A controversial military investigation is illuminating the deadliest incident of Operation Protective Edge, as well as one of the Israeli army’s most shadowy directives: an order intended to thwart the abduction of IDF soldiers, even at the risk of killing them. Codenamed Hannibal, the protocol was carried out in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on August 1, 2014, a date now known as Black Friday; the resulting artillery barrage and torrent of airstrikes killed 190 Palestinians in two days, according to Gaza human rights groups, after the suspected capture by Hamas fighters of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin. Recordings of the IDF assault, publicized last week, suggest a chaotic and undisciplined outburst of violence: “I repeat, stop the shooting!” the brigade commander yells over the field radio. “You’re shooting like retards. You’ll kill one another. Enough! I already have dead, retards. Wait a minute…”
The heavily edited recordings, obtained by Yoav Zitun of Ynet, were set to dramatic music and “published with permission from the IDF censor.” Chief of Staff Benny Gantz denounced their release — “The army is not a reality TV show…not that I’m hiding anything” — and has reportedly ordered the military police to find those responsible.
According to Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel, the disclosure should be understood in the context of the IDF’s ongoing investigation of possible criminal conduct by officers in Gaza, most notably on Black Friday: “This information was leaked as part of a struggle that has two goals: to restrict the freedom of action of the MAG [Military Advocate General] in the investigation of operational flaws and, as part of an ongoing effort, to save Col. Ofer Winter, commander of the Givati infantry brigade.” Apparently it was anticipated that most Israelis would respond sympathetically to the sounds of soldiers under wartime stress, and indeed “the immediate public reaction was massive support for the commanders and resistance to a criminal investigation,” Harel told me in an email.
On Thursday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon weighed in on the controversy, taking the side of the soldiers:
A great many rumors and statements are circulating, for example about the incident concerning the Givati Brigade on that Friday in Rafah. That incident is not being investigated by the army’s Criminal Investigation Division. It is an operational incident during which decisions of various kinds were made, not something that is investigated with the tools of criminal law. It needs to be probed with the tools of military command so that there may be improvement next time.
According to The Jerusalem Post, “The statement was highly unusual as Magistrate Advocate General Danny Efroni has suggested he is seriously considering a full criminal investigation and Ya’alon’s statement could be seen by some to be undermining Efroni’s independence.” Other politicians have already come out in support of Givati, including cabinet members Moshe Kahlon and Naftali Bennett (considered a likely candidate for defense minister in the next government). “The Givati Brigade soldiers deserve a medal of honor, not a lawyer,” Bennett declared, in keeping with his election slogan, “stop saying sorry.”
Although high esteem for the military is a well-known feature of Israeli society — “The citizens of Israel,” David Shulman has written, “will usually believe anything the army says” — the public reaction Harel describes is remarkable, given the content of the Ynet video. Amid scenes of civilians fleeing for their lives and buildings being instantly demolished by Israeli bombardment, one mention of “light weapons fire” is all the evidence of armed Palestinian resistance; the real threat, as the army lays waste to the area, is friendly fire. “There are (bombs) falling, find out whether it’s ours?” a commander orders, according to the video’s English subtitles. “The bombs are falling very close to us,” someone else says, “can you identify them, over?” There is little doubt as to their provenance: “At the height of the fighting,” the narrator recounts, “the troops are firing hundreds of shells and bombs at suspicious targets at the heart of the built-up area.”
On top of the evident disproportionality is the recklessness suggested by Lt. Col. Eli Gino’s frantic order to stop “shooting like retards,” for fear that his men would “kill one another.” The same Lt. Col. Gino previously told Ynet, “There was no recklessness and we only attacked suspicious targets. I am proud of my soldiers and their conduct.” This contradiction appears to have attracted no comment, though the Times of Israel complained that “Gino’s commands…lack the sort of calm that the best commanders are able to display amid the bedlam of war,” a serious matter in the middle of a massacre.
Strangest of all is the relative lack of public outcry about the Hannibal directive itself. The order was drafted in 1986, in the wake of the highly controversial Jibril Agreement prisoner exchange, and “took root” from 1987 to 1991, according to Haaretz. Objections from reservists and the public led to its suspension, or at least alteration, around 2002: “‘During an abduction,’ the new order states, ‘the primary mission is to rescue the abducted soldier from his captors.’ The words ‘even at the price of harming or wounding our soldiers’ were deleted.” After the Gilad Shalit episode, when 1,027 prisoners were freed in 2011 to ransom a soldier held captive for over five years by Hamas in Gaza, Hannibal “was revised and reinstated”. An army investigation had found that, as Shalit was being taken, “permission was issued only for submachine fire” from a nearby tank, “which did not stop the abduction.”
Publicly, the army maintains that the protocol “does not allow for a soldier to be killed in order to prevent his abduction,” as Harel wrote in 2011, reporting remarks by Gantz at a post-Shalit operations forum. But this is a distinction without a difference. Plainly, if it is permissible to endanger a soldier’s life, it is also permissible to kill him. Although the narrator of Ynet’s Black Friday video speaks of Givati commanders “doing everything to find a lead to help find the kidnapped officer,” the subsequent account of the measures they took makes it plain that this was not a conventional rescue operation: “The initial suspicion, the kidnapping tunnel, ends in a mosque. Attack helicopters are bombing suspicious targets, close by the officers who are searching suspicious structures by firing at them.” This is the logic of Hannibal in action: “when you encounter an incident like this,” a company commander identified as Maj. D. told Ynet in September:
“you’d rather have a dead soldier, than have one in Hamas captivity, like a Shalit number two. You’d rather have a body and not a kidnapped soldier. We drilled into the troops many times about the threat of kidnapping and the objective of disrupting it, should it happen — hitting the enemy even at the cost of hitting your friend.”
