The ‘Hannibal Procedure’: How far is Israel willing to go to stop its soldiers being captured?


An honor guard caries the coffin of Israeli 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin during his funeral on Aug. 3 in Kfar-saba, Israel. Goldin was thought to have been captured during fighting in Gaza, but was later declared killed in action by the Israeli Defence Force. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

It's well-known that the Israel Defense Forces don't give up on kidnapped soldiers easily. The idea is that if someone is willing to risk their lives to defend their country, Israel is willing to do almost anything to get them back if they are captured. The scale of this commitment is put into perspective when Israel does things like trade more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for one Israel soldier, as Israel did to get Gilad Shalit released in 2011. "The Nation of Israel is a unique people," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained when justifying that lopsided exchange.

But there are even more difficult things that Israel is willing to do to prevent its men and women becoming captured. On Monday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the IDF had used "massive force" in Gaza after Hadar Goldin, an Israeli soldier, was believed to have been captured Friday. Gili Cohen reports that the Israeli military were aware that "innocents" would be hurt in this display of power; the Palestinians later said that 130 people were killed in the action.

According to Cohen, the assault was justified by the use of an IDF protocol known as the "Hannibal Procedure." At its most basic, this procedures call for additional military effort in a bid to prevent soldiers being captured. This doesn't just mean that more Palestinians are put at risk. Controversially, it suspends normal IDF procedure that prohibits firing in the direction of another IDF soldier. It is often interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a tactic that favors killing a soldier rather than let him or her be captured.

It's a murky concept, however, kept secret for years and subject to a number of rival interpretations. Even the origins of its name seem to be disputed: Most accounts say the name was assigned at random, while some reports, apparently erroneously, say it was named after the Carthaginian military commander who killed himself with poison rather than be taken prisoner.

First implemented in 1986, the tactic was only publicly acknowledged in 2003 after a doctor mentioned the practice in a letter to Haaretz and it was subsequently released from military censorship. Haaretz then detailed the procedure in a long article, explaining how it was created after the abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in 1986 (the two soldiers' bodies were eventually returned in 1991). Here's how the procedure was described at the time:

"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 tactic has split the IDF for years, and to a large degree it became dependent on how specific military commanders interpreted it. According to YNetNews, during the 2008-2009 Gaza War, one commander told his soldiers that they should sooner kill themselves with a grenade than allow themselves to be captured, and the circumstances that led to the death of two Israeli soldiers in 2006 after they were captured by Hezbollah has also raised suspicions that the soldiers were killed by Israeli fire. Speculation and rumors about the "Hannibal Procedure" were so rife that in 2011, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, was forced to publicly reiterate that the procedure should not mean that soldiers would be killed in a bid to prevent their abduction.

The speculation lingers, however, and the assault on Gaza after Goldin was believed captured would certainly appear to be a sign of the procedure in action. If it was, it would appear to have been unnecessary: While Israel had originally been concerned that they may have another Shalit situation on their hands, the IDF later announced that Goldin had in fact been killed during the fighting. This time, the "Hannibal Procedure" may have killed scores of Palestinians, but not an Israeli.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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