Why it's better to kill your own than accept their capture

August 8, 2014
Sarah Benton

JPost’s announcement is followed by Richard Silverstein’s latest analysis of the Israeli ‘schizophrenic’ attitude to the role of their soldiers, with quotations from Zvi Bar’el’s article (from Hebrew), and lastly Ruth Margalit’s New Yorker article on Goldin’s killing and the Hannibal directive. Links to previous posts at end.

Missing soldier Lt. Goldin declared killed in action, to be laid to rest Sunday


LAST UPDATED: 08/03/2014 06:30

The funeral is to be held at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday at the military cemetery in Kfar Saba.


Sec.-Lt. Hadar Goldin

Sec.-Lt. Hadar Goldin. Photo: Courtesy
The IDF spokesman on Sunday morning announced the death of IDF officer Lt. Hadar Goldin, who fell in battle in the Gaza Strip on Friday.

At 11:25 p.m. on Saturday, the Chief Rabbi of the IDF,
Brigadier Gen. Rafi Peretz, declared Goldin dead.

How JPost reported the story

A Nightmare Called Hannibal

By Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam
August 07, 2014

Despite the pall of military censorship, the Israel and foreign media are beginning, tentatively to air the problematic moral issues about the Hannibal Directive and how it was implemented during the Gaza war. To be clear, there has been a lot of smoke and hokum written on the subject as well. And that even is the preponderance of what is published. But there have been two noteworthy stories written, one by Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz (Hebrew) and one by Ruth Margalit in The New Yorker [below]. Far the most important is Bar’el’s, but Haaretz hasn’t yet translated it into English. Since I don’t know whether it will or not, I’m going to translate the most critical passages below.

But before I do, I wanted to point to Israeli reporting on Hannibal and the Hadar Goldin killing in particular, to illustrate Israel’s schizophrenic nature around this subject. A Ynet article describes (Hebrew) the “heroics” of Deputy Commander “Eitan,” who demanded of his superiors permission to pursue Goldin and his captors into the tunnel in which they had disappeared. The officer had to climb up the ranks of his commanding officers till he finally reached one who approved of his hot pursuit. But the commander told him that before he entered the tunnel he had to throw a grenade into it.

Compare this to this subtitle of the story:

Deputy [Commander] Who Went into Tunnel to Save Goldin…

You simply don’t throw hand grenades into tunnels into which your own comrade has just disappeared if you wish to save him. Another ghoulish aspect of this report is that it features video of Eitan visiting the bereaved Goldin family, where he’s welcomed with open arms. They truly believe Eitan valiantly tried to save their son when instead he tried to kill him (and perhaps did). There is a secret, unconscious code (something like Hannibal itself), which allows everyone to pretend Goldin died a hero and that his comrades did everything possible to save him, when the opposite is the case.

Here is Zvi Bar’el’s Haaretz column:

A Nightmare Called Hannibal

Twice we heard sighs of relief from one end of the country to another. Once when the army confirmed the death of Oron Shaul and a second, when it announced that Hadar Goldin had died. It even seemed that a note of triumph accompanied that sigh: Hamas hadn’t succeeded in kidnapping our soldiers and the country had averted a double trauma.

Who could stand the drafting of thousands of citizen do-gooders to gather at intersections with placards calling for “the return home of the soldiers?” Who has the patience of these parents, who immediately begin to run to European capitals in order to seek support and pressure Hamas? Who has the resources required to conduct negotiations with German, British or Qatari mediators in order to get a bit of information on the kidnap victims? Not to speak of the political pressure, the empty declarations of MKs concerning the “strategic threat” posed by freeing [Palestinian] prisoners in return for [Israeli] hostages. In short, give us those dead bodies and we’ll be satisfied. War, death, funerals, a clean shiva, all of which satisfy. [They offer] formal recognition of our bereavement. This is the desired order of things.

A hostage shatters the picture of victory, the narrative of complete success. A captive is a national fashlah [mishap].

