Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of one of the most tragic events in the past three decades of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Operation Protective Edge. At least 2,100 Gazans, including 495 children, were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Of the total, 70% or more were civilians. In contrast, 73 Israelis were killed, almost all of whom were soldiers.
One of the more disturbing of many developments during last summer’s war was the serial use of the Hannibal Directive to authorize the murder of captured Israeli soldiers. While the precise wording remains secret, Hannibal is a formal military order which approves the use of massive force in the event that an Israeli soldier is captured in battle. There is dissension in Israel about the purpose of this extraordinary firepower. Reporters for the liberal Haaretz claim the mission is the kill the soldier so he cannot fall captive and become a pawn in a future prisoner exchange. That is the explanation most generally accepted in knowledgeable Israeli circles, including among journalists and analysts.
But the IDF itself and the political leadership claim the goal is to foil the “kidnapping” of the prisoner by killing the enemy who took him. These sources admit that doing so puts the captured Israeli in harm’s way, but claim this isn’t the primary purpose of the order.
A perfect illustration of the moral murkiness of this phenomenon is the case of Prof. Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the IDF’s military ethicist (an awkward phrase). At a conference this week he acknowledged for the first time that a soldier had been murdered due to an errant interpretation of the Hannibal Directive, during the Gaza war:
Prof. Kasher…revealed today…that during Operation Protective Edge the Hannibal Directive was invoked, costing the life of a soldier as a result of an erroneous understanding of the doctrine. He added “I have a solid basis for saying this, but I don’t wish to say which incident or when [it occurred], but there was such an incident.
Kasher added that Hannibal is a top secret directive…Though “we don’t wish to reveal to the enemy its contents, I can say that there is an absolute prohibition against killing a kidnapped soldier to fulfill the common phrase: ‘we prefer a dead soldier to a kidnapped one…’ You may shoot at the terrorist [who captured the soldier] but this is prohibited if your intent is to kill the soldier or the terrorist.”
Kasher’s displays his muddled thinking in the last sentence in which he oddly claims that the IDF may fire in the direction of the terrorist but not fire in order to kill either the soldier or the terrorist. Of course, the IDF will shoot to kill the terrorist. Clearly, Kasher spends too much time in his ivory tower and too little on the battlefield to understand what actually happens on the ground.
The professor, in saying the army killed a soldier through a “misunderstanding” of Hannibal indicates he knows it murdered at least one individual during the war. He appears to be absolving himself pre-emptively of any responsibility for the way the IDF interprets a doctrine which he himself helped create.
The average Israeli, including the families of the victims, refuse to see these soldiers as being killed by their own countrymen. They are given state funerals and treated like military heroes and honored for their sacrifice. Those soldiers in their unit who participated in the killing of their comrade aren’t viewed as killers, but as men who valiantly tried to save their comrade. It’s a convenient and comforting illusion.
Though many Israeli reporters have danced around this issue, as far as I know I may be the only journalist to call Hannibal explicitly what it is: the horrible and deliberate murder of one’s own.
‘Like they taught us at home and in the army’
Until this week, there were two known victims of the directive during last summer’s war: Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Guy Levy. In Goldin’s case, notoriously, the IDF rained thousands of tons of munitions on Rafah, the neighborhood to which his captors dragged his body. The indiscriminate terror of this two-day onslaught, which also included an assault on the local hospital and anyone, including ambulances, approaching it, killed an estimated 150 Gazans. If Goldin wasn’t already dead when dragged into the tunnel, Israel’s firebombing certainly did the job. The IDF military prosecutor and international human rights bodies are investigating this incident as a potential crime.
Now, in the pages of Israel HaYom, a paper bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson with $40 million per year from proceeds of his gambling empire, a new Hannibal murder has been identified. The story, as written, does not use the term Hannibal. Nor does it say the IDF killed its own. It doesn’t tell the real story of what happened. We’ll get to that later.
The semi-fictional published version says that on Friday July 25, 2014, tank company commander, Tal Rabinovitch, heard on his radio about firing at a nearby mosque. He rushed there in his tank even though the only path to get there was heavily mined. When he arrived in Khuza’a, he saw in a split second that a “Hamas fighter” was bent over an Israeli soldier who laid in a pool of blood. The officer knew the guerilla’s intent was to “kidnap” (the term routinely used in the Israeli media) the soldier. So he ordered the turret of his tank to swing toward the two figures. This achieved the desired result and the Palestinian fled into a building. So Israel HaYom tells us.
At this point in the telling, the reporter, Ronen Sibiak, completely forgets about the poor wounded soldier lying in his own blood and curiously turns his sole attention to the Gazan who’d escaped. The Israelis refused to allow him to get away with this “impudent” attempt to flee with a wounded comrade. First, they fired machine gun rounds from the tank’s gun, hoping it would force the militant to move and give himself away. When that didn’t succeed, they fired a tank shell into the building from point blank range.
They then sent a reconnaissance unit with a K-9 dog into the building to find the enemy fighter. He’d hidden himself in a closet inside the building, but the shell had killed him nevertheless.
When they returned they discovered that their fellow soldier, Master Sgt. Amit Yeori, age 20, had succumbed from his wounds. An additional soldier was also killed in this combat operation.
The two officers who commanded this operation were awarded medals by the IDF for their heroism in preventing the “kidnapping” of a fellow soldier. The actual language of the military citation is much vaguer than that of the article itself. It says:
“…When he arrived on the scene…Captain Tal Rabinovitch saw a terrorist dragging the body of an [Israeli] soldier toward a nearby building. He fired a shell from the closest possible distance at the structure into which the terrorist had fled, and killed him. Through this act, he frustrated the intent of the terrorist to kidnap the soldier.”
