The Hannibal Procedure is one of those elephants in the room that no one wants to talk about. The procedure itself stems from several incidents in which Israeli soldiers were abducted, and any attempts to have them released or even gain information about their whereabouts resulted in expensive deals and a shattered image of the Jewish state in the Middle East.

Gaza, summer 2014.

Sayeret Givati’s Major Benaya Sarel was leading a tactical effort to expose and secure a tunnel. Not just another tunnel, but the last known tunnel in the AO. He knew that they had just a few hours left before they would have to withdraw back to Israel. As in any SF unit, time is a core value, and so are mission objectives. You do not stop or slow down until you complete your goals. Sayeret Givati was pushing toward their designated location in the early morning. According to their intel, the tunnel was in their vicinity and the shaft seemed to be located within a concrete tower.

Several teams of Sayeret Givati were pulling security, allowing the unit commander and his “Chapak,” a command and control (C2) party of six soldiers, to move closer to the designated target to collect visual information and to evaluate his COA of the situation. Benaya, the unit commander of Sayeret Givati, spotted a guard inside the tower on the second floor. A short discussion with the Givati brigade commander and other relevant elements confirmed that there were no friendlies in the AO; that was probably a Hamas scout guarding that shaft.

Direction of approch & Tunnel shaft ID
Arrows represent two friendly elements. The red arrow represents the tunnel shaft (inside a building).

Benaya’s decision was to split the party into two groups of three soldiers and to silently take over the tower—one group would move directly while the other flanked. In the IDF, we’d call this “plucking” the guard. The goal is to take down the scout as quietly as possible so the unit can continue the mission undetected. Benaya knew that they had to get in and out of there quickly, as the IDF had already begun moving some of its assets out.

Little did he know that this tunnel traveled below their feet, and inside, five Hamas operatives were getting ready to deliberately ambush the unit commander and his guys. They had only one objective in mind: to kidnap an Israeli.

”Hannibal, Hannibal, I can’t find Hadar.”

Benaya and his group were approximately 50 to 70 meters from the tower while the second half of the team moved parallel to their position, through the greenhouse, as a backup. A sudden yell sounded, followed by an enormous explosion. Orders and yells, suppressed by Hamas firepower, filled the air. Benaya, Hadar, and their comms guy (an Israeli light version of the 18E), Eliel, had triggered an IED. Despite its detonation and their severe injuries, they were the only ones able to manage the firefight and return fire. But not for long.

The net was full of chatter and the team leaders (teams 10, 20, and 30) tried desperately to communicate to their ‘KodKod’ (leader), but there was no answer. No picture of the situation. No one on the receiving end. At this point, the commander of Sayeret Givati and his men were believed to be overrun by Hamas operatives. The same operatives knew exactly what they needed—an Israeli soldier. This was a known tactic Hamas had tried to employ several times since the Gillad Shalit incident.

The group leaders took the initiative and assembled small groups from the existing security ring they were responsible for holding. They were ready to join and take control of the situation. As soon as the second-in-command and two group leaders reached the bodies under fire, they found out that one body was missing—Hadar Goldin. Without thinking, Ethan, the second-in-command, decided to run into the building with the rest of his guys while his 18 Echo forwarded the word: “Hannibal, we got Hannibal; we can not find Hadar.”

From that moment on, all Hell broke loose and all SF and EOD assets began moving toward Rafa. Artillery batteries began firing at any infrastructure in their target bank that might be useful (mobility wise) to the kidnappers. The IDF redirected all their ”working layers” to the vicinity and suddenly, a widespread, violent, and brave process to find Lt. Hadar Goldin was underway.

Left to Right - Bneya,Hadar, Eliel
Left to right: Bneya, Hadar, Eliel. Gaza, 2014.

The procedure

The Hannibal Procedure was designed to prevent or stall an abduction attempt of a friendly soldier by identifying a clear set of ROE and developing a quicker way to receive a green light for the use of specific tools. The Hannibal Procedure received its name around the year 2000, but the procedure itself had existed since the mid ’80s and was originally kept a secret by way of military censorship until 2002-2003. It was already a matter of discussion by high-ranking officers due to its ethical problems and its collision with the Israeli military creed and values.

The name was randomly created by an IDF automated computer and indeed refers to Hannibal Barca—one of the greatest military strategists in history. Irony is, Hannibal committed suicide by ingesting poison in about 183 B.C. so he wouldn’t fall into the hands of his enemies. The Hannibal Procedure allows brigade commanders and other C2 elements on the ground to bypass the long process of submitting a certain request for a certain use of power. It means that if I needed a specific CAS or fire mission in the AO where a Hannibal Procedure was declared, even if I needed it quickly, I will get it. It will be approved even if it risks the lives of the civilian population in the area, the kidnappers, or the abducted soldiers we’re trying to save. It didn’t take long before the IDF realized that the order itself was too unclear, with a little too much gray area.

Benaya sarel
Major Benaya Sarel. Gaza, 2015.

From my point of view, the Hannibal Procedure is like hitting the gas while driving a car on a highway against the flow of traffic: It moves at breakneck speed, and if you crash, it’s gonna be a total loss not only for you, but for those around you, too. Moving with such haste and utilizing such a swift course of action (CoA) makes it almost impossible to avoid killing/injuring the kidnapped individual and inflicting damage to the environment. In fact, I have to be honest: This procedure, at least the way we used to initiate it, reminded me of the military strategy “scorched earth”—destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area.

