The Hannibal Directive (Hebrew: נוהל חניבעל) (or “Hannibal Procedure” or "Hannibal Protocol") is a secret directive of the Israel Defense Forces with the purpose of preventing Israeli soldiers from being captured by enemy forces in the course of combat.
The order, drawn up in 1986 by a group of top Israeli officers, states that at the time of a capture the main mission becomes forcing the release of the captured soldiers from their captors, even if that means injury to Israeli soldiers. It allows commanders to take whatever action is necessary, including endangering the life of a captured soldier, to foil the capture. However, it does not allow for a soldier to be killed to prevent his capture, according to the IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz.
Israel has with several notable exceptions adhered to the principle of not negotiating with what it considers terrorists and this especially in hostage situations. This policy led to some notable successes, such as Operation Entebbe, but also to loss of human life, as in the Maalot Massacre. In cases where Israeli soldiers were captured and no military solution was found, Israel was forced to negotiate with the captors about an exchange of prisoners. On several occasions, it led to a highly controversial release of hundreds or even thousands of convicted or suspected terrorists in Israeli captivity.
The background to the formulation of the directive was the capture of two Israeli soldiers during a Hezbollah ambush in South Lebanon in June 1986. Both soldiers presumably died during the attack, and their bodies were returned to Israel in an exchange with Hezbollah in 1996. The authors of the order were the three top officers of the IDF Northern Command, Major General Yossi Peled, the command's operations officer, Colonel Gabi Ashkenazi, and its intelligence officer, Colonel Yaakov Amidror. The name of the directive is claimed to have been generated by an IDF computer random code.
In a rare interview by one of the authors of the directive, Yossi Peled (later a cabinet minister) denied that it implied a blanket order to kill Israeli soldiers rather than let them be captured by enemy forces. The order allowed the army only to risk the life of a captured soldier, not to take it. "I wouldn't drop a one-ton bomb on the vehicle, but I would hit it with a tank shell”, Peled was quoted as saying. He added that he personally "would rather be shot than fall into Hezbollah captivity."
The purpose of the Hannibal directive is to prevent the capture of Israeli soldiers by enemy forces even if thereby risking their life. Israeli soldiers are ordered to stop a capture by force and to use any means available to this end. The controversial logic behind the order seems to be that a dead soldier is preferable to a captive one. The Israeli daily Haaretz published the following formulation in 2003:
"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 order is considered top secret, and its existence has often been denied by Israeli military authorities. The exact wording of the directive is not known, and it has apparently been updated several times over the years.
For years the directive's existence has seldom been mentioned in Israeli media and military censors generally did not allow it to become public knowledge. Sometimes, the directive has been referred to in passing or described in purely general terms. Journalist Anshel Pfeffer, for example, described the order in The Jerusalem Post in 2006 as the “rumored standard procedure” in the eventuality of a kidnap attempt: “soldiers are told, though never officially” the content of this order.
The Hannibal directive was described in some detail in an article published in 2003 by Haaretz journalist Sara Leibovich-Dar, in which she interviewed several high-ranking officers, including the authors of the order.
Amos Harel of Haaretz wrote in November 2011 that the Hannibal directive was suspended for a time "due to opposition from the public and reservist soldiers" and not revised and reinstated until after the abduction of Gilad Shalit in June 2006. Then, the order stated that IDF commanders may take whatever action is necessary, even at the risk of endangering the life of an abducted soldier, to foil the abduction, but it does not allow them to kill an abducted Israeli soldier. Harel writes, however, that a kind of "Oral Law" has developed inside IDF, which is supported by many commanders, even at brigade and division level. It goes further than the official order, including the use of tank shells or air strikes. "A dangerous, unofficial interpretation of the protocol has been created," a senior officer told Haaretz. "Intentionally targeting a vehicle in order to kill the abductee is a completely illegal command. The army's senior command must make this clear to officers."
Before the Gaza War in 2009, Lt. Col. Shuki Ribak, the commander of the Golani Brigade's 51st battalion instructed his soldiers to avoid kidnapping at any cost and even made clear that he expected his soldiers to commit suicide rather than being abducted:
[N]o soldier in Battalion 51 will be kidnapped at any price. At any price. Under any condition. Even if it means that he blows himself with his own grenade together with those trying to capture him. Also even if it means that now his unit has to fire a barrage at the car that they are trying to take him away in.
Controversy within the army
The order has been highly controversial inside the Israel Defense Forces. The Haaretz article mentions several instances where IDF soldiers or officers have refused or told to refuse to comply with the directive on legal or moral grounds.