Note that this language comes much closer to acknowledging the Palestinian actually took the body away. It says nothing about the Gazan fleeing the scene and leaving the wounded soldier behind. The wounded Israeli isn’t situated at all in the citation’s description of the incident. There’s a good reason for this: It deliberately obscures the battlefield and what happened there, which is perfectly suited for an army which wishes to prevent the Israeli public from knowing what it actually did.
A knowledgeable Israeli source tells me the Israel HaYom portrait falsifies key elements of this incident. The Gazan did not leave the body behind. Indeed, he fled into the building with Sgt. Yeori. At that point, Rabinovitch reported to his superiors that his comrade had been captured. That’s when the Hannibal Directive was activated.
The response was clear, immediate and overwhelming in intensity. Rabinovitch was told to prevent the capture at all costs. Thus, he fired the tank round directly into the home and killed not only the Palestinian, but Yeori as well. He did this deliberately and knowing he’d likely kill both men. This is the precise definition of the Hannibal Directive.
The article notes that Rabinovitch found it emotionally “difficult” to receive the commendations from the chief of the Southern Command, Sammy Turgeman: “This isn’t an incident about which I feel any great sense of pride.” Given what really happened, the truth of this statement becomes evident.
The reporter asks Rabinovitch’s commander, Lt. Col. Avinoam Emunah, why he felt compelled to assign his troops the dangerous task of physically entering the building after the firing of the tank round. His self-serving response deliberately obscures what he did and why he did it:
“…The army is the only profession in which the greater the [immediate] risk you take the more you reduce [future] risk. A word of caution is needed: taking risks must be done with great professionalism and ethics. Busting into the house meant reducing the [overall] danger because it ended the incident quickly and enabled it to be done in a professional manner … In order to bring the incident to a close it was necessary to act quickly and make [direct] contact.”
How can someone speak of bringing a firefight to a close “professionally and quickly” when it involves killing his own soldier? This is beyond ghoulish.
He follows with a portrait of the enemy that further obscures what he did, with typical anti-Palestinian propaganda. He might as well be speaking on behalf of the ministry of foreign affairs. He has all the talking points down pat. Note below the subtle invocation of Palestinian torture (a completely unfounded charge) against IDF captives, which further justifies Hannibal:
“‘We couldn’t leave the Palestinian fighter in place so that he would return tomorrow. We couldn’t operate under the assumption he’d return to his home and the danger would dissipate. The enemy doesn’t rest…Due to the simple fact that his blood-thirst can never be sated. The terrorists do to themselves things which we can’t even conceive. All the worse would they do to us. We’re talking about fanatics, captivated by hate from the day they’re born.’ …
‘We [in Israel] don’t hate anyone. We aren’t motivated by hate but by love of Israel. That’s a great benefit [to us]. They [Palestinians] enter combat to take lives. We do so in order to preserve lives.’”
Considering he’s both obscuring and justifying the murder of one of his own soldiers, this explanation is breathtakingly banal.
The article continues by noting the “anger” which Lt. Col. Emunah feels regarding the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s report noting possible Israeli (and Palestinian) war crimes. Given the humanity, care and almost angelic nature of the IDF, he believes, how could anyone possibly conclude that it had committed war crimes?
He tells the reporter:
“We were extremely selective in our use of firepower and only used it proportionally as required under the circumstances. We didn’t fire without reason. Nor did we have any intent of causing damage for the sake of damage. Everything was part of our defined mission.”
The reporter returns then to Rabinovitch, who closes with this paean to the virtue of the IDF:
“We did nothing out of a spirit of revenge. We acted ethically, professionally and morally. Like they taught us at home and in the army.”
How do morality and ethics justify murder of one’s own? In which universe is this acceptable?
The article makes no mention of the fact that the IDF prosecutor is investigating those troops which leveled Rafah after Goldin’s murder. Though it’s unlikely the IDF would investigate, let alone prosecute its own, it’s far easier for patriotic Israelis like Lt. Col. Emunah to rail against a United Nations panel than against their own army.
Unfortunately, the truth is that the army is going through the motions of investigating so it can tell the U.N. that it did so, and found nothing worthy of prosecution. It believes this questionable strategy will allow the army off the hook, since international law says war crimes may be investigated by the International Criminal Court only after a nation has refused to investigate or prosecute its own soldiers.
The haze of sacrifice
There is an even more pernicious aspect to this story: Incidents like the one in which Sgt. Yeori was murdered are presented through a haze of patriotic sacrifice. This prevents an open public discussion about the Hannibal Directive. It anaesthetizes Israelis, frees them from the discomfort of having to admit that they are condoning the murder of their own sons in order to prevent the embarrassment of trading them for Palestinian prisoners. Doing so is morally inexcusable. But no one in Israel knows this because the nation exists in a moral stupor of its own making.
Once again, the moral ambivalence of those who killed their own can be seen in this passage:
“There are moments when even such faith [in the justice of the Israeli cause] couldn’t succeed in blunting the pain. This is exactly what Lt. Emunah felt when he visited the family of Amit Yeori after his death. It was the first time in his military career he had to stand before grieving parents whose son fell in his command: ‘I’d lost friends before, but never one of my own men…Therefore at the first meeting with the parents of Amit I arrived feeling confused. I’d had an obligation to return their son home safe and I hadn’t done that. This is a warm, embracing family, very supportive of the nation and its values. They made me feel totally at ease.’
But still, this malaise never left him. Even after a whole year. ‘I can’t describe to you the feeling that comes over me when a soldier under my command is killed. I’m not speaking about emotions that pursue me and cause me to sweat in the middle of the night. This is something different, impossible to describe in words.’”
I hope that in the near future Emunah and Rabinovitch will be awakened by the night sweats and terror of realizing they took the lives of one of their own, and did so for the sake of a national delusion of self-sacrifice.