Has the Hannibal Protocol run its course?

Drafted in 1986 to prevent the abduction of soldiers, the order has come under intense scrutiny after being executed in full in Rafah

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Smoke and fire rise following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Smoke and fire rise following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

On Friday, August 1, some 75 minutes after the onset of a ceasefire, a three-person IDF squad advanced toward a suspicious location along the outskirts of the city of Rafah. The squad apparently did not ask for the standard fire support to accompany it, Haaretz reported, because a 72-hour truce was already in place. Instead it advanced on foot, surreptitiously.

Hamas operatives were waiting in ambush. Two soldiers, Major Benaya Sarel and Staff Sergeant Liel Gidoni, were killed, and a third, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was abducted.

Other members of their unit, Sayeret Givati, moved under fire to the fallen soldiers but did not at first realize that one of the three bodies was a fallen Hamas man, perhaps in IDF uniform, according to the Haaretz report. When it became clear that Goldin was missing, though, the officers in the field did not have to unfurl a long explanation over the army radio frequency. All they needed to do was utter a single word: Hannibal.

The Hannibal Protocol 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,” said former national security adviser, Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, one of the three officers who drafted the order.

Hadar Goldin's funeral, Sunday, August 3, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hadar Goldin’s funeral, Sunday, August 3, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

I asked Amidror if that meant, as I often heard officers say in south Lebanon, that soldiers are required to open fire with their rifles at a retreating vehicle even if it means putting one of their mates in acute danger, but to refrain from firing, say, a guided missile that would almost surely kill everyone in the vehicle, and he said, “Exactly.”

In Goldin’s case, it meant more. The IDF, already on a war-time footing – a crucial difference from previous cases, such as the Gilad Shalit abduction in June 2006 – brought immense power to bear, swiftly. A column of tanks charged into Rafah’s inhabited neighborhoods, according to Haaretz’s Amos Harel and Gili Cohen. Bulldozers tore down houses. Artillery batteries, tanks, and aircraft opened fire, isolating the abduction zone and reportedly targeting all vehicles leaving the area.

The death toll reached 150, according to Palestinian reports.

Goldin, the army determined late the following night, had been killed in the initial attack.

Palestinians search destroyed cars in Rafah's district of Shawkah in the southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians search destroyed cars in Rafah’s district of Shawkah in the southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)

Yehezkel Dror, a member of the commission of inquiry that examined the shortcomings of the Second Lebanon War, said Monday on Army Radio that the Hannibal Protocol should not be activated “instinctively” and that the situation in the densely populated city of Rafah was utterly unlike the sparsely populated hills of south Lebanon and, therefore, required the authorization of the political echelon.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) deemed the protocol “illegal” and urged Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to instruct the government and the army that such military actions are impermissible, both because of the threat to the abducted soldier and the carnage inflicted on civilians.

The implementation of the Hannibal Protocol in a densely populated area, the organization’s chief legal counsel Dan Yakir opined, “fundamentally violates the principle of distinction in international humanitarian law,” and constitutes “an illegal method of warfare that violates the laws of war.”

The permission granted to soldiers to cause “harm to a soldier to prevent his abduction,” Yakir wrote, is illegal.

National Security Adviser Ya'akov Amidror (right) seen here talking with IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ya’akov Amidror (right) seen here talking with IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Amidror rejected both parts of the determination out of hand. “War,” he said, “is a dangerous thing.” Soldiers are killed. Soldiers are asked to stand and charge the enemy under fire, even at the cost of near-certain death. Soldiers, therefore, are also instructed to do everything possible, short of intentionally killing one of their mates, in order to foil an abduction attempt. “It’s a military operation to return a hostage soldier,” he said. “Soldiers [lives] can be risked.”

The proportionality of the response and the consideration of the civilian battlefield, in the instance of an abduction, he added, should be taken into account only if “you want to help the enemy.”

After castigating ACRI as attuned only to the needs of Palestinian civilians, he conceded that Israel imposes on itself restrictions regarding the killing of civilians when considering offensive action such as an assassination, but argued that there was “a big difference” between targeting an enemy and saving a captive soldier, and said that in the latter case overwhelming force was fully justified. “How will they fight?” he asked of IDF soldiers, if they don’t “know you will do everything to save them” from captivity.

If this preference for probable death over certain captivity sounds alien to civilian ears, it is, nonetheless, a prevailing ethos among combat troops. The commander of Golani’s 51st Battalion expressed this in an extreme way in a briefing to his troops on the eve of Operation Cast Lead’s ground invasion in early January 2009. The abduction of a soldier, he told his troops, was Hamas’s “Judgment Day” weapon.

“I don’t need to tell you this,” he said in an audio recording published by Channel 10 News, “but no soldier from the 51st Battalion is getting abducted, not at any cost, not in any case, even if it means he detonates his grenade on whoever tries to take him.”

Elazar Stern (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Hatnua MK Elazar Stern (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

MK Elazar Stern, himself a former general who is married to the bereaved sister of a soldier from his paratroop company, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday that many families would be “happy” to learn that their loved ones were being held in captivity rather than killed.

The Hannibal Protocol and the force it unleashes, he said in a Channel 10 interview over the weekend, are a symptom of a larger problem: the societal “insanity” regarding abductions. The willingness to “do almost anything” to stop an abduction, he wrote later, was born of a common understanding that a captive soldier is a crisis of national proportions.

Lives will be saved, on both sides of the border, and Israeli society will be more healthy, he wrote, if “sanity is restored to all of us in the way we relate to abductions and the price we are willing to pay.”

Rabbis Ido Rechnitz and Elazar Goldstein, in a 2013 book, “Jewish Military Ethics,” largely agreed with Amidror’s position, stating that Halacha, or Jewish law, permitted endangering the captive soldier but not intentionally killing him. Suicide, and perhaps even assisted suicide, as evidenced in the fall of King Saul, was justified in certain cases, the two wrote, but one “cannot deduce from this that it is permissible to [intentionally] harm a captive [soldier] when he himself did not request that sort of assistance.”

Asked if, as an observant Jew and an officer, he had consulted the army’s chief rabbi back in 1986 before drafting the once-secret order, Amidror croaked, “Are you crazy?”

When people are sick, Amidror said, the rabbis rule based on the expert opinion of the doctor. “In this case, I’m the doctor.”

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