The Hannibal Directive: How Israel Killed Its Own Troops and Massacred Palestinians to Prevent Soldier's Capture

Avoiding capture at all costs.

Kamal and Dima Qadan display some of the munitions that fell on Rafah when Israel invoked the Hannibal Directive.
Photo Credit: Dan Cohen

The following is Max Blumenthal's latest report from the Gaza Strip.

In the southern city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, Aug. 1, 2014 is known as Black Friday. This was the day the Israeli military bombarded the city with almost every mode of destruction available to it, from F-16 missiles to Apache rockets to naval shelling to drone strikes and mortars.

Bulldozers ripped down homes at random while tanks barreled through neighborhoods, shelling anything in sight. In a matter of hours, at least 500 artillery shells and hundreds of missiles were dumped on the city, almost entirely in civilian areas. By the end, at least 190 people had been killed, so many that unequipped local hospitals were forced to store their corpses and body parts in ice cream coolers.

The target of the operation was not necessarily Rafah’s civilian population, though attacking it was part of the Israeli military’s underlying logic. Instead, the army apparently aimed to kill one of its own. Indeed, Israeli forces had invoked the Hannibal Directive, opening up an indiscriminate assault on the entire circumference of the area where one of its soldiers, Lt. Hadar Goldin, was allegedly taken captive by an ambush team from the Hamas military wing known as the Qassam Brigades.

It was one of possibly three instances during Israel’s 51-day war with Hamas that it initiated the Hannibal Directive. This is a procedure aimed at preventing a politically painful prisoner swap by killing the captured soldier before he can be spirited away to a safehouse. In each case — another confirmed instance occurred in the eastern city of Shujaiyah — the Israeli military deployed massive fire against Gaza’s civilian population, massacring hundreds and leaving entire neighborhoods in ruins. And in each instance, it ensured that none of its soldiers were taken alive.

The Hannibal Directive was established in 1986 following the Jibril Agreement, a prisoner exchange in which Israel traded 1150 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers. Amidst the political backlash, the Israeli military drafted a secret field procedure to prevent future kidnappings. The proposed operation drew its name from the Carthaginian general who chose to poison himself rather than be held captive by the enemy. Among those who drafted the doctrine were Asa Kasher, a Tel Aviv University philosophy professor who serves as a house “ethicist” for the Israeli military, and Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former National Security Advisor for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both Kasher and Amidror have denied that the procedure's latest implementation was aimed at killing Israeli soldiers. However, Amidror conceded to Israeli reporter Mitch Ginsburg: “It’s a military operation to return a hostage soldier. Soldiers’ [lives] can be risked.”

When the Israeli army executed the Hannibal Directive in Rafah, it not only targeted the area where Goldin was supposedly captured, it leveled massive firepower against a civilian population over large swaths of a densely populated city of 350,000. After the assault, the White House wrongly blamed Hamas for violating the ceasefire, legitimizing another piece of Israeli disinformation and whitewashing the violence, while only a few Israeli public figures criticized the military’s behavior

Thus there was little fallout for Netanyahu and his inner circle, who could rest assured that they had denied Hamas the leverage it might have gained at the negotiating table with a live soldier in its possession. (Whether Goldin was even alive when the Hannnibal Directive was invoked remains a matter of debate.)

Col. Ofer Winter, the religious nationalist commander of the Givati Brigade who vowed a “holy war” to punish Gaza for the crime of blasphemy, claimed his forces implemented the Hannibal Directive for the sole purpose of battering Goldin’s captors. “That’s why we used all this force,” Winter insisted. “Those who kidnap need to know they will pay a price. This was not revenge. They simply messed with the wrong brigade.”

Contrary to Winter’s claim, the attack on Rafah extended well beyond the fighters who attacked Goldin’s unit. Much of Rafah lay in ruins afterward, and scores lay dead. The Hannibal Directive had spawned a series of grave war crimes, leading to one of the most serious massacres of Israel’s 51-day attack on the Gaza Strip.