But there is a cure: the army pharmacy invented the Hannibal Directive. A perverted, satanic product which, in common parlance, we may describe as: “let the world go to hell and the kidnap victim too, as long as we’re not shamed.” The practical ramification of the expression is artillery bombardments, aerial bombardment, and destruction of all that moves in the vicinity of the kidnapping, in order to prevent the kidnappers from fleeing. Let a hundred die, even a thousand, let hundreds of homes be turned into dust, let children be made orphans and women in labor roll in their own blood, just so that the kidnappers and perhaps the kidnap victim himself should die.

“You must act, to the extent possible, to stop the kidnapping, including laying down fire, but not in a manner which causes a high likelihood of death to the kidnap victim. This is due to an understanding that the value of the life of the kidnap victim is greater than the price of the kidnapping [ransom],” clarifies Prof. Asa Kasher, who wrote the IDF’s ethical code.

How do you define “a high likelihood?” How many residents may you kill and how many homes destroy in order to prevent a kidnapping? Is 100 Palestinians acceptable? Maybe 150? 100 homes is in the realm of what’s acceptable? It goes without saying that the lives of Palestinians aren’t worth much to begin with, their homes worth even less.

But where did that shrug of the shoulders that was seen among IDF spokespersons and politicians of several days past go, when they troubled themselves to explain that falling captive, just like the death or wounding of a soldier, was an inseparable part of war? If falling captive is so “natural” why do we need to make worlds quake [when it happens to us]? Even when a soldier is killed, the IDF doesn’t purposely destroy a school or clinic. At least this is what we would hope. So why for the sake of a captive does the IDF ignite a a spewing volcano which is likely to pour boiling lava also on the kidnap victim himself?

There is no intent to save [the soldier] in the Hannibal Directive, and certain no ethics or essential [moral] value. The falling of a person into captivity obligates that we do everything to free him…from captivity, not from life itself. Yes, it is permitted, even criticial to conduct negotiations to free him, to exchange him for prisoners or to pay ransom if that’s what is necessary. Nations no less ethical than Israel have done so and continue to do so.

The bluff that we don’t conduct negotiations with terrorists has been exposed for some time. Even now Israel conducts talks with Hamas, with which it signed a ceasefire in 2012. Are ceasefire talks more moral than talks over returning a captive? All the argument for and against exchanging prisoners have been exhausted in the case of Gilad Shalit and his predecessors. In the end, freeing them was considered, in effect, the most humane and ethical act the country could do on behalf of its soldiers. The Hannibal Directive contradicts in an absolute manner this approach. It must be repudiated immediately.

As for Margalit’s article, it is generally quite good. But I take strong issue with this statement:

To be clear, there is no evidence that Goldin was killed by friendly fire.

There are heaping mounds of evidence that Goldin was killed by his own comrades. I’ve reported here that members of his unit wounded him as he was being carried away. You’ve read above that another soldier threw a grenade into a tunnel into which he’d been carried. Every ambulance or vehicle approaching the hospital where he might be taken for treatment was annihilated by IDF fire. How much evidence do you need to say that it’s highly likely Goldin (as well as Guy Levy) was killed by his own?

Hadar Goldin and the Hannibal Directive

By Ruth Margalit, New Yorker
August 06, 2014

Buried deep inside a Times report last weekend about Hadar Goldin, the Israeli soldier who was reported captured by Hamas, in the southern Gaza Strip, and then declared dead, was the following paragraph:

The circumstances surrounding his death remained cloudy. A military spokeswoman declined to say whether Lieutenant Goldin had been killed along with two comrades by a suicide bomb one of the militants exploded, or later by Israel’s assault on the area to hunt for him; she also refused to answer whether his remains had been recovered.

Just what those circumstances were began to filter out early this week, and they attest to deep contradictions in the Israeli military—and in Israeli culture at large.

