Hannibal crossed the Alps with his division of combat elephants and terrorized mighty Rome for years. He commanded the army of Carthage, originally a Canaanite Phoenician colony, spoke a kind of Hebrew and bore a Hebrew name (“God has been gracious”). In my youth, when we were searching for Hebrew and Semite heroes as role models, he figured high on our list.
It appears that the Israeli army, too, considers him a model. This week the legendary general was at the center of a controversial public disclosure.
The subject of the sensation was the “Hannibal Procedure”–an Israeli army practice instituted in the mid 80s, first in oral instructions and later as an official order bearing this name. Some time ago this order was officially amended, but many soldiers attest that the original version it is still in force. It has now been published by Haaretz.
It can be summed up in eight words: Better a dead than a captured Israeli soldier.
When an Israeli soldier is taken prisoner, a huge public demand arises to bring him home, even at the cost of releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. In May 1985, Israel released 1150 Palestinians in return for three Israeli prisoners-of-war, in an exchange known as the “Jibril deal” (named after Ahmed Jibril, the chief of a Palestinian organization serving Syria and fighting Arafat.)
The Israeli army chiefs wanted to avoid such exchanges in the future at all costs, quite literally. They ordered soldiers to shoot at the car of the captors (guerillas generally use cars for such exploits), even if this would endanger the life of the captive soldier. Meaning: liberate the soldier by killing him.
The logic behind the order is not new. It has been part of Israeli thinking for decades. It says simply: Never give in to terrorists. Giving in will just encourage them to capture more of our people. Better to have your people killed together with their captors, so as to deter others.
This logic had terrible consequences in Munich, when the German police (with the encouragement of the Israeli government) opened fire on the captors of the Israeli athletes resulting in the deaths of both. Most of the hostages were presumably killed by the police, since the post mortem results were never published.
A similar tragedy occurred in Ma’aloth, in northern Israel, when Palestinians took a large group of schoolchildren hostage. Many children were killed when Moshe Dayan ordered the use of force to liberate them, in the middle of negotiations with their captors.
One of the most celebrated exploits of the Israeli army was in Entebbe (Uganda), when all but one of the passengers of a hijacked plane were freed. But the slightest hitch would have sufficed to turn the operation into a terrible massacre.
The “Hannibal Procedure” was unique in that it required soldiers to shoot their captured comrade. Tens of thousands of soldiers heard this order in the course of time, and it appears that most of them found nothing objectionable in it. There were some who opposed it, but their voice was not heard, until a courageous doctor, a reserve officer, recently voiced his protest publicly.
It is a revolting order, because it elevates an abstract being, “the army” or “the state”, above human life. The utterances of some of the officers quoted by journalist Sarah Leibovitch-Dar, are no less revolting.
The commander of a battalion whose soldiers had been taken prisoner said with satisfaction: “The pilots acted and did not ask questions.” He meant the airmen who were ordered to bomb all cars moving in the immediate area, in the hope that the captives were in one of them.
One of the officers who formulated the order, a religious man, a colonel, said: “In every decision some of the soldiers come back in coffins. In our eyes, this was just one of millions of decisions that are made every day in the (area) commandThe decision is logical and conforms to the spirit of the army. It does not seem more cruel or less logical then other orders that were given every day by the command and endangered the lives of many more soldiers.”
Former Chief-of-Staff Dan Shomron defends the order this way: “It’s risk against risk. There (on the other side) somebody stands holding the Geneva Convention?” And former Chief-of-Staff Amnon Shahak: “It is right to prevent the capture of soldiers at any cost.” In army parlance, “at any cost” means: at any cost.
Another senior officer explained that “the state carries the captive soldiers like a wound that does not heal. Therefore, the order is very logical.”
How did the thousands of soldiers, who heard this order just minutes before entering occupied South Lebanon, react? One of them recounts: “All of them knew the order like robots. If they asked questions, the commanders told them that this is the order and that’s it, and that in the Israeli army you don’t ask questions, and now move, get into the trucks.”
The Israeli army has changed a lot since its first days–and not for the better. Forgotten are the days when it was led by commanders like Yig’al Alon and Shimon Avidan, who valued the life of the individual soldier. They did not need to consult the Army Advocate General in order to know what is forbidden and where the black flag is flying.
Decades of service in support of the occupation have changed the Israeli army beyond recognition. This is another army, an army that produces robot soldiers and whose officers are no different from the generals of the Russian Czar or the King of Prussia. Not one of them would dream of eulogizing the fallen soldiers of the enemy, as did Chief-of-Staff Yitzhaq Rabin after the June 1967 war. The disdain for the lives of Palestinians has gradually led to disdain for the lives of Israelis.
When generals plan a military operation, they take into account that it will cost the lives of so-and-so many of their soldiers. That is an inherent part of military planning. Afterwards they can shed crocodile tears at solemn ceremonies, but for the general it is part of the job. The end justifies the casualties.
This outlook remained unchanged for a general out of uniform. A man like Ariel Sharon, who sees it as his historic mission to eliminate the Palestinian national entity and enlarge the Jewish State up to the Jordan river, knows that this task must cost so-and-so many casualties. There is nothing upsetting in this for a general hundreds of whose soldiers were killed in his battles. Just cold calculation.
Five generals are now governing the affairs of Israel: The Prime Minister, the Chief-of-Staff, the Defense Minister, the chief of Army Intelligence and the Political Advisor to the Defense Ministry. Behind them stand the hundreds of generals, in uniform and out, who constitute the most influential political lobby in Israel. This group, which controls Israel’s political and economic life, is united by the military outlook and way of thinking.
The “Hannibal Procedure” is the ultimate expression of this world view.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He can be reached at: email@example.com.