Knowing the Israel Defense Forces' devotion to saving its soldiers' lives, enemies of the Jewish state have concentrated attention on capturing live soldiers with which to ransom hundreds or more of their own people, even convicted terrorists.
In response, the IDF developed in the mid-1980s what it calls the "Hannibal Protocol" (or "Hannibal Directive), a brutal but necessary response that insures that no abducted soldier remains alive. It is named after the Carthaginian general who poisoned himself not to be captured by the Romans. Some background, from an article in Yediot Ahronot (translated into English here), starting with a detail from the just-ended conflict with Hamas:
From the eyewitness accounts of IDF combat soldiers who took part in the Cast-Lead operation in Gaza, it seems that in order to prevent the kidnapping of an IDF soldier, an order was given during a gun battle to shoot artillery shells at a house which contained terrorists, because of the serious possibility that within that house or next to it, was the body of an IDF soldier.
Then the doctrine:
Since the 1980's the IDF activates the "Hanibal protocol" whose design is to prevent the enemy from kidnapping soldiers. From the second the protocol is activated, IDF soldiers must prevent the kidnapping of IDF soldiers, or stop the kidnapping if in progress. The protocol gained publicity during the Jibril Deal in May 1985. ...
According to the protocol directive, soldiers must open fire on the kidnapper's vehicle that has the kidnapped IDF soldier in it, in order to foil the kidnapping. This protocol has been the source of many heated discussions within Israel's security community, with the primary question of the morality of the protocol. Security officials have said that the kidnapping of soldiers is strategic, not tactical, and carries a very heavy pricetag for Israel to pay.
(January 26, 2009)
The strategic weapon, the "Judgment Day Weapon" that Hamas wants to acquire, is to capture a soldier. But no soldier in Battalion 51 will be kidnapped at any price. At any price. Under any condition. Even if it means that he blows himself with his own grenade together with those trying to capture him. Also even if it means that now his unit has to fire a barrage at the car that they are trying to take him away in. There is no situation. No situation that they will have this weapon.
Oct. 25, 2011 update: In the aftermath of the Gilad Shalit deal (that traded one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Arabs, 477 of them convicted terrorists), the Israeli army will reconsider the "Hannibal Protocol" to prevent future abductions of soldiers.
The "Hannibal protocol" became official in the 1980s. It stipulates that IDF soldiers must prevent the abduction of a living soldier at any cost including opening fire at the abductors' vehicle. The protocol takes into consideration the fact that the captive soldier may be killed, with the guiding principle being that a dead soldier is better than a kidnapped soldier in the eyes of the State of Israel which will be forced to pay a heavy price for the captive.
In practice, each commander gives his own interpretation of the order to his men. On the eve of Operation Cast Lead, for example, a Golani battalion commander told his soldiers that if they find themselves in danger of being kidnapped they must blow themselves up using a grenade.
Former Nahal Brigade commander Col. Motti Baruch instructed his men to do everything in their power to prevent kidnappings including firing at the abductors' vehicle while endangering the captive's life.
However, not all commanders agree with the protocol. Some claim that human life must be treasured and therefore ignore the subject in briefings, leaving their soldiers to exercise their own judgment.
Gantz will be forced to form a clear and unified policy next week which will no doubt prompt a public discussion. Meanwhile IDF officials stressed that the protocol will not be changed but procedures will be revisited to prevent any misunderstandings.
Nov. 1, 2011 update: Amos Harel in Ha'aretz further discusses the "Hannibal Protocol":
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.
Aug. 1, 2014 update: According to Israel Radio military correspondent Carmella Menashe, as conveyed by IMRA, "the moment it was realized that Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin may have been kidnapped that the IDF engaged in massive fire in the area where the terrorists might be with Goldin."
Aug. 4, 2014 update: Abraham Rabinovich writes that "Hannibal"
has been in effect 27 years, but except for the case of Gilad Shalit—a soldier whose captors escaped with him eight years ago despite being fired upon during the kidnapping—it is not known to have been implemented until last Friday[, Aug. 1]. A hour after a cease-fire in Gaza went into effect, Hamas fighters emerging from tunnels in the town of Rafiah killed two Israeli soldiers and escaped with a third, Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23.
Israeli artillery and tanks laid down a massive barrage on the area in an attempt to isolate it and prevent the captors from escaping. Some 150 Palestinians were later reported killed in the area. But the officer was not located despite an intensive house-to-house search. ... Lt. Goldin may have been mortally wounded in the initial Hamas attack that killed the two soldiers alongside him. But he may have been killed by Israeli shell fire.
Aug. 7, 2014 update: Isabel Kershner writes that "Hannibal" was used vis-à-vis Goldin:
Less than 90 minutes into a temporary truce last Friday[, Aug. 1,] that was supposed to have ended the fighting, Hamas fighters emerged from a tunnel and ambushed an Israeli unit, killing two soldiers and snatching a third, prompting the Israeli Army to pursue the captors and unleash a barrage of artillery and airstrikes on a heavily populated section of the southern border town of Rafah. When it was over, 120 Palestinians were dead, along with the captured soldier.
Yet, "it appears unlikely that the Hannibal procedure caused the fatal injury of the missing soldier." But the protocol has new prominence: "there is increasing reluctance to continue the practice of trading so many prisoners for captive soldiers, with critics arguing that each lopsided deal only encourages future abductions."
Kershner traces its history:
The Hannibal edict was drawn up by three senior officers in Israel's northern command in the 1980s after two Israeli soldiers were captured by Hezbollah in Lebanon. "We understood that when it comes to kidnapping, there should be a very clear order so that ordinary soldiers on the ground should not have to hesitate and make their own assumptions," said Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli general, former national security adviser, and one of the authors of the directive as a colonel in the northern command from 1986 to 1989. ...
