Israel and the Hannibal Protocol – better to be killed than taken captive?

November 6, 2011
IDF commanders are reviewing the “Hannibal Protocol: Rules of Engagement,” which declares that everything possible must be done to prevent soldiers from being abducted – even if it means endangering them.
For the Israel Defense Forces, this coming winter marks the beginning of a new post-Gilad Shalit era. Beyond the Iranian issue – which is at the center of almost all discussions and headlines – the term “capture” is being heard a lot on the battlefield and training grounds.
The party atmosphere surrounding Shalit’s release has been replaced by the IDF’s newest serious headache: how to prevent the next abduction. One thing is known for sure – terrorist organizations are making major efforts to grab the next Shalit.
Two words that have come up frequently in recent weeks are the “Hannibal Protocol,” which states that the abduction of a soldier must be prevented in every way possible, even if doing so endangers that soldier’s life. An example would be shooting at a car driven by terrorists who have a captive soldier inside.
The protocol was developed in the mid-1980s by Likud MK Yossi Peled (then OC Northern Command), National Security Adviser Ya’akov Amidror (then a colonel and chief of intelligence), and former IDF Chief of General Staff Maj. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi (then a colonel and head of intelligence at the Northern Command). It picked up support after the Jibril deal in 1985, in which 1,150 terrorists were exchanged for three soldiers.
Even if the protocol has never become a standing order in the army, and sometimes appears to be the sole province of individual commanders and soldiers or Internet forums, the army understands that its ethical and strategic aspects must be considered. It is like a ghost come to haunt the IDF and its commanders, who must ponder it in the wake of the Shalit celebrations.
The “Hannibal Protocol: Rules of Engagement,” drafted while the IDF was still in Lebanon, instructs a soldier how to act professionally to prevent an attempted abduction. But the highest levels of the IDF fear that the message is now being passed on to younger soldiers too radically, and that they are receiving the impression that a dead soldier is better than a live captured one. Unfortunately, this order has been misinterpreted both by commanders and by the media, which have been saying that it sanctions the killing of a soldier, either by his own hand or at the hands of his comrades, to prevent him from being taken alive by a terrorist organization.
Many reserve officers, including those who filled senior positions in the past, refused to be interviewed for this article. It is a very delicate issue, walking a thin line between the permitted and the forbidden, between the legitimate and the clearly illegal.
Every statement made about the matter is loaded, sensitive and has wide-ranging consequences –military and strategic on the one hand, compassionate and ethical on the other. Either way, the interviewees agreed, commanders in the field will still determine how far the protocol goes. It was used in previous abductions of soldiers, but to no avail.
Indeed, it emerged from the army investigation after the Shalit capture that the commander of a tank in the Kerem Shalom region had seen two Palestinian activists crossing the border fence towards the Gaza Strip, Shalit with them. The commander requested permission to open fire, but because of noise on the army’s radio line, the commanders received the message too late. By the time firing was approved, Shalit was on Egyptian soil.
The last time the Hannibal Protocol came up was two years ago, when civilian Yakir Ben-Melech tried to sneak into the Gaza Strip and was shot by IDF troops. The army denied that it had been following the protocol, saying that Ben-Melech had been trying to cross the border on his own.
The question came up again during the serious terror attack in mid-August near Eilat, when terrorists tried to drag an Israeli into Egypt.
Over the past two weeks there have been two meetings over the Hannibal Protocol. Professor Asa Kasher, who formulated the IDF’s code of ethics, was at the first one, which gathered commanders from OC Southern Command. Kasher said there was nothing wrong with the protocol, only with the way it was being interpreted. He and OC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo told officers that they had to stress to their subordinates that interpreting the protocol too rigidly violated the IDF’s ethical code.
The second meeting, held this week and attended by Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, was for commanders of field units from lieutenant colonels up, and told them the protocol did not justify shooting a soldier.
“It’s clear to me that this forum will be tested in the coming year,” Gantz told the commanders. “You’ll be tested in personal ways during ongoing security operations, in operative tests, and in the need to adapt in accordance with strategic changes, including a serious challenge regarding resources.”
“What they were clearly trying to tell us was that the kidnapping of a soldier was something that we must prevent, period,” said a senior officer who attended both sessions. “But the senior officers made clear that the current protocol is enough, and only needs to be sharpened and adapted to the different areas … Ultimately, the commanders in the field will be the ones who decide with sensitivity on the protocol’s implementation.
