One of the worst conundrums facing modern militaries engaged in asymmetrical warfare is what to do in the event that one of your soldiers was captured. For decades, the Israeli Defense Forces have relied on a still-classified and highly controversial method known as the "Hannibal Protocol." And now a large part of it is illegal.
Having a soldier captured is not only a fear of contemporary warfare, it's a reality. Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army soldier, was held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly five years. During that time he was regularly beaten, tortured, and was once held in a metal cage in total darkness for weeks after he tried to escape. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, was held from June 2006 to October 2011, after he was captured by Hamas militants who raided his post by way of an underground tunnel. When he was released, he was weak, pale, and suffering from a clear case of malnutrition.
Both soldiers were returned as a result of political and diplomatic deals, but not every captured soldier is so lucky. In 2007, US Army soldiers Joseph Anzack, Alex Jimenez, and Byron Fouty were captured after an attack on their outpost by Iraqi insurgents. All three were later found dead. Though it's unknown what exactly happened to all three before their deaths, both Fouty and Jimenez's remains showed evidence of extreme, prolonged torture, including broken bones and amputated extremities.
What is known about the Hannibal Protocol, also known as the Hannibal Directive, is simple enough. While the actual wording of it is still secret, the gist is clear – when a soldier is in the process of being abducted by enemy forces, do anything possible to prevent that soldier's capture.
And "anything possible," in the Hannibal Protocol's case, includes everything up to and including IDF forces shooting and killing the captured soldier themselves. The thinking behind it was, partially, that a quick and painless death at the hands of your own teammates was preferable to likely torture, definite confinement, and potential painful death. And partially, it is thought to serve as a deterrent to future kidnappings.
Once again, it's not clear exactly what was in the written procedure about how to handle such a situation. But from many accounts, it appears as if much was left up to the local commanding officer. What is known from one of the few times it was triggered, in 2006, is that once the word "Hannibal" is relayed over the radio, it works its way up the chain of command all the way to the Prime Minister, and launches an instant aerial surveillance program of the area, along with coordinated airstrikes. As the Washington Post noted at the time:
"If we had found them, we would have hit them, even if it meant killing the soldiers," a senior Israeli official said.
As you might imagine, the Hannibal Protocol has been a source of major controversy, full of military, legal, ethical, and moral complications, both within the IDF and greater society. It's not what one would consider popular at all, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many soldiers may refuse to carry it out. In one case, an IDF commander refused to even brief his soldiers about it, considering its mere existence highly illegal. Others found it simply to be tactically dubious at best, as one former soldier told Haaretz:
No. How would I feel if I shot a soldier and then a second later a helicopter would arrive that might be able to rescue him? And I wouldn't want to be shot at, either. I would prefer to be taken prisoner. I have a very strong survival instinct. But in Ramallah you run into so many idiotic orders, and this was just one more of them.
Even worse, families of those captured, and even those formerly captured themselves, believed it unconscionable.
All of those complications led to their inevitable conclusion last August, when the Association for Civil Rights in Israel sent an official inquiry to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein into the death of Hadar Goldin, a soldier captured during last Summer's war in Gaza, who was eventually killed when Israeli military forces unleashed a veritable wall of armament in response. While Goldin's death is still under official investigation, the AG was forced to come upon with a response to the inquiry.
In short, it is indeed illegal to actively try to execute one of your own soldiers to prevent their capture. The crux of the AG's statement is thus (emphasis mine):
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.
So what happens to the Hannibal Protocol now that the intentional killing of a fellow soldier is prohibited? Well, it actually appears that it will continue on, mostly intact, despite a large part of it becoming invalidated. The part about "doing anything by any means necessary" still stands.
But even then, like many legal rulings, this one doesn't answer the most serious questions regarding ethics and morality. And Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon has been making noises to the effect of "yeah, but it might still totally happen," in local daily Yisrael Hayom:
"This is in importance legal clarification," Ya'alon said. "The evolution of the Hannibal Protocol includes more than legal consideration, it includes moral, ethical and operational ones as well. If something illegal happens during a military operation, if someone, heaven forbid, looted, raped, or opened fire in violation of orders, then it would warrant a criminal investigation. Otherwise, these investigations should be left to military commanders.
"To have the legal system trample over operational considerations would undermine [the soldiers'] fighting spirit. On the other hand, the legal system must be able to review incidents that have real criminal aspects, but it has to focus on them, not on issues that have no criminal aspects," Ya'alon said.
And even as Ya'alon moves to pre-emptively defend his soldiers who may be forced to make an unthinkable decision in wartime, the ACRI notes a broader point. The exact execution of the Hannibal Protocol has, for so long, been left to the individual commanders on the ground. Whose to say that one of them wouldn't still order one of their own soldiers to be executed in the event of their capture?
Which is what makes this whole situation so troubling. It's another case of a facet of war a conundrum not of tactics, or legality, but one of philosophy. In each individual situation, can any of us, who've never been in that specific position at a specific moment, make a declarative statement on how we'd prefer it to be handled?
I really don't know.
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