adviser. Hannibal was a legendary military commander who battled the ancient Romans, though officials say the name was selected randomly by a computer.
Peled declined to comment, but Amidror stood behind a rationale he said was often misinterpreted. He said it gives young soldiers on the ground clear guidelines for such a situation.
“The order is that you cannot kill the soldier, but you can endanger him. A soldier in that situation knows he is in danger anyway,” he said. “How is it any different than giving a soldier an order to charge forward into live fire? You are also putting his life in danger that way. That’s what soldiers do.”
However, its application in the Gaza war has angered critics who say it may have led to the deaths of scores of Palestinians on Aug. 1, when Israeli soldiers feared militants had captured Lt. Hadar Goldin.
Hamas fire killed Goldin and two other Israeli soldiers near Rafah, along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, shortly after an internationally brokered cease-fire took effect.
According to Israeli media reports, three bodies were found at the scene shortly after the ambush, but upon closer inspection troops realized that one of them was a Hamas militant disguised in an Israeli uniform — raising fears that Hamas had captured Goldin.
That’s when “Hannibal” allegedly went into effect, with Israel unleashing a massive barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire aimed at blocking any potential escape routes of the kidnappers. Defying protocol, a fellow officer rushed into one of the tunnels and found some personal effects belonging to Goldin that helped the military later rule him dead.
The military would not officially confirm whether “Hannibal” was enacted after Goldin’s disappearance, but multiple officials say the rare order was given. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.
The heavy shelling leveled the area in Rafah, killing some 100 Palestinians, Palestinian health officials say. They could not offer a breakdown of the number of civilians and militants killed.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a prominent rights group, asked the government this week to strike down the doctrine and investigate its use.
“A protocol that puts the life of the captured soldier in jeopardy to thwart a kidnapping is fundamentally unacceptable,” ACRI wrote to Israel’s attorney general on Monday. “Implementing this protocol in populated areas, wherein the soldier and his captors are surrounded by a civilian population that is not taking part in hostilities, is strictly prohibited.”
Israel’s Justice Ministry declined to comment, merely saying it received the letter.
The fear of being captured runs deep in Israeli society, where military service is mandatory for most Jewish males. Islamic militant groups have put a premium on capturing soldiers. When they have succeeded, they have not extended international prisoner of war rights, preventing visits from the Red Cross and keeping word of their captives’ status secret.
Asa Kasher, a philosophy professor who authored the military’s official code of conduct in the 1990s, said the “Hannibal Procedure” has been grossly misunderstood and strikes a delicate balance between protecting the lives of soldiers and carrying out military responsibilities. Much of the directive remains classified, but Kasher stressed the conventional wisdom of a “dead soldier being better than a captive soldier” was a fallacy.
“That is just an awful saying and totally untrue. It goes against every value of the” Israeli military, he said.
However, Tamar Feldman, an ACRI lawyer, said the practice violates the potential captive’s human rights. When employed in a crowded area like Gaza, it raised even more questions.
“A command that subjugates the life of a soldier to an unknown political gain … is both cynical and revolting,” she wrote. “Activating this protocol in the heart of an urban and civilian environment is particularly grave; it shakes the foundations of law and morality and must be absolutely condemned.”