“There was a discussion on what to do if there’s an abduction – shoot or don’t shoot. And if we shoot, how to shoot, using what kind of weapons. The chief of staff said that there are no right or wrong answers. It’s not like in school. You have to use your judgment. Every area has its own instructions, but the overall instruction is that kidnapping is the kind of event that we must prevent.
“Doing so sometimes also involves shooting at those who are trying to carry out the abduction. It’s clear this means possibly also hitting the kidnapped soldier, because he’s with the terrorists trying to take him. It all goes together. In the end, every officer in the field must interpret the order in accordance with the situation, but most importantly we must prevent the abduction by opening fire quickly.”
Another senior officer said, “What was stressed to the officers is that ultimately the commander has the ability to prevent a kidnapping. It’s naturally better to prevent such incidents ahead of time, but we can prevent abductions in the midst of ongoing action.”
Minister without portfolio Yossi Peled, who helped create the Hannibal Protocol, becomes angry about the vagueness on the subject and believes the army must be clearer about it. “We have to formulate the Hannibal Protocol so that the soldier in the field understands exactly what’s permitted and what’s forbidden. To say we have to prevent an abduction at any cost isn’t really saying anything, and to fight to recover the captured soldier even if it means he will definitely be killed isn’t ethical. We must never decide that we’re going to kill the victim.”
One of the more complicated matters the IDF is grappling with is the possibility of a soldier being abducted into Egypt. The clear instruction is to prevent this, but shooting in Egypt’s direction could create a strategic problem for Israel and damage delicate relations with Egypt, especially at this sensitive time.
“There is certainly a difference between a soldier being taken into Lebanon or into Egypt, in terms of what methods can be used and the degree of sensitivity,” a security source who attended the two gatherings said. “There is special sensitivity regarding the peace treaty with Egypt, and we have to recognize this during operations. On the other hand, we don’t always have to cross the border to prevent an abduction. Sometimes it’s enough just to open fire toward them. In the last terrorist attack near Eilat, we fired toward Egypt. We also have to take into consideration that soon it will be difficult to storm into Egypt because of the obstacles they are building there now intended to prevent infiltrators from coming into Israel.”
Soldiers in the field, whether they are new recruits who have only started their service or veterans who fought in the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, say they face no dilemmas. They all agree that it is better to be killed than to be taken captive. At least that’s what they say.
“The Second Lebanon War was conducted in the spirit of the Hannibal Protocol,” says A., who fought in that war and was at the Battle of Wadi Saluki. “The war started with the Hannibal Protocol in effect after Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were captured [and killed], so no one had to tell us anything; we understood it ourselves. We all agreed that no one would be abducted. We didn’t even discuss what would happen should this occur, because it was clear to everyone. There were stories about soldiers who were killed by friendly fire, but I personally didn’t run into these things.”
“Every soldier must fight if they try to abduct him; a soldier must understand that he simply must not be taken,” a senior officer said. “A soldier must do everything he can not to fall into captivity.” Asked what he meant by “everything,” he refused to answer.
On the other side, naturally, are the parents, those who must pay a heavy price if their sons are abducted or killed. Haim Avraham, father of the late Staff Sergeant Benny Avraham, who was captured by Hezbollah on Mount Dov in October 2000, surprisingly came out in favor of the Hannibal Protocol.
“When I saw the investigative report into my son’s abduction along with Omar Souad and Adi Avitan, of blessed memory, I discovered that the Hannibal Protocol was put into effect to prevent their capture,” he said. “The army tried to prevent cars from leaving Lebanon’s Kfar Shouba, and to the best of my knowledge 26 cars were hit by our planes. But the kidnappers were no longer there. They managed to drive 7 kilometers into Lebanon before they had a car accident. Then they booby-trapped their cars and disappeared with our sons.
“If they told me that our son had died from friendly fire during the abduction, it would hurt emotionally and perhaps anger me, but I could take it. The state needn’t act based on the viewpoint of a father and his family, but rather out of concern for all of its seven million citizens. The law of the land is the law. A soldier’s job is to guard the country, and he is liable to fall in battle as a result.”

And the fact that Benny could still be alive today if not for friendly fire wouldn’t make it harder to deal with?