This officer and others who pronounced their consciences clear in an interview were granted anonymity “as per the IDF’s request, out of concern they would be charged at the ICC [International Criminal Court].”
It’s perhaps not so surprising, given the nature of nationalism, that massive destruction of Palestinian lives and property should be seen as perfectly compatible with Israel’s image of its army as the world’s most moral. (“Everything I did,” Maj. D. explained, “even if I destroyed structures or hurt Palestinians, was out of confidence in the righteousness of the way, and as is expected of us, as we’ve been taught in the army.”) What’s striking is how Hannibal makes a mockery of even a narrow, tribalistic notion of morality. According to philosophy professor Asa Kasher, who wrote the IDF’s first code of ethics, the Israeli army is superior to other western militaries in its stated commitment to two key values, “the sanctity of human life” and “the purity of arms.” But in practice, as Black Friday showed, the IDF will turn its weapons on its own in order to prevent politically difficult hostage situations, which could require concessions to resistance groups. Death before captivity was the choice made by Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, who drank poison when he was betrayed to the Romans; Israel is willing to impose this preference on its conscripts, in flagrant contravention of the values it preaches.
To prevent the public from having to face reality head-on, an official campaign of obfuscation surrounds the Hannibal directive. Thus Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer explains that “the name for this highly controversial and often misunderstood order was, in fact, chosen at random by an IDF computer almost three decades ago.” So no reference was intended to one of the most famous martial suicides of all time, and any historical resonance is mere coincidence. Only slightly less ridiculous is the account given by Asa Kasher, who told an audience at the JCC in Manhattan last month that the whole controversy is the result of confusion:
Now, there is a gross misunderstanding of Hannibal, that most of the soldiers think that they should, uhh, they are, well, they think, unfortunately, that they are under instruction to kill their comrade, in order to avoid the abduction of that soldier. Which is wrong! I mean, the procedure is classified, and most of the people haven’t ever read it…
Pausing and struggling to choose his words, Kasher clarified:
The rules of engagement are that you should try to…bring the soldier back home by shooting at the abductors, okay? But shooting at the abductors risks the soldier, because they are in the vicinity of each other. So you may risk the soldier by trying to shoot the abductors. However, not if the risk to the soldier’s life is of high probability. Needless to say, not intentionally, I mean you cannot throw a grenade towards the three of them, two abductors and the soldier, in order to abort the abduction.
Kasher’s hypothetical example of an action forbidden by IDF rules is precisely what happened as Givati soldiers pursued Goldin and his presumed captors, according to Haaretz: “[deputy company commander Lt.] Eitan and two soldiers entered the tunnel after Col. Ofer Winter…told Eiten to throw a grenade into the shaft before entering.” A jingoistic Jerusalem Post editorial lauding Eitan as a “humble hero” mentions “a stun grenade” instead. In the tunnel, they “found gear belonging to Goldin that suggested he had been mortally wounded.” Nevertheless, the onslaught continued into the next day, when airstrikes reportedly killed dozens of residents, raising the possibility of retribution against Rafah for the Hamas attack. (Col. Winter seemed to confirm this, even as he formally denied it, in an interview with Yediot Ahronot: “Those who kidnap need to know they will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade.”) Even ignoring this detail, the heavy use of artillery, an inherently imprecise weapon, shows Kasher’s distinction to be meaningless. “Probability” has the same function here as “proportionality” in Kasher’s discussion of civilian casualties: it’s a pseudo-technical term for a subjective judgement with no defined standards.
These inconsistencies, and the atrocious civilian death toll, obviously merit the investigation being pursued by Maj. Gen. Efroni. But the significance of such an inquiry shouldn’t be overstated: as Harel points out, Efroni “did not ‘reinvent the wheel’ after Operation Protective Edge”; after the IDF’s 2008-09 rampage in Gaza, his predecessor questioned the then-commander of the Givati brigade “under caution,” but the criminal investigation was terminated without charges. Rather than facilitating real accountability, these investigations serve a prophylactic purpose for Israel. As the New York Times‘s Jodi Rudoren explained in a piece of scaremongering about the Palestinians’ proximity to statehood: “Israel, which has already undertaken 13 criminal investigations of its military’s behavior during this summer’s war with Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip, could also deter the International Criminal Court by proving its own justice system deals seriously with suspected offenders.”
Still, according to Harel, “The General Staff and the field commanders are in an uproar over the 13 investigations… And even if past experience, from the first intifada up to the recent Gaza war, shows that only rarely are indictments handed down against officers for either criminal or disciplinary infractions in battle — no one wants to become the exception to the rule.” Writing for Ynet Opinion, Yossi Yehoshua warns against “turning the commanders into Israel’s bulletproof vest on the legal and diplomatic battlefield… a battalion or brigade commander investigated by military police will not fight with the same sense of sacrifice and dedication in the next war.” Efroni must therefore not repeat the mistake he made during a recent inquiry into sexual harassment in the Givati Brigade, “when he summoned Winter for questioning during an unnecessary investigation.” The repellent reality of how the Hannibal directive has been executed in the field, no matter what is written in the IDF manual, will presumably contribute to the pressure on Efroni to close this matter silently.