A temporary ceasefire went into effect last Friday morning at eight. At nine-fifteen, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces headed toward a house, in the city of Rafah, that served as an entry point to a tunnel reportedly leading into Israel. As the I.D.F. troops advanced, a Hamas militant emerged from the tunnel and opened fire. Two soldiers were killed. A third, Goldin, was captured—whether dead or alive is unclear—and taken into the tunnel. What is clear is that after Goldin was reported missing, the I.D.F. enacted a highly controversial measure known as the Hannibal Directive, firing at the area where Goldin was last seen in order to stop Hamas from taking him captive. As a result, according to Palestinian sources, seventy Palestinians were killed. By Sunday, Goldin, too, had been declared dead.

Opinions differ over how this protocol, which remained a military secret until 2003, came to be known as Hannibal. There are indications that it was named for the Carthaginian general, who chose to poison himself rather than fall captive to the Romans, but I.D.F. officials insist that a computer generated the name at random. Whatever its provenance, the moniker seems chillingly apt. Developed by three senior I.D.F. commanders, in 1986, following the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, the directive established the steps the military must take in the event of a soldier’s abduction. Its stated goal is to prevent Israeli troops from falling into enemy hands, “even at the cost of hurting or wounding our soldiers.” While normal I.D.F. procedures forbid soldiers from firing in the general direction of their fellow-troops, including attacking a getaway vehicle, such procedures, according to the Hannibal Directive, are to be waived in the case of an abduction: “Everything must be done to stop the vehicle and prevent it from escaping.”

Although the order specifies that only selective light-arms fire should be used in such cases, the message behind it is resounding. When a soldier has been abducted, not only are all targets legitimate—including, as we saw over the weekend, ambulances—but it’s permissible, and even implicitly advisable, for soldiers to fire on their own. For more than a decade, military censors blocked journalists from reporting on the protocol, apparently because they feared it would demoralize the Israeli public. In 2003, an Israeli doctor who had heard of the directive while serving as a reservist, in Lebanon, began advocating for its annulment, leading to its declassification. That year, a Haaretz investigation of the directive concluded that “from the point of view of the army, a dead soldier is better than a captive soldier who himself suffers and forces the state to release thousands of captives in order to obtain his release.”

For years, Israeli soldiers on the battlefield had hotly debated the directive and its use. At least one battalion commander, according to the Haaretz investigation, refused to brief his soldiers on it, arguing that it was “flagrantly illegal.” And a rabbi, asked by a soldier about the order’s religious aspect, advised him to disobey it. Major General Yossi Peled, one of the commanders who drafted the directive, told Haaretz that its purpose was to assert how far the military could go to prevent abductions. “I wouldn’t drop a one-ton bomb on the vehicle, but I would hit it with a tank shell that could make a big hole in the vehicle, which would make it possible for anyone who was not hit directly—if the vehicle did not blow up—to emerge in one piece,” Peled said. It’s understandable that soldiers would scratch their heads over formulations such as these.

To be clear, there is no evidence that Goldin was killed by friendly fire. But military officials did confirm that commanders on the ground had activated the Hannibal Directive and ordered “massive fire”—not for the first time since Operation Protective Edge began, on July 8th. (One week into the ground offensive, in the central Gaza Strip, forces reportedly enacted the protocol when another soldier, Guy Levy, was believed missing.) Since the directive’s inception, the I.D.F. is known to have used it only a handful of times, including in the case of Gilad Shalit. The order came too late for Shalit and did not prevent his abduction—or his eventual release, in 2011, in exchange for a thousand and twenty-seven Palestinian prisoners. That year, as part of the military’s inquiry into the circumstances leading to Shalit’s capture, the I.D.F.’s Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, modified the directive. It now allows field commanders to act without awaiting confirmation from their superiors; at the same time, the directive’s language was tempered to make clear that it does not call for the willful killing of captured soldiers. In changing the wording of the protocol, Gantz introduced an ethical principle known as the “double-effect doctrine,” which states that a bad result (the killing of a captive soldier) is morally permissible only as a side effect of promoting a good action (stopping his captors).