It is a military strategy in which all of the assets that are used or can be used by the enemy are targeted. We would call them “infrastructure-related targets.” The order permits a soldier to “fire directly” toward the abducted soldier and his kidnappers, which, given the ambiguity of such an order, was soon interpreted differently by several officers.

Throughout the years, the IDF went through several incidents in which soldiers were abducted by enemy elements. In most of those cases, the IDF’s attempts to get them released, or even get info on their wellbeing, was expensive and often included releasing an astronomical number of terrorists. Realizing the strategical effect on the image of the little Jewish country, military and government officials began looking for a solution—a quick-reaction, powerful protocol that would give any kidnapper reason to hesitate before attempting to capture one of our soldiers.

Since the procedure was first put to use in the ’80s, every officer has been required to include in his mission briefing a quick overview of their Hannibal Procedure and what they’d do given unfolding circumstances.

I remember the ethical confusion that this order brought to us, specifically its confusing ROE for the individual rifleman. “Am I gonna take that shot?” Was a question that no one asked, but probably
considered more than twice. But questions like, “What’s better, captivity or a quick death?” we used to discuss at length. We experienced this protocol throughout parts of our training, and during operational reality. It is true that not every officer told us to shoot our buddies, but they usually hinted that its might be better off that way compared to the alternative.


The tactical resolution

The Hannibal Procedure is normally characterized by swift, violent action performed in a race against time, even when endangering the abducted soldier himself. Activating such enormous firepower is one challenge, but the biggest challenge always lies in the intelligence and communication between those who ask permission and those who give it.

The biggest problem in this type of situation is drawing a clear picture. When we trained on such situations, it felt to me as though we’d been tasked with drawing a colorful picture of the sky and trees, and were given only a black pencil to do so. The resulting destruction is often enormous and individuals regularly got hurt due to confusion and jumping to conclusions. It is no secret that most of the civilian casualties throughout OP Protective Edge (2014) happened when the Hannibal Procedure was initiated.

The IDF has several “banks” of targets relevant for specific scenarios and fronts. So when, for example, the Hannibal Procedure is in full effect, and the intel suggests that the kidnappers are mounted and heading to the north, all mobility infrastructure, such as bridges and intersections, will be targets within a matter of minutes. No need to send a scout or look on the map, it’s already been identified and locked in. Imagine it as a huge library with massive shelves containing assorted books of firepower.


The ethical collision

Dr. Avner Shiftan, an army physician with the rank of major, came across the Hannibal Procedure while on reserve duty in South Lebanon in 1999. In one of the briefings he “became aware of a particular procedure ordering soldiers to kill any IDF soldier if he should be taken captive by Hezbollah.” Later, he stated, “I understood that it was not a local procedure but originated on the general staff.”

As a result, Dr. Shiftan bypassed the military authorities and contacted Professor Asa Kasher, author of the IDF code of conduct. The professor replied that he “found it difficult to believe that such an order exists,” since this “is wrong ethically, legally, and morally.” He doubted that “there is anyone in the army” who believed in the notion, “Better a dead soldier than an abducted soldier.” While it is largely true that no one looks to kill anyone wearing a “Fuck, I got abducted” tag, mistakes happen.

From my experience, which in this case, thank God, is based entirely on simulations, one of the issues that could lead to ethical problems in the event of an abducted soldier is how we controlled the power that was at our disposal. I have seen this even at the very micro level of the rifleman: When we lost people in MOUT or during field exercises and Hannibal was declared, the amount of force that we were expected to apply was just ridiculous. In fact, our CoA was always aggressive and violent to the point of recklessness, and we were less secure as a result—especially in CQB.

Therefore I believe Hannibal was slightly changed and reconsidered throughout the years since the ’80s. While the tactical and strategic aspects of the orders are quite clear, its ethical implications are still lost in the mist. The wording of the procedure, too, opens it up for many different interpretations.

Back in 2008, just before OP Cast Lead, we were presented with the nature of the Hannibal Procedure as part of a grim reality. It was said indirectly that it might be better to kill the “subject” (friendly) as a last resort rather than losing so much more in the long term. I remember more than one subsequent briefing that included that same small, almost casual footnote.

Throughout Israel’s history, the IDF has faced several situations involving kidnapped soldiers. One of the most famous was Gillad Shalit in 2006, which was covered from every angle by the Israeli and Arab media. That abduction was an important strategic achievement for Hamas. In the Shalit incident, the Hannibal Procedure was declared, but only after a significant delay—an hour. Due to the slow response by QRF elements and the chain of command, the procedure was not followed entirely and proved to be ineffective in that particular case as his kidnappers were already long gone.

My opinion

The Hannibal Procedure is the bitter truth. The kind of truth that lurks in the shadows and hallways of the decision-makers. While we, the normal people, the worker bees, are trained to see and make decisions according to stark dichotomies such as good or bad, white or black, one or zero, those same moral codes can blind us from producing an effective answer to a complicated problem.

(Featured image courtesy of