“It certainly would. There’s a black flag flying over this order. But I think in our current reality it has a certain logic. It’s a dilemma. A kidnapping, which is a localized event, becomes a strategic event which changes Israel’s balance of power in the whole Middle East. Look at what happened following the abductions of Benny and Gilad Shalit. We must also consider the suffering to be faced by the captive soldier, his family, all the Jewish people, and I’m sure whoever initiated the order. Such an order determines policy, and essentially the army takes responsibility in places where the statesmen can’t.”
Yossi Peled puts a finer point on Avraham’s remarks: “The abduction of a soldier places the state in the midst of a very complicated problem, so we must prevent it even at the cost of the captive soldier’s life, but not execute him. When I arrived at Northern Command, I described the matter of the abductions as one of the greatest dangers in our ongoing security operations. That’s when we forbade the use of shells and anti-tank weapons, because if they hit a car, it’s instant death for those inside. We only approved using light weapons to be fired at the abductors, since then we are taking a reasonable risk that the soldier won’t be hurt. The fact that we forbid the use of certain kinds of ammunition has clear significance: I don’t want to kill the kidnapped soldiers, but I’m willing to endanger them to stop the kidnapping.”

Do you feel the instructions given to the commanders today are as clear as they should be?

“I can tell you how the order was born, but I don’t know how it has developed since then and how it is defined today. I don’t have a better definition today for the order than the way we defined it back then.”

You don’t see anything problematic in an IDF soldier firing at another?

“There is something that exists in the army called ‘friendly fire.’ When a unit gets into trouble, it sometimes asks for artillery cover nearby to get it out of a difficult situation. So should we rule that out too?”
The late Dan Shomron, who was an operations officer in the IDF before becoming chief of staff when the doctrine took root, always repeated the saying: “It’s risk against risk. Is there anybody (standing on the other side) with a copy of the Geneva Convention?”
The officers of the time remember that this line made it easy for them to understand that they could shoot in every situation and at every price, and no one thought to ask questions.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zakai was the commander of a Golani company when the Hannibal Protocol came along. Later he faced it as the commander of a brigade and as commander of the Gaza division. “This procedure was an inseparable part of operational activities, and the soldiers in Lebanon and Gaza were briefed about it all the time as a way of preventing a possible abduction,” he recalls.
The very public discussion over the legality and morality of the protocol angers Zakai. “There’s no doubt that it’s better to ask questions and express doubts rather than just accept it as understood. But someone decided that what we are essentially saying is, ‘If a soldier is kidnapped, shoot him,’ and that’s just not true. The IDF doesn’t fire on its own soldiers; that doesn’t happen.
“It’s clear that a tactical failure involving the kidnapping of a soldier has the entire country facing a strategic problem, and we need to do everything we can to avoid such a situation. But “everything we can” definitely does not include shooting a soldier. Not even if you saw them taking a soldier and putting him in a car. You do not immediately shoot at the car. You first fire a few shots ahead of the vehicle so it will go off the road and stop, and then maybe an infantry unit can charge the car and arrest the abductors. Hurting the soldier is not part of the doctrine, and I’m certain that’s how it’s being explained to the soldiers. What is true is that in such situation, you can increase the risk factor a bit.”

As a commander, didn’t you ever run into a soldier who said he would refuse the order, or had some doubts about it?

“When you know how to explain it clearly and truthfully, there won’t be any opposition. I didn’t run into any soldier who considered refusing to carry it out,” Zakai said.
And Maj. Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, former head of IDF Personnel Branch, Chief Education Officer and commander of an officers’ training unit, said, “There were questions, of course, but we unequivocally clarified that we don’t shoot at those being taken, then the doubts disappeared. The commanders in the field don’t want their soldiers abducted. Not out of fear, but because of the price that has to be paid to get them back. Soldiers, as part of their jobs, endanger themselves and their lives to protect citizens, and what really happens is that the state of Israel endangers its citizens to protect the soldiers.
“A lie was planted in Israeli society claiming that IDF soldiers want to know that if they are captured, any price necessary will be paid for their release. And if not, then the youth won’t want to enlist and soldiers won’t want to fight.
“Today we know that there is no drop in motivation, even in the school Gilad Shalit studied in, despite what some advertising agencies tried to sell us while he was a prisoner. The Hannibal Protocol is an example of this: The soldier says: ‘I don’t want them to pay every price for me,’ and that’s the true spirit in the army unit.”
According to Stern, the clarification of the Hannibal Protocol indicates the revival of values that seemed to have disappeared from the IDF. “I hope that the army is uncomfortable with all the recent deals, which took place as a result of incidents in which not one bullet was fired: the Jibril exchange, the Tannenbaum deal, and of course the Shalit deal,” he said.
“There’s a pattern here that is too widespread of easily becoming a prisoner, without fighting, and this is a harsh failure of the military system. Once we fight being abducted, there’s another message the soldiers receive. Today, the commanders understand what prices the country will pay and how much its defense suffers if a soldier is captured and a deal is made. It seem that the army doesn’t want to have the nation face a dilemma.

