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What is the ‘Hannibal Directive’ and how Israel uses it

January 4, 2024 at 9:00 am

Israeli army tanks move near the border of the Gaza Strip on January 03, 2024. [Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images]

On 15 December, an Israeli military spokesman told a press conference that the army had killed 3 Israeli hostages by mistake. All three victims were part of the 240 taken by Hamas fighters on 7 October. The Israeli official narrative goes like this: the three men emerged from a building which was surrounded by soldiers and one of them was carrying a white cloth on a stick while at least another one was shouting in Hebrew that they were hostages.

A panicked soldier, the Israeli story continues, mistook them for Hamas fighters, opened fire, killing two while injuring the third, who fled back into the building. He emerged again, shouting that he was not the enemy. Again, he was shot and killed. The Israeli spokesman described the incident as a tragic mistake.

From this narrative, the military unit nearby was already ordered to stop firing, but that particular soldier defied it and opened fire. It is not clear from the Israeli side if it was the same soldier who killed the other two, or a different one.

The Israeli army is not expected to be transparent and open in its investigation of the incident as that might raise more questions about the entire Israeli military conduct since Hamas’s daring attack on 7 October. The army did say, however, that opening fire on surrendering individuals, including surrendering enemy fighters, is a violation of its code of conduct. The army is trying to rescue some of its tarnished reputation because of the mass killing of Palestinians. So far, more than 22,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip and most of them are children and women.

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Two days after the shooting of the hostages, Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, appeared talking to the troops, reminding them that firing on people while they are “waving flags” is wrong. He also said, “What if it is two Gazans with a white flag who come out to surrender? Do we shoot at them? Absolutely not. Absolutely not.” The General went on to say that, in such situations, we take surrendering individuals alive to debrief them later. Of course, this goes against all facts on the ground, which testify that the Israeli army has killed civilians in their own homes, in market places, in its own declared safe areas, in hospitals, in United Nations facilities and in schools.

What the Israeli killing machine, officially called the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), never openly discusses is what is known as the “Hannibal Directive”, which gives its members the right to kill Israeli citizens, particularly serving IDF members, if feared that they might fall as prisoners. The current Israeli National Security Minister, Ben Gvir, is calling for the same policy to be applied to members of the Israeli public, allowing them to carry arms and to shoot on sight any Palestinian civilian suspected of being a “terrorist”. He refers to this as precautionary procedure, not as the Hannibal Directive, of course.

Many sources concur that the Hannibal Directive was first introduced as part of IDF’s operational order or code of conduct, back in 1986. Four years earlier, during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine, General Command, captured three Israeli soldiers who, in 1985, were exchanged for 1,150 Palestinian prisoners, including the late Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas. That swap deal was highly costly for Israel, forcing the IDF to adopt the secret Hannibal Directive.

The Directive, a secret standing order, has never been written down in its entirety, but almost all IDF members, particularly the air force fighter pilots, know about it and are compelled to use it to prevent a fellow soldier from falling into the hands of irregular fighting groups, like Hamas, for example.

The Hannibal Directive, which the IDF denies ever existed, says that better  a dead civilian hostage or soldier than taken alive because, in the latter case, getting that person back will be very expensive once hostilities end and negotiations start.

In practice, this means that Israeli forces have the all-clear to kill their own people if they believe they are going to be taken alive by the other side. Shaul Mofaz, who was Chief of Israeli military staff, in 1999, explained the policy by saying that “With all the pain that saying this entails, an abducted soldier, in contrast to a soldier who has been killed, is a national problem.”

In the wake of Hamas’s 7 October attack, resulting in the death of 1,139 Israeli and foreigners, including soldiers, and the capture of some 240 individuals, among them soldiers and security personnel, the IDF is thought to have reactivated the Hannibal Directive.

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While it has not been confirmed yet, the scene of destruction at the sites Hamas attacked cannot have been caused by the kind of arms Hamas fighters had carried with them—mainly Kalashnikovs and similar rifles. Instead, many experts think such carnage was caused by Israeli attack helicopters which took to the air in response to the attack, amid the chaos that accompanied their response to the surprise attack.

The Israeli police in its initial investigation confirmed this fact. The initial report, which has been leaked but not officially released to the public, also indicates that Hamas did not know about the Supernova music festival before-hand. They did not target it from the start and their intended targets were kibbutz Re’im and nearby villages close to the Gaza border. The fighters learned of the festival from their drones and after they came close to where the festival was taking place. All that while their operation was already in progress. Furthermore, the Israeli security establishment, based on interrogations of captors of Hamas fighters revealed that the music festival was not on their target list. Maps found on the body of dead Hamas fighters did not show any target location anywhere near the party site.

The revealing paragraph in the Police leaked report said that “an [Israeli military] combat helicopter that arrived at the scene from the Ramat David base fired at the terrorists and apparently also hit some of the revellers there.”

Experts also believe it is highly unlikely that last minute adjustments to Hamas’s Al-Aqsa Flood Operation could have been incorporated into the highly sophisticated and well planned operation after its launch.

Clearly, the Hannibal Directive is active and still being used by the IDF, which has never stopped boasting about being the most moral army in the world. But it is very unlikely that the IDF will ever admit to something that has already been denied ever existed in the first place.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.