Israeli Military Revokes Use of Maximum Force to Foil Captures

29 June 2016

The Israeli military has canceled a contentious directive known as the Hannibal procedure, which calls for the use of maximum force to prevent the capture of Israeli soldiers, even at the risk of harming them.

A military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with army rules, said on Tuesday that the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, had given instructions several weeks ago to revoke the decades-old directive. The official said the chief of staff had established a team to formulate a new procedure for such situations.

The Hannibal procedure was last invoked, with devastating consequences, during the war in Gaza in 2014. Palestinian militants ambushed Israeli soldiers soon after a truce took effect on the outskirts of Rafah, in southern Gaza, and dragged one of them, Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, into a tunnel.

At least 135 Palestinians were said to have been killed as Israeli forces unleashed a barrage of artillery and airstrikes meant to prevent the militants from taking Lieutenant Goldin deeper into the Gaza Strip. The episode became a focus of international scrutiny and condemnation. Amnesty International said there was strong evidence that Israel had carried out war crimes by bombarding residential areas of Rafah.

It is unlikely that Lieutenant Goldin was killed in the Israeli bombardment. Based on evidence found in the tunnel, the Israeli authorities determined that he would not have survived the initial Palestinian attack. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, is believed to be holding his remains.

The Israeli military official would not elaborate on what led to the revocation of the Hannibal procedure. The newspaper Haaretz, which reported the change on Tuesday, said that a draft of a coming report by Israel’s state comptroller had recommended that the army abolish the procedure because different ranks and units interpreted it differently and its use might have violated international law.

But both Haaretz and the military official said the chief of staff had ordered the revocation of the Hannibal procedure before the draft report was distributed to officials.

Senior officers drew up the original Hannibal procedure in the 1980s after two Israeli soldiers were captured by Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has since been revised.

The procedure does not allow for the intentional killing of soldiers to prevent their capture, or for action that would lead to the certain death of captive soldiers, although many soldiers and commanders are said to have interpreted it that way.

The Israeli government has taken extraordinary measures not only to insulate soldiers from capture by militants but also to free them, sometimes through exchanges of many militant prisoners for a few captive Israelis.

But there has been an increasing reluctance in Israel to continue these lopsided prisoner exchanges, like one in 2011 in which Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the return of a single soldier.

Prof. Asa Kasher, a philosopher and one of the authors of the Israeli military’s ethics code, told Israel Radio, “For 20 years, I have been speaking against the way commanders mistakenly understand the Hannibal procedure, as if it allows them to kill the soldier.” He added, “If there are so many soldiers that understand the order that way, including high-ranking commanders, then it is right to cancel it, erase it, to throw it out and to write a new order that will be unequivocal.”

The origins of the procedure’s name remain a mystery. Israeli military officials have been quoted as saying that a computer generated the name at random, but others have suggested that it was named for the Carthaginian general who poisoned himself when facing capture by the Romans in 183 B.C.


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