Audio recordings of the army’s radio transmissions, broadcast moments after an Israeli soldier was shot and abducted outside Rafah in the Gaza Strip in early August, cast new light Tuesday on the Hannibal Protocol– an order meant to thwart the seizure of a soldier, even at potentially steep human costs.
The partially censored recordings, first published by Yoav Zeitoun of Ynet, come just as the IDF’s Military Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Dan Efroni, weighs whether or not to press criminal charges against Israeli soldiers involved in the deaths of several dozen Palestinians in Operation Protective Edge.
Chiefly, he must determine whether or not the IDF violated the international rules of law with its response to the August 1, 2014 abduction of Lt. Hadar Goldin and, even if not, whether the IDF should alter its formulated response to the abduction of a soldier, especially when the kidnapping is carried out in a densely populated urban environment. Goldin and two other soldiers were killed in the incident.
Palestinian authorities have claimed that the Israeli counterstrike in Rafah, meant to cut off all escape routes and to foil the kidnapping operation, resulted in the deaths of as many as 150 civilians.
Israeli officers have said that their consciences “are clean” and that an enemy acting amid civilians — an enemy that had violated a ceasefire that morning and sought to cut at Israel’s most sensitive wound, attempting to duplicate the Gilad Shalit abduction and prisoner trade — ought to have known that the response would be overwhelming.
The commander of the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion, Lt. Col. Eli Gino, told Ynet in September that, “I’m at peace with the orders I gave. The fire was proportionate, and when they kidnap a soldier, all means are kosher, even if it exacts a price.”
He said he was not worried about being at the center of the legal investigation and that the IDF had upheld the purity of arms throughout. “Fact is,” he said, “there are no pictures of an old Palestinian who was hit with a bullet.”
At the center of the controversy, one which likely exists within the army as well as beyond, is the Hannibal Protocol.
The directive was drafted in the summer of 1986 – one year after the lopsided Jibril Agreement, in which Israel traded 1,150 security prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers, and several months after the ensuing abduction of the soldiers Yosef Fink and Rafael Alsheikh. The idea was to establish a set procedure, known to all soldiers, to limit the success of any abduction operation.
“What we needed was clarity,” former national security adviser, Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, one of the three officers who drafted the order, told the Times of Israel in August.
What arose was a protocol that ordered soldiers to thwart the abduction of a fellow soldier “even at the price of harming or wounding our soldiers,” but without directly attempting to kill them.
In Goldin’s case – the first time the protocol was activated amid an ongoing war – it meant more.
The recordings bring to life, in a fragmented way, the strain of that morning and the intensity of Israel’s counter attack. “I repeat: stop firing!” Lt. Col. Gino yelled at his troops, his voice rising in anger. “Stop firing! You’re firing like morons. You’re going to kill each other. Enough! I’ve got [men] dead already, retards. Hold on a second.”
Gino’s commands, which lack the sort of calm that the best commanders are able to display amid the bedlam of war, came during an incident that began at eight in the morning on August 1, when a ceasefire agreement took hold. Over an hour later, a three-soldier squad from the Givati Brigade’s recon unit, out on an offensive patrol, spotted a Palestinian man who seemed to be a spotter for Hamas; the commander of the squad and the unit, Maj. Benaya Sarel, asked for permission to fire at the building into which the spotter disappeared. Because of the ceasefire, permission was denied.
Moments later, the squad came under fire. Sarel and Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni were killed. Lt. Hadar Goldin, the third member of the squad, was missing. The ambush and the disappearance of the soldier took roughly one minute.
“I need urgently whoever saw the incident physically to talk to me. Urgently,” Gino said over the radio frequency, seeking to complete the picture of the battle.
He and the battalion’s two remaining company commanders began cutting off escape routes from the heavily populated neighborhood, moving tanks to block traffic. Troops, meanwhile, accompanied by massive air and artillery support, stormed suspicious buildings, including a mosque, which was linked to the tunnels.
“Bring [deleted specification of weapon] into that darn camp and send it up into the air,” one officer can be heard saying of a Hamas location, referred to as the camp.
“The entire mosque is full of holes. There’s nothing of it left,” another said.
The orders to open fire, in close proximity to other soldiers and amid a dense civilian population, are given at full tilt. “Go, go, go!” Gino said of a target that is not identified in the recordings. “Give him another shell.”
At the same time, the deputy company commander, Lt. Eitan, crawled into the dark tunnel into which Goldin disappeared. “I went four meters down into the tunnel when it began to collapse. I could hardly see anything; sand and stones were obscuring the light,” he recalled on an IDF blog in mid-August.
“This is commander,” Gino said, apparently once Lt. Eitan surfaced the first time. “The mission is simple. The deputy recon company commander [Eitan] will meet you and will insert– will go in — once again and bring the uniform out ASAP. Whoever is capable of doing it, should go in.”
Eitan led a squad back into the tunnel. “There, I saw Hadar’s blood and his equipment,” he said on the blog. He ran ahead alone, telling his commander, “If I’m not back in 5 minutes – I’m dead.”
He emerged 10 minutes later with physical evidence that enabled the IDF, 36 hours later, to declare Goldin a casualty of war.
The recordings of the radio transmissions do not merely animate that awful morning of war; they offer a glimpse into the material that Maj. Gen. Efroni is examining as he decides whether or not the IDF obeyed, in this instance, the often amorphous principle of proportionality.