On August 17, I visited the easternmost area of Rafah where Goldin was allegedly captured and Israel’s rampage began.

The Scene of the Crime

On a dusty lane in eastern Rafah lined with ruined homes abutting the arid fields where Gaza’s destroyed Yasser Arafat International Airport lay, I met some of the families who endured the worst of Black Friday.

“I’ve been married for five years and thank god we don’t have a kid,” 33-year-old Nidal Abu Said told me. “I don’t want them to witness what we went through here. We lived through a real-life horror movie.”

Abu Said and at least a dozen of his family members and neighbors told me the violence began at around 7:30am with the sound of loud explosions from Abu Rous, an area just east of their neighborhood, near the ruins of the airport. A three-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was scheduled to begin at 8am, and while the Qassam Brigades announced a halt to rocket attacks aimed into Israeli territory, its leadership declared their refusal to tolerate Israeli military maneuvers inside Gaza. 

Just after 7am, Goldin and a group of Israeli soldiers from the Givati Brigade attempted an incursion into Rafah, occupying a local home with armored vehicle accompaniment. It was a clear provocation launched just minutes before the ceasefire. A group of Qassam fighters emerged from a tunnel to attack the Israeli soldiers. In the process, they killed two and badly wounded Goldin. The events detailed by locals confirmed accounts by Hamas, an official Qassam Brigades communique, and Qassam fighters interviewed by Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Tamer Mishal.

Goldin’s personal background lent gravity to the incident: He was the second cousin once removed of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. The family tie was withheld from the Israeli public by a military gag order while the army command decided what to do next. Though Hamas took no credit for capturing Goldin, the Israeli military announced that he had been snatched. Within minutes, according to military correspondent Attila Somfalvi, the words, “Hannibal! Hannibal!” blared across Israeli army communications systems.

All around Rafah, residents had returned to their homes in expectation of the ceasefire. They were sitting ducks when the Hannibal Directive was invoked. “We saw every kind of weaponry directed at us,” Abu Said told me, pointing to a pile of shrapnel from assorted bombs just feet away from where we standing. 

Abu Said said his cousin witnessed a missile strike a crowd attempting to evacuate his neighborhood. “There was a huge number of martyrs there,” he said, claiming Israeli forces deliberately concentrated their shelling on crossroads to prevent anyone from escaping. “They trapped us on purpose."

The Qadan family was among those who remained home in expectation of the ceasefire and nearly wound up among the scores killed under the Hannibal Directive. As 56-year-old Kamal Qadan recalled for me the horrors his family witnessed, two of his grandchildren played in a corner of the room with remnants of the Israeli mortars and drone missiles that exploded next to their home. 

Qadan said he and 30 members of his family watched from their windows as their neighbors attempted to escape, only to fall under the intensifying shelling. For the next three hours, they remained inside until the bombardment grew unbearably strong, shaking the walls of the house. “They fired every kind of weapon at us and bombed us indiscriminately,” he said. “Finally we decided to go out and prayed to god we would arrive safely to a hospital.”

With the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Cross barred from entering the area by the Israeli military, the Qadans were left to fend for themselves. Kamal Qadan said he ordered his family to proceed in a straight line toward Al-Najjar Hospital in central Rafah. However, the shelling on the main road grew so intense they had to change course.

“We could see tall buildings totally leveled,” Qadan said. “People were being shelled, their bodies flying into pieces right in front of our eyes. We survived because god watched over us. We were running unconsciously, we just wanted to survive. We were running like insane people — we weren’t thinking about anything.”

Miraculously, the Qadan family arrived at Al-Najjar Hospital without losing a single member. But they were not safe yet. “The moment we got the hospital and could take a breath,” Kamal Qadan said, “Israel called the hospital and said they were going to bomb it.”

