Conspiracy theories are circulating about the reactivation of the Hannibal Directive by the Israeli army amid the conflict in Gaza.
The protocol, which focuses on preventing Israelis from being taken hostage, involves extreme measures, including resorting to lethal force if necessary.
While there are supporting elements to these claims, these theories remain fragile.
Yasmine Porat, a survivor of the attack on kibbutz Be'eri, claimed in an interview on Oct. 15 with Israeli radio that the army had "without a doubt" killed many Israeli civilians during the exchanges of fire with Hamas militants on Oct. 7.
“They [the Israeli Army] killed everyone, including the hostages,” she said.
On Saturday, Haaretz reported that an Israeli Army helicopter deployed on Oct. 7 near the rave party caused several casualties on the Israeli side. The Army denies these allegations, claiming to have "no indication of the damage caused to civilians by aerial activity."
The situation raises questions about the possible reactivation of the Hannibal Directive, despite its official ban in 2016.
What is it about?
Devised by Israel, the Hannibal Directive is a military strategy that has been used on multiple occasions in the past. Its primary objective is to prevent, at any cost, the abduction of Israeli soldiers or civilians.
The protocol involves deploying maximum force, regardless of the risk of causing harm or death to Israeli captives. Having utilized the doctrine against Hezbollah and Palestinian factions, the strategy aims to avoid granting the enemy any negotiation leverage.
Simultaneously, it seeks to prevent the release of captives under terms deemed excessively burdensome, both strategically and in the eyes of Israeli public opinion.
In simpler terms, the Hannibal Directive implicitly sanctions the potential endangerment and even death of kidnapped individuals, to prevent prisoners of war from becoming bargaining chips in future negotiations.
This military tactic originated in 1986 following the capture of three Israeli soldiers from an infantry brigade by Hezbollah in South Lebanon. At the time, the area was occupied by Israel as part of an effort to establish a "zone of security" during the Lebanese Civil War.
The remains of the captives were eventually returned 10 years later, in 1996, through an exchange that involved the return of the bodies of 123 Hezbollah fighters, as stated by the Israeli government.
Extremely controversial from a legal standpoint, the intention to injure or even kill potential hostages has consistently been denied by the army.
According to military officials, the name of the doctrine was randomly generated by a computer. Others interpret it as a direct reference to the Carthaginian general of the same name, considered one of history's best strategists, who chose to poison himself rather than surrender to the Romans in 181 BC.
The Hannibal Doctrine has never been formally announced by Israel, and its reputation has been shaped by testimonies from former army officials and audio recordings leaked to the press over time.
Avner Shiftan, a reservist doctor mobilized by the Israeli army in the 1990s, was amongst the first to discuss the Hannibal Doctrine.
Shiftan claims he received instructions to open fire on a vehicle in South Lebanon to prevent, "at all costs," the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.
In 2003, aiming to advocate for the ban of this doctrine, Shiftan gave a testimonial to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. However, his revelations did not generate significant reactions among the Israeli public.
In 2016, in a documentary produced by al-Jazeera, which Israel considers pro-Hamas, former Israeli generals and members of civil society who served in the army summarized the Hannibal protocol as follows: "A dead soldier is better than a living captive."
"After the protocol was triggered, there was a concentration of fire and intelligence services in a specific area and with a single goal: to disrupt the enemy and prevent him from escaping with a prisoner," explained Tzvika Fogel, a retired Israeli brigadier interviewed by al-Jazeera.
Amid controversies over various interpretations of the doctrine on the battlefield, and facing criticism, Israeli Army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot reversed the orders stemming from the doctrine in 2016.
Why is this doctrine back in the spotlight today?
Today, the question of hostages is a central issue in the Hamas-Israel War. According to US President Joe Biden, an agreement on the release of some hostages is imminent. Approximately 240 Israeli and binational captives remain held in the enclave. Their release has been made a national priority by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has conditioned a ceasefire with Hamas on this issue.
However, certain statements from the Israeli government have raised doubts about its priority for the hostage issue. Just days after the Hamas attacks, Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich bluntly advocated for Israel to "brutally strike Hamas and not take the hostage issue too seriously."
Israel’s bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip has persisted for over a month now, and the country deems it necessary to achieve its goal to eradicate Hamas, despite the risk of harming hostages. This has fueled theories about the implementation of the Hannibal Directive in this conflict.
According to Hamas, Israel has rejected proposals to exchange captives for a temporary ceasefire, choosing instead to carry out its ground offensive, to eradicate the Islamist group.
"With the current indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, the government appears not only to be inflicting unprecedented destruction on the population of Gaza but also to return to the principle of preferring dead captives to an agreement," said an Israeli source on Nov. 3, as reported by al-Jazeera.
So far, two confirmed hostage deaths have resulted from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, according to Israel. Hamas claims that more than fifty Israelis were killed by the strikes.
The Hannibal Protocol was reportedly used in 2014 at an unprecedented level, following an deadly 50-day operation carried out by Israel in the Gaza Strip.
As a ceasefire was to come into effect, Hamas fighters kidnapped three Israeli soldiers, killing two of them and taking Lieutenant Hadar Goldin hostage.
For four hours, at a rate of one shell per minute, the Israeli army shelled the town of Rafah in the south of the enclave, killing 150 people in one day, most of them civilians. This use of force was widely criticized as disproportionate to the initial issue.
The Israeli army later concluded that Goldin, died from his injuries, without specifying who was responsible for his death. Goldin’s body was never found.
"An army that wants to save a captive does not act that way. An army that wants to ensure the death of captives and kidnappers acts in this way," reacted Benny Gantz, who was the army’s general at the time and is now a member of the military war cabinet.
This incident also marked the last official use of the Hannibal Directive.
Regardless of whether it is fact or myth, the Hannibal Directive has sometimes failed to save Israel from costly prisoner exchanges.
In 2006, a soldier named Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas and held for five years. Shalit was finally released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. This unprecedented concession was perceived as a military failure and had a profound impact on public opinion.
Leaded details about the hostage agreement currently being negotiated suggested that around a hundred Palestinian prisoners, mainly women and minors, could be released in exchange for around 50 hostages.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.
- Extreme pragmatism is Qatar’s foreign policy
- Why do some oppose referring to Palestinians held by Israel as ‘prisoners’?
- Hamas claims Jerusalem shooting attack, calls for further 'escalation'; Blinken arrives in Ramallah: Day 55 of the Hamas-Israel war