Is it easier for Israeli society to deal with a dead or a kidnapped soldier?

“For the families, it’s harder to deal with the death of a loved one. But unfortunately in Israeli society, it’s the opposite — it’s harder for it to deal with a kidnapped soldier. And that means we have a long way to go.’

Isn’t there an ethical problem with shooting at a soldier?

“I’m opposed to shooting directly at one of our soldiers. The significance of the Hannibal Protocol is that I take on greater risk to prevent the kidnapping. Unethical? There are some deals that are unethical, and sometimes the prices we pay are unethical. The Hannibal Protocol was born as a reaction to the Jibril exchange. At the time I was commander of Paratroopers Battallion 202. And we, as commanders, took into account that we could also be the ones abducted.“
“Danger may be part of army life. But when you knowingly endanger your soldier to prevent an abduction, this is an unwanted standard,” jurist Professor Emanuel Gross said. He said that “intentional shooting which will almost certainly lead to the death of the kidnappers and your captive soldier is an unlawful order that must be refused. We know that the shooting is endangering someone. If the intention is to prevent the abduction for strategic reasons, then we’re no longer talking about saving the soldier but about an order that is clearly illegal. I don’t accept that the strategic ramifications permit the sacrifice of the kidnapped soldier.
“From a legal standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with an order that says we must try to prevent the kidnapping, but not at all costs, and certainly not a cost that endangers the captive. Such an order would be opposed from the beginning, especially because it was not clearly formulated. It’s a very blurry order which doesn’t say what is and isn’t permitted to prevent an abduction, and still leaves most of the considerations with the commander. The biggest problem with it is what is caused by it: As soon as you’re certain that your order to fire endangers the captive, it’s not ethical or legal.”
Israeli Nissim (Salam) Shalem, who was released as part of the Jibril deal in 1985, spent three years as a Syrian captive. Gilad Shalit’s release returned him to those difficult days. “Twenty-six years have passed and up to Gilad we were the only captives who returned home alive,” he said. “When he was circling over Mitzpe Hila, I felt the same way I felt on the plane that brought me home. It’s harder for me to sleep at night now, because all those experiences keep popping back up and gnawing at me.”
When Shalem and seven of his comrades were kidnapped in an ambush in Lebanon in 1982, the Hannibal Protocol didn’t exist. “Only after a few hours did the army figure out what happened to us,” Shalem recalls. “And there was no change made to rescue us at that moment.”
Shalem is careful when he speaks about the Hannibal Protocol. “To this day people talk to me about it and no one accurately quotes what’s written there. After all, there’s a difference between shooting at a car’s tires with a light weapon or firing tank shells directly into the car.”
This lack of clarity bothers Shalem. “You can’t place the soldiers in such a dilemma. There’s a lot of room for consideration in the field, of course, but the army orders have to be clear. I, at least, never heard a clear order on trying to prevent yourself from becoming a captive.”

Can you imagine a situation in which your comrades would shoot at you while you were being abducted?

“When you go out to fight, harsh things can happen, like death, being wounded or falling into captivity. You have to deal with all these things. The guys deal with the situation of having a kidnapped soldier much better than they did 25 to 30 years ago. Now we know the value of life. We don’t send soldiers to die but to guard those on the home front and their own lives as well. No one is asking anyone else to die.”
Asked to comment for this article, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said, “The Hannibal Protocol hasn’t changed and is still in effect.”
Arale Weisberg and Adi Rubinstein – Israel HaYom