Whether soldiers have heeded this change in language, and how they now choose to interpret the directive, is difficult to assess. If past experience is any indication, the military hierarchy’s interpretation remains unequivocal. During Israel’s last operation in Gaza, in 2011, one Golani commander was caught on tape telling his unit: “No soldier in the 51st Battalion will be kidnapped, at any price or under any condition. Even if it means that he has to detonate his own grenade along with those who try to capture him. Even if it means that his unit will now have to fire at the getaway car.”

On Sunday, a decade after its initial investigation of the Hannibal Directive, Haaretz revisited the subject with a piece by Anshel Pfeffer that tried to explain why, despite the procedure’s morally questionable nature, there hasn’t been significant opposition to it. Pfeffer wrote:

Perhaps the most deeply engrained reason that Israelis innately understand the needs for the Hannibal Directive is the military ethos of never leaving wounded men on the battlefield, which became the spirit following the War of Independence, when hideously mutilated bodies of Israeli soldiers were recovered. So Hannibal has stayed a fact of military life and the directive activated more than once during this current campaign.

Ronen Bergman, author of the book “By Any Means Necessary,” which examines Israel’s history of dealing with captive soldiers, further explained this rationale in a recent radio interview: “There is a disproportionate sensitivity among Israelis [on the issue of captive soldiers] that is hard to describe to foreigners.” Bergman traced this sensitivity back to Maimonides, the medieval Torah scholar, who wrote: “There is no greater Mitzvah than redeeming captives.”

This line of argument, while historically true, is worth pausing over—if only to unpack the moral paradox within it. In essence, what this “military ethos” means is that Israel sanctifies the lives of its soldiers so much, and would be willing to pay such an exorbitant price for their release, that it will do everything in its power to prevent such a scenario—including putting those same soldiers’ lives at risk (not to mention wreaking havoc on the surrounding population). This is the dubious situation that Israel finds itself in: signalling to the military that a dead soldier is preferable to a captive one, while at the same time signalling to the Israeli public that no cost will be spared to secure a captured soldier’s release. (It’s worth recalling that, three years after Shalit was traded for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, the captive U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was traded for five Taliban prisoners. This isn’t to suggest that Israel cares more about its troops than the United States does, but rather that no crime is greater, in the eyes of Israelis, than the kidnapping of “our boys.”)

Daniel Nisman, who runs a geopolitical-security consultancy, told the Times that the Hannibal Directive “sounds terrible, but you have to consider it within the framework of the Shalit deal. That was five years of torment for this country, where every newscast would end with how many days Shalit had been in captivity. It’s like a wound that just never heals.”

On Tuesday, as a seventy-two-hour ceasefire went into effect and the I.D.F. pulled its ground forces out of Gaza, I spoke to Assaf Sharon, the academic director of Molad, a progressive Israeli think tank that focusses on social policy. While he accepted Nisman’s logic, he questioned the Hannibal Directive’s social ramifications. “I don’t know that you can draft clear-cut rules that would apply to any situation, but I do think that a certain risk of a captured soldier’s life should be allowed. I think the real problem starts with the hysterical discourse, of the kind that says, ‘This must be stopped at any cost.’ From there, the path to the horrors we’ve seen over the last few days, in Rafah, is a short one. What we’ve seen wasn’t only putting a soldier’s life at risk but intentionally targeting anything that moved—whether relevant or irrelevant.”

Sharon added that the mixed consequences of the directive are typical of the behavior that now characterizes the Israeli public at large. “On the one hand, we are willing to risk soldiers’ lives recklessly and without need, but on the other hand we have zero tolerance for the price that this might entail.”

With sixty-seven Israelis and more than eighteen hundred Palestinians killed, ground forces have completed their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The Hannibal Directive will soon be tucked away, along with the worn bulletproof vests, until the next time the military wades into hostile territory. But its moral implications will linger. It’s time for the painful reconstruction, both in Gaza and in Israeli society, to slowly start.

Links to postings, August 4th, 2014
Did the IDF kill its own?

The Hannibal Directive

© Copyright JFJFP 2017