"Morally, it's a big question: What can you do or not do to prevent a kidnapping?" Mr. Amidror said. "The order was that you have to do all you can, including risking — not killing — the soldier." If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. "You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don't intend to kill him," he said. Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier's life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: "You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them."
Goldin's case may be the first application of this protocol: "officials and experts said they could not recall a case in which the Hannibal procedure was activated and a captive soldier was hurt."
Aug. 12, 2014 update: "Has the Hannibal Protocol run its course?" asks Mitch Ginsburg in the Times of Israel. He begins with an interview with Maj. Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, the former national security adviser who was one of the three officers who drafted the order: "What we needed was clarity." Ginsburg asked Amidror if that meant that "soldiers are required to open fire with their rifles at a retreating vehicle even if it means putting one of their mates in acute danger, but to refrain from firing, say, a guided missile that would almost surely kill everyone in the vehicle?" He replied, "Exactly."
Ginsburg then notes that MK Elazar Stern, a former general, wrote on his Facebook page on Aug. 10
that many families would be "happy" to learn that their loved ones were being held in captivity rather than killed. The Hannibal Protocol and the force it unleashes, he said in a Channel 10 interview over the weekend, are a symptom of a larger problem: the societal "insanity" regarding abductions. The willingness to "do almost anything" to stop an abduction, he wrote later, was born of a common understanding that a captive soldier is a crisis of national proportions. Lives will be saved, on both sides of the border, and Israeli society will be more healthy, he wrote, if "sanity is restored to all of us in the way we relate to abductions and the price we are willing to pay."
Sep. 30, 2014 update: If the IDF did indeed use "Hannibal" tactics in the Hadar Goldin case, it could be in legal trouble. See details at "IDF may get into hot water over possible use of 'Hannibal Protocol'."
Jan. 13, 2015 update: Israel's Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has ruled that the IDF must follow international legal criteria, meaning it may try to prevent abductions, even at risk to the victim, but it may not use deadly force specifically against the abductee.
We believe the directives exercised as part of this protocol reflect the proper balance of the various considerations intrinsic to such situations. A military operation meant to thwart an ongoing abduction attempt almost always entails placing the abductee in a certain amount of danger. Israeli and international law do not bar the actions necessary to prevent abductions, even if they may endanger the abductee's life, but nevertheless, the operational directives bar the use of deadly force meant to cause the abductee's death. ... Exercising the authority vested him by the Military Jurisdiction Act, the judge advocate general has sole jurisdiction on the matter. His actions are independent and he is guided only by legal considerations.
Feb. 22, 2015 update: Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper claims that Israeli forces executed a Hannibal maneuver on Jan. 28. That was when Hizbullah attacked with missiles, killing two Israeli soldiers; in response, the paper alleges, the IDF attacked a UNIFIL outpost, killing one Spanish peacekeeper, in order to foil the abduction of an Israeli soldier. It writes that "the shelling around Ghajar indicates that the Israelis were attempting to hit a possible kidnap squad retreating to Lebanese territory with captive soldiers." The IDF Spokesperson's Office denied the reported claims, saying that "during the incident the Hannibal Protocol was not implemented at all."
July 8, 2015 update: Asa Kasher, the author of the IDF's ethical code, has revealed that an unnamed soldier was killed in 2014 by fellow forces to prevent his abduction; he calls this a corruption of Hannibal protocol.
Yoni Kempinski writes at Arutz Sheva:
According to Kasher, the death came about as a result of a false understanding of the secretive Hannibal protocol, according to which the IDF is given a free hand in taking desperate measures to free a captured soldier even if it endangers the life of the soldier - but which does not allow the intentional killing of soldiers so as to prevent their capture.
Kasher stated that "there is a complete ban on killing an abducted soldier based on the reasoning: 'better a dead soldier than an abducted soldier'." He called that reasoning "mistaken from its core; maybe you can shoot towards the terrorists but it is forbidden to shoot to kill the terrorists together with the soldier." The killing of a soldier to prevent his abduction is "wrong," "pernicious" and "misleading."
"Everyone should understand that you never kill a soldier deliberately just in order to help the government conduct negotiations." ... According to the professor, the Hannibal procedure actually stipulates that "you cannot even jeopardize the life of a soldier to a very significant extent."
June 26, 2016 update: Has "Hannibal" run its course? Ha'aretz reports that State Comptroller Yosef Shapira opposed the policy in the first draft of the his report on lessons learned from Operation Protective Edge; it includes a recommendation that the protocol be abolished because it unclear and misunderstood by the IDF.
Jan. 23, 2017 update: Yes, Hannibal is defunct. Judah Ari Gross writes that
The Israel Defense Forces has replaced its controversial Hannibal Protocol ...with three new directives, beginning on January 1, ... depending upon the circumstances of the abduction: in the West Bank during peacetime, elsewhere beyond Israel's borders during peacetime, or in any location during a war or other emergency situation. No new order exists that deals with a soldier being abducted within Israel during peacetime.
The directive for a West Bank abduction is known as "True Test"; the directive for a abduction elsewhere outside Israel is called "Tourniquet"; and the directive for abductions during wartime is, in Hebrew, "Shomer Nafsho," which connotes caution and the saving of lives. ...
In June, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot decided to cancel the Hannibal Protocol, as it was apparently being misunderstood by some troops and because the approximately 20-year-old protocol was no longer relevant to the types of incidents that soldiers were liable to encounter. ...
The new protocol specifically says that soldiers should fire at the abductors "while avoiding hitting the captive," in order to ensure no misunderstanding. It similarly reminds soldiers that it is their responsibility to avoid capture and prevent the abduction of others while "guarding the life of the captive."
Comment: This article notably does not provide specifics of the three new directives.