Monday, 26 May 2003

The "Hannibal" Procedure

Israel's Military Strategy Unveiled

by Uri Avnery


Hannibal crossed the Alps with his division of combat elephants and terrorized mighty Rome for years. He commanded the army of Carthage, originally a Canaanite Phoenician colony, spoke a kind of Hebrew and bore a Hebrew name ("God has been gracious"). In my youth, when we were searching for Hebrew and Semite heroes as role models, he figured high on our list.

It appears that the Israeli army, too, considers him a model. This week the legendary general was at the center of a controversial public disclosure.

The subject of the sensation was the "Hannibal Procedure" – an Israeli army practice instituted in the mid 80s, first in oral instructions and later as an official order bearing this name. Some time ago this order was officially amended, but many soldiers attest that the original version it is still in force. It has now been published by Haaretz. It can be summed up in eight words: Better a dead than a captured Israeli soldier...

When an Israeli soldier is taken prisoner, a huge public demand arises to bring him home, even at the cost of releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. In May 1985, Israel released 1150 Palestinians in return for three Israeli prisoners-of-war, in an exchange known as the "Jibril deal" (named after Ahmed Jibril, the chief of a Palestinian organization serving Syria and fighting Arafat.)

The Israeli army chiefs wanted to avoid such exchanges in the future at all costs, quite literally. They ordered soldiers to shoot at the car of the captors (guerillas generally use cars for such exploits), even if this would endanger the life of the captive soldier. Meaning: liberate the soldier by killing him.

The logic behind the order is not new. It has been part of Israeli thinking for decades. It says simply: Never give in to terrorists. Giving in will just encourage them to capture more of our people. Better to have your people killed together with their captors, so as to deter others.

This logic had terrible consequences in Munich, when the German police (with the encouragement of the Israeli government) opened fire on the captors of the Israeli athletes resulting in the deaths of both. Most of the hostages were presumably killed by the police, since the post mortem results were never published.

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