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Israel's Hannibal Directive

Written by Subject: Israel

Israel's Hannibal Directive

by Stephen Lendman

It's been Israeli policy since 1986. It's an unwritten military protocol. It was secret for many years.

In 2003, Haaretz called it "one of the most controversial operational orders" in IDF history. Three Northern Command senior officers established it.

They included NC head Major General Yossi Peled, operations officer Col. Gabi Ashkenazi and intelligence officer Col. Yaakov Amidror.

They established live fire rules in cases of Israeli soldier abductions. It said:

"During an abduction, the major mission is to rescue our soldiers from the abductors even at the price of harming or wounding our soldiers."

"Light-arms fire is to be used in order to bring the abductors to the ground or to stop them."

"If the vehicle or the abductors do not stop, single-shot (sniper) fire should be aimed at them, deliberately, in order to hit the abductors, even if this means hitting our soldiers."

"In any event, everything will be done to stop the vehicle and not allow it to escape."

The directive was code-named "Hannibal." It considers a dead IDF soldier better than a captured one.

It's to avoid captors taking Israeli soldiers alive. It's about avoiding political embarrassment.

It's to deny enemies bargaining chips. It's to prevent concessions to secure abducted soldier releases.

Field commanders were ordered to apprise their troops. At least one battalion commander balked.

Some soldiers refused to kill their own. Furor caused revision. At least nominally.

Hannibal was rewritten. It ordered soldiers to fire only at wheels of vehicles without risking abductee lives.

It didn't matter. The original procedure stuck. Its letter and spirit remain.

For years, IDF senior officers denied Hannibal's existence. Military censors suppressed it.

Official secrecy made discussing it impossible. In early May 2003, Dr. Avner Shiftan discovered its existence.

He went public. He tried getting it annulled. Former soldiers and others debated pros and cons.

Active duty ones said the letter and spirit of Hannibal remain. Field commanders enforce it.

The father of an Israeli soldier abducted years perhaps spoke for others against Hannibal's mandate, saying:

"It's shocking to think that a soldier will execute his pal."

"True, an abduction presents a serious dilemma in terms of the price the state will pay, but hard as that is, I prefer a captive son to a dead son. That way I still have hope."

"The reason for the existence of the order is that the army doesn't have the necessary determination to rescue soldiers from captivity. Something is wrong with our code of ethics."

According to then Northern Command head head Major General Yossi Peled:

"The need for the procedure arose after the abduction of the soldiers Yosef Fink and Rafael Alsheikh in February, 1986."

"I took over at Northern Command in June, 1986. The abduction of the two soldiers was a hot topic at headquarters and there was an oral instruction that said abductions had to be prevented at any price."

"We had to be careful in formulating the order so that there would be risk, but not killing."

"We wanted to make it clear that if there was going to be killing, you don't do it, and if it meant risk to the abducted soldier, you do it."

Hannibal mandates going all-out to rescue abducted soldiers even at the risk of killing them.

Peled understated it, saying "even if this means putting our soldiers at risk. The question is how far to go in order to prevent an abduction."

"I wouldn't drop a one-ton bomb on the vehicle, but I would hit it with a tank shell…that would make it possible for anyone who was not hit directly…to emerge in one piece."

"After all, soldiers risk their lives when they set an ambush, too. Some of those who charge the enemies return in coffins, so does that mean we won't charge?"

"Decisions have to be made that endanger soldiers. Sometimes there is no choice."

"The army is supposed to maintain the state's security as the top priority, not the lives of its soldiers."

"In the army, orders lead to a situation in which soldiers die in some cases."

Over time, Hannibal was revised several times. One revision said:

"Tank fire (attack helicopters and other appropriate weapons) will be used at the discretion of the commanders."

In other words, anything goes. Hannibal's original mandate and spirit remain. Israeli has no qualms about killing its own.

Its military advocate general has no say. He can't contravene battlefield orders. He can't recommend what he believes best.

Former military advocate general Amnon Strasnov called Hannibal "problematic."

"It would have been better if the commanders had consulted with the legal authorities before issuing the order," he said.

Haifa University Law Professor Emanuel Gross believes legal experts should be involved in these type decisions.

Mandates like Hannibal should "go through the filter of the Military Advocate General's Office, and if (not), that is very grave," he said.

"(A)n order that knowingly permits the death of soldiers to be brought about, even if the intentions were different, carries a black flag and is a flagrantly illegal order that undermines the most central values of our social norms."

"The order was understood as saying that even if people's lives were put at risk by opening fire, the soldiers should open fire nonetheless."

"An order that takes into account a clear and present danger to soldiers' lives puts their lives up for grabs."

Former IDF Captain Lior Rotbart explained how Israeli soldiers are briefed, saying:

"(W)e were given orders to shoot at any vehicle containing an abducted soldier, in order to kill everyone in the vehicle."

He later saw things differently. "I think it is very immoral for soldiers…to decide the fate of (another) soldier," he said.

"There are (other) ways to solve the abduction of a soldier. You can't decide a person's fate when it is still possible to rescue him."

"(T)he logic behind (Hannibal) is absolutely incredible. It is unacceptable to kill the person in the vehicle just to get him out of an abduction."

During Operation Protective Edge (OPE), Hannibal was implemented at least three times. Massive firepower followed.

It bears repeating. Israel has no qualms about killing its own. Slaughtering Palestinian civilians is longstanding Israeli policy.