Dr. Avner Shiftan, an army physician with the rank of major, came across the Hannibal directive while on reserve duty in South Lebanon in 1999. In army briefings he “became aware of a procedure ordering soldiers to kill any IDF soldier if he should be taken captive by Hezbollah. This procedure struck me as being illegal and not consistent with the moral code of the IDF. I understood that it was not a local procedure but originated in the General Staff, and had the feeling that a direct approach to the army authorities would be of no avail, but would end in a cover-up."
He contacted Asa Kasher, the Israeli philosopher noted for his authorship of Israel Defense Forces' Code of Conduct, who "found it difficult to believe that such an order exists" since this "is wrong ethically, legally and morally". He doubted that "there is anyone in the army" believing that 'better a dead soldier than an abducted soldier'.
However, Asa Kasher was apparently wrong. In 1999 the IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said in an interview with Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth: "In certain senses, with all the pain that saying this entails, an abducted soldier, in contrast to a soldier who has been killed, is a national problem." Asked whether he was referring to cases like Ron Arad (an Air Force navigator captured in 1986) and Nachshon Wachsman (an abducted soldier killed in 1994 in a failed rescue attempt), he replied "definitely, and not only".
The legality of the order has never formally been examined by the IDF's legal department. According to Prof. Emanuel Gross, from the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa, the legal experts should have been involved. "Orders like that have to go through the filter of the Military Advocate General's Office, and if they were not involved that is very grave", he says. "The reason is that an 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".
Incidents where the directive was invoked
The Hannibal Directive was invoked in October 2000 after the Hezbollah capture of three Israeli soldiers in the Israel-occupied Shebaa Farms area. An Israeli border patrol was attacked by a Hezbollah squad with rockets and automatic fire. Three captive Israeli soldiers were brought over the ceasefire line into Lebanon by their captors. When the abduction was discovered, the Northern Command ordered a "Hannibal situation". Israeli attack helicopters fired at 26 moving vehicles in the area since they assumed that the abducted soldiers transported in one of them.
In July 2006, two other Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were captured by Hezbollah in a cross border raid. The Hannibal directive was invoked and a force consisting of tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers were sent across the border to capture a Hezbollah post and block the exit routes out of the town of Ayta ash-Sha’b where the abductors where believed to have escaped to. A Merkava II heavy battle tank however ran over a powerful explosive charge and was totally destroyed, killing its four crewmen and the mission was aborted. The Hannibal directive triggered instant aerial surveillance and airstrikes inside Lebanon to limit Hezbollah's ability to move the soldiers it had seized. "If we had found them, we would have hit them, even if it meant killing the soldiers," a senior Israeli official said. The bodies of the two soldiers were returned in an exchange with Hezbollah in July 2008.
The Hannibal directive was also invoked during the abduction of Gilad Shalit. The commission of inquiry on the kidnapping headed by Giora Eiland concluded that the abduction could not be prevented because it took more than an hour from the time Shalit’s tank was hit until Hannibal directive was declared. By that time Shalit was already well inside the Gaza strip. Shalit was released alive in exchange for 1,027 prisoners in October 2011.
During the war 2008-2009 Gaza war, there was a case where the Hannibal directive was invoked. An Israeli soldier was shot and injured by a Hamas fighter during a search of a house in one of the neighborhoods of Gaza. The wounded soldiers' comrades evacuated the house due to fears that it was booby-trapped. According to testimony by soldiers who took part in the incident the house was then shelled to prevent the wounded soldier from being captured by Hamas. According to the IDF spokesman the soldier was killed by terrorist gun fire.
During the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, when the IDF believed that Hadar Goldin had been captured, it was reported the Hannibal Directive was initiated. The IDF carried out a large-scale military operation that included bombing all possible escape routes from Rafah tunnels, an act reported by Ha'aretz to have killed scores of Palestinians and be the "most devastating" execution of the Hannibal Directive. Only partial remains were found. An IDF inquiry concluded Goldin probably was killed during the initial battle. In July 2015, the full transcript of the IDF communication system was published, revealing the initiation of the directive. According to an IDF investigation of the incident while the phrase “Hannibal Procedure” was mentioned on the IDF field radios, the procedure was not implemented nor was there indiscriminate fire towards Rafah homes. Hamas claimed 130 Palestinian civilians were killed. The IDF investigation concluded that 41 people were killed, 12 of them Hamas combatants. Asa Kasher revealed that a soldier was killed by his comrades due to a mistaken understanding of the directive.
No mother would want her son to be killed rather than be taken prisoner…You prefer to wait until he returns, even if it goes on for very many years.