“The condition in the hospital was disastrous,” he continued. “It was full of wounded patients and martyrs. The Israelis insisted on bombing the hospital, so we evacuated and left the dead bodies. It was so disastrous I can not even put it into words. It was insane, we were waiting and the hospital was begging the Israelis to delay and give us some time to evacuate and get the wounded out. The whole time, ambulances were rushing to the hospital with large numbers of injured people. Even ambulances that had been attacked were arriving at that time.”

With the sound of exploding bombs growing closer, Qadan and his family escaped to his brother’s house in western Rafah, where they remained for the next three days. Qadan told me he did not shelter in an UNRWA school because Israel had begun shelling those too. There was no sanctuary anywhere in the Gaza Strip, not in UN operated schools nor in hospitals. 

According to UNRWA, by August 2, a full third of Gaza’s hospitals had been attacked by the Israeli military, along with 14 primary healthcare clinics and 29 ambulances belonging to either the Red Crescent or Ministry of Health. 

Operations on the floor, bodies in ice cream coolers

The evacuation of Al-Najjar Hospital left the wounded with nowhere to go but a small private OB/GYN and dental clinic in central Rafah. With just 20 beds, the Kuwaiti Hospital was barely equipped for the deluge of dead and injured that poured in on Black Friday.

The duty of imposing order on an impossibly chaotic situation fell to Samir Homs, the 67-year-old director of the hospital. He was no stranger to violence, having seen the Israeli army kill his father when he was 6 months old, then take his first son during the Second Intifada. But Black Friday was like nothing he had ever witnessed. 

“Out of the 20 hours we were treating patients, I was running for 15 hours, not walking,” he recalled, speaking in the passable English he learned during a stint in the United States. “Every floor was covered with wounded patients. We were treating the injured in dental chairs, doing surgery on the ground, doing anything we could to save people.”

In normal times, Kuwaiti Hospital serves two or three cases a day, usually older women. “Our colleagues weren’t used to seeing bodies that were 70 percent burned or decapitated heads,” Homs explained. When one of the hospital’s nurses, Karam Dhair, arrived among the dead, Homs said her female co-workers fell to the ground and fainted. 

As the dead piled up throughout the day, Homs was forced to send for ice cream coolers and vegetable refrigerators from local shops. It was in coolers normally used to preserve food that Rafah-based journalist Mohammed Omer saw “the corpses of children, young men and women lying on top of one another, soaked in blood. Many were impossible to identify and only a few have been placed in white burial shrouds.”

Like the physicians I interviewed at Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital, Homs described for me unusual wounds on many of the patients he treated. They consisted of 1 millimeter entry wounds that did no damage to the skin or skeleton, but left widespread burns on the internal organs of the patient, usually prompting their deaths within two or three days. The wounds Homs described were telltale signs of DIME weaponry, an experimental munition deployed on repeated occasions by the Israeli military against Gaza’s civilian population.

When I spoke to Homs in his office in Kuwaiti, a five-day ceasefire was about to expire, leading to the final and most brutal bout of Israeli violence against Gaza’s civilians. At the time, all supplies to his overwhelmed hospital were blocked.

“They are just hunting us and everyone is a target no matter who they are,” Homs exclaimed. “We love peace and we want dignity but the Israelis won’t allow us to practice these things.”

The Opening Salvo

Black Friday was only the opening salvo in a sustained Israeli assault on Rafah. Having obliterated entire neighborhoods across the city on August 1, the Israeli military opened up an aerial bombardment on August 21, killing over a dozen civilians in order to assassinate three veteran Hamas commanders: Rael Al-Attar, Mohammed Abu-Shamalah and Mohammed Barhoum. The following day, at least 10,000 locals poured into the streets to mourn the slain men, with some crying openly for three of the most revered leaders of Hamas’ military organization. 

Three days later, Israeli F-16’s brought down a seven-story shopping center in downtown Rafah in a wave of aerial attacks on residential and office towers that raised the total of homeless in Gaza to over 100,000.

When I spoke to Dr. Homs by phone on August 21, I inquired about the situation at his hospital. “We could be better,” was all he said before rushing off to attend to more wounded patients.

Max Blumenthal is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.