Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz reiterated today that the so-called Hannibal Protocol, designed to prevent soldiers from being abducted, does not allow for a soldier to be killed in order to prevent his abduction. Gantz was addressing the IDF’s operations forum, which includes combat unit commanders at the rank of lieutenant colonel and above. Much of the meeting was devoted to discussing the lessons of the Gilad Shalit episode.
The Hannibal Protocol has been highly controversial since its introduction in the late 1980s, after a few incidents in Israel’s security zone in south Lebanon. It allows commanders to take whatever action is necessary, even at the risk of endangering the life of an abducted soldier, to foil the abduction. The policy was suspended in the last decade due to opposition from the public and reservist soldiers.
The army investigation into Shalit’s abduction revealed that the commander of another tank in the Kerem Shalom sector saw two Palestinian militants taking Shalit back into the Gaza Strip and requested permission to fire at them. Radio communication problems delayed the request; permission was issued only for submachine fire from the tank, which did not stop the abduction.
After Shalit’s kidnapping the Hannibal Protocol was revised and reinstated. In an interview with Haaretz about two years ago, then-Nahal Brigade commander Col. (now brigadier general ) Motti Baruch said, “The message is that no soldier will fall captive, and it’s an unequivocal message.” Baruch instructed his soldiers, in the event of an abduction attempt, to fire on the terrorists even at the risk of hitting the abducted soldier.
About a year earlier, during Operation Cast Lead, Channel 10 television showed a Golani Brigade battalion commander briefing his soldiers before entering the Gaza Strip, saying: “No Battalion 51 soldier is abducted, at any price. [He should] blow himself up with a grenade together with the abductors rather than be captured.”
Shalit’s return earlier this month, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian terrorists, has focused the discussion in the IDF of the protocol and its implications. While the protocol permits risking the life of the abducted soldier, a kind of “Oral Law” that goes further has developed, which holds that a dead soldier is better than an abducted one. It is supported by many commanders, even at the brigade or division level, who call for using all available means to foil an abduction, including even firing a tank shell or carrying out an aerial strike against the vehicle carrying the abductors and the kidnapped soldier.
The issue created controversy last week when it was raised at a commanders’ conference in the Southern Command. “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,” he said.
Prof. Asa Kasher, who in the 1990s wrote the IDF’s Code of Ethics, also weighed in. “The protocol itself, in its current version, is not flawed. But the idea that better a dead soldier than a captive soldier is monstrous in my opinion. It’s a total misunderstanding of the matter: Firing a tank shell in order to kill an abductee is both illegal and immoral. This is a disturbing interpretation, and the IDF would do well to make it clear that it is unacceptable,” Kasher said.
Kasher, who participated in last week’s conference, added that GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo did a good job of correctly explaining the Hannibal Protocol to his subordinate officers.