The nightmare we went through for 10 years is indescribable, but despite that, I would not agree to have the buddies of an abducted soldier try to save him even at the price of killing him. As long as there is life there is hope. I am also positive that the soldiers would refuse to obey the order and would not kill an Israeli soldier. What about the effect of the order on the soldiers' morale? A soldier who is taken prisoner has to know that everything will be done to rescue him without killing him.
- Harel, Amos. After Shalit, some IDF officers see a dead soldier as better than abducted, Haaretz. 2011
- Israeli army employed 'Hannibal Protocol' to prevent officer's abduction, i24news, August 4, 2014.
- Anshel Pfeffer (2011-10-18). "IDF warns soldiers of kidnappings ahead of Gilad Shalit's release". Haaretz. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
- Sara Leibovich-Dar (2003-05-21). "The Hannibal Procedure". Haaretz. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
- Sara Leibovich-Dar (2003-05-21). "Continuation of The Hannibal Procedure". Haaretz. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
- Anshel Pfeffer (2006-06-25). "Comment: The Entebbe Syndrome". Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
- "The IDF Hannibal Protocol - IDF Commander Briefing Troops". Israel Television Channel 2 News. 16 October 2011. Retrieved Aug 25, 2012.
- Aviv Lavie. "Better dead than abducted". Haaretz. Archived from the original on 2014-08-09.
- Aviv Lavie (2003-05-08). "Better dead than abducted". Haaretz. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
- Eitan Baron (2006-07-25). "Angels of death knocking at my door". Haaretz. Retrieved 2011-10-20.
- Harel, Amos and Avi Issacharoff, 34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008, p.12
- Amos Harel (2006-07-13). "Hezbollah kills 8 soldiers, kidnaps two in offensive on northern border". Haaretz. Retrieved 2011-11-10.
- Scott Wilson (October 21, 2006). "Israeli War Plan Had No Exit Strategy". Washington Post. Retrieved 2011-11-10.
- Hanan Greenberg (2006-07-10). "דו"ח איילנד: זמן רב חלף עד להכרזה על חטיפה". Yedioth Aharonoth. Retrieved 2011-10-30.
- Amir Bohbot (2009-01-26). "בית בעזה ובו גופת חייל הופגז - למנוע חטיפתה". Maariv (NRG). Retrieved 2011-10-30.
- Jack Moore, IB Times Hadar Goldin and 'Hannibal Directive': Israel's Nightmare Dilemma to Stop Soldier Becoming Hamas Pawn, International Business Times, August 1, 2014; Quote: Following the capture of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Hadar Goldin, reports are circulating that the Israeli military may invoke the covert 'Hannibal Directive' to prevent the Second Lieutenant being used as critical leverage in the ongoing Gaza conflict.
- Anshel Pfeffer, The Hannibal Directive: Why Israel risks the life of the soldier being rescued, Haaretz, August 3, 2014. Quote: “On Friday morning, when the IDF still believed that Lieutenant Hadar Goldin may have been taken alive by Hamas into an attack tunnel beneath Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, the Hannibal Directive was activated to its most devastating extent yet – including massive artillery bombardments and air strikes on possible escape routes."
- Israeli army employed 'Hannibal Protocol' to prevent officer's abduction. Quote: “But immediately after the fire exchange, when no trace of him could be found, forces on the ground had to assume that he had been dragged by the militants into the network of tunnels dug under Gaza and thus they issued the order, unleashing massive firepower by tanks, artillery and fighter jets onto the area.”
- Thousands Attend Funeral of Fallen IDF Soldier Hadar Goldin, The Forward, August 4, 2014. Quote: "The Israel Defense Forces had announced early that morning that Goldin was killed in action, saying its determination was based on an analysis of what took place on the battlefield, a medical review, Jewish legal considerations and other considerations. Though his body was not recovered, partial remains were buried at the cemetery."
- Israeli army employed 'Hannibal Protocol' to prevent officer's abduction. Quote: An IDF inquiry into the incident has concluded that Goldin was likely killed in the original gun battle, alongside his company commander Maj. Benaya Sarel and communications officer, Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni.
- "Recordings from 'Black Friday' in Rafah". Haaretz. July 7, 2015.
- Amir Rappaport, “It’s Apparent the ‘Hannibal Directive’ Was Not Ordered in Gaza. No One to Be Charged,” Makor Rishon-NRG (Hebrew), January 30, 2015, http://www.nrg.co.il/online/1/ART2/672/957.html
- "IDF Ethics Code Author: Hannibal Protocol Misused Last Summer". Arutz Sheva. 2015-07-08. Retrieved 2015-07-08.
- The IDF Hannibal Protocol Golani Battalion 51 commander briefing his troops on the eve of their entry into Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Video report broadcast on Israel Television Channel 2 News, 16 October 2011.