Following one Hannibal alert, Rafah was carpet-bombed for two days. Around 100 airstrikes were launched.

Hundreds of artillery shells pounded the area for hours. It was left in ruins. At least 190 Palestinians died. Many others were wounded. At least 55 children died.

Homes were turned into rubble. Affected Palestinian survivors lost everything.

Col. Ofer Winter admitted ordering massive bombardment of Rafah. It was where Givati Brigade soldier Hadar Goldin went missing.

It was to prevent him being taken captive. Rafah was sealed off. Homes were destroyed with families inside. Artillery targeted civilians trying to flee.

Ambulances and other vehicles trying to evacuate wounded Palestinians were attacked.

Israel tried preventing Goldin's capture. It tried to kill him if he was already in captivity. Col. Winter explained his involvement, saying:

"At 9 am, half an hour after I put my head down, the Deputy Brigade Commander woke me up."

"Come quickly, it's best you be here," he was told. We asked for a snapshot. We wanted information."

"We didn't think there was an abduction yet. While inquiring if everyone was there, I commanded Sagiv, the Armored Forces Commander operating under my orders, to start moving from Hirbat Hiza'a, which was where he was, toward Rafah."

"Just then I got the message 'it's not green in our eyes.' In other words, not everyone had been found. We were missing a soldier."

"At 9:36, after inquiries with the battalion commander on site, I announced on the communication system the word that no one wants to say ??" 'Hannibal.' "

"In other words, there had been an abduction. I instructed all the forces to move forward, to occupy space, so the abductors would not be able to move."

"Everything we did was from the understanding that we could return Goldin alive. Stop the abduction…That's what we employed all the force for," he claimed.

Collective punishment was ordered. So was retribution. International law prohibits both practices. According to Col. Winter:

"Anyone who abducts (an Israeli soldier) should know he will pay a price." He lied claiming it wasn't revenge. "They simply messed with the wrong brigade," he said.

He shamelessly called Palestinian resistance fighters "cowards." He turned truth on its head saying so.

Palestinians acted in self-defense. They were up against the world's fourth most powerful military. They engaged them with light arms.

They fought courageously. They challenged premeditated Israeli aggression. They were blamed for its crimes. They included summary civilian executions.

Cold-blooded murder is official Israeli policy. A 16-year-old wheelchair-bound Palestinian girl with epilepsy was murdered trying to flee.

So was an elderly woman desperately crawling on the ground to get out of harm's way. It's Israel's way. It's state terrorism writ large.

Objectives are prioritized. Palestinian lives don't matter. Israeli ones are sacrificed for expediency.

Col. Winter is ideologically over-the-top. He reflects official Israeli thinking.

He turned truth on its head. He called OPE aggression "just (cause) against a cruel enemy…The forces of light (fought) the forces of darkness," he claimed.

Saying so justifies the unjustifiable. It permits the worst of high crimes against peace. They include mass slaughtering civilians.

In dozens of cases wiping out entire families. Turning communities into rubble. Targeting children and women like adults.

Ignoring rule of law principles. Being honored and promoted for mass murder. Even for killing its own soldiers.

Israel considers aggressive wars just ones. Victims are called terrorists. Gratuitous slaughter is called self-defense.

Anything goes is official policy. Business as usual persists. It's just a matter of time before more war of aggression.

It's not a question of if. It's when. It's how brutal. It's how many more Palestinians will die? How many will be wounded?

How many will be maimed for life? How many wives will lose husbands? How many husbands will lose spouses?

How many children will lose parents? How many siblings will die? How many extended family members?

How much longer will Israel remain unaccountable? When will lomg denied justice prevail?

A Final Comment

Dan Yakir is Association for Civil Rights in Israel chief legal counsel.   Tamir Feldman heads ACRI's Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

They wrote Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. They addressed Israel's lawless Hannibal directive. They said in part:

"Extricating a kidnapped soldier from his captors, and preventing a situation in which Israel is forced to negotiate the release of prisoners, are both worthy objectives."

"However, the means of realizing these objectives need to be legal, reasonable and proportionate."

"A protocol that puts the life of the captured soldier in jeopardy to thwart a kidnapping is fundamentally unacceptable…"

"Insomuch as the Hannibal Protocol permits the causing of harm to a soldier to prevent his abduction, or if it can so be construed, then (it's) illegal."

"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."

"Massive and indiscriminate firing towards a metropolitan area in order to block potential escape routes will inevitably lead to a loss of life, as occurred in this instance, and therefore fundamentally violate the principle(s) of distinction (and proportionality) in international humanitarian law…"

"The implementation of the Hannibal Protocol in populated areas fails to distinguish between civilians and combatants and causes needless suffering."

"It is our opinion that the use of this protocol in these circumstances constitutes an illegal method of warfare that violates the laws of war."

"A command that subjugates the life of a soldier to an unknown political gain, whose nature and scope are unknown, is both cynical and revolting."

"It is not for nothing that this protocol has been subjected to severe public criticism over the years, including by senior officials in the security establishment."

"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."

Laws are enacted to be obeyed. Israel operates extrajudicially.

Rogue states behave this way. Israel and America give lawlessness new meaning.

They remain unaccountable for the highest of high crimes against peace. Long denied justice persists.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at

His new book as editor and contributor is titled "Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III."

Visit his blog site at

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