JERUSALEM—The Israeli army calls it the Hannibal Directive.
If soldiers see a comrade being taken prisoner they are to fire to prevent, "at all costs," his captors getting away with him—even if it means hitting the Israeli captive himself.
The controversial directive 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.
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.
Hamas later reported that one of its units might have been involved but that it was apparently wiped out in the barrage. However, the body of the lieutenant has not been found.
An Israeli officer and two soldiers descended into the escape tunnel to take up pursuit but did not encounter the Hamas squad. However, they brought back findings that led the army to announce that the missing officer was clearly dead. The nature of the findings has not been publicly released but the family, which was made privy to them, accepted that the lieutenant was dead. His funeral was held yesterday, without his body.
When Shalit was captured in 2006 in a relatively open area, a machine gunner opened fire on the retreating Hamas team and Shalit without effect. Criticism would later be voiced within the army that artillery had not been brought into play. The failure to stop Shalit's capture would bring the release, after five years of national agonizing over the issue, of more than 1,000 Palestinians imprisoned for terror acts.
Hamas, which reportedly had made several attempts to capture an Israeli soldier during this conflict, clearly sees prisoners as a significant bargaining chip in any negotiations that follow, given Israel’s oft-demonstrated concern for the lives of its missing soldiers. Over the years, there have been a number of lopsided prisoner exchanges where a handful of Israelis in Arab hands were exchanged for large numbers of Arab prisoners. The Hannibal Directive was formulated to disrupt this pattern.
Hannibal was the Carthaginian general who poisoned himself rather than be captured by the Romans.
While there is discomfort among Israelis about the directive, including some opposition within the army, it is accepted generally as an ugly necessity. The current chief of staff, Gen. Benny Gantz, felt the need to emphasize that the directive does not allow soldiers to fire directly at the captured soldier in order to prevent him being taken alive. However, artillery, tank, and helicopter fire are considered legitimate.
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.