I’ve devoted a good deal of my life to Israel. I’ve studied, read, visited, lived, breathed it. Not in the way diehard pro-Israel fanatics do. But in a different way that matched my own intellectual and political proclivities. It’s a subject that is rich, varied, troubling, bedeviling, and exhilarating. But every once in a while I learn something I never thought possible; and I don’t mean this in a good way.
Tonight, my Israeli source informed me that Sgt. Guy Levy, serving in the armored corps, was captured by Hamas fighters. He had been part of a joint engineering-armored-combat unit searching for tunnels. Troops entered a structure and discovered a tunnel. Suddenly, out of the shaft sprang two militants who dragged one of the soldiers into it. By return fire, one of the Palestinians was killed, while the other fled, presumably with the soldier.
This Israeli report, which was censored by the IDF, says only that the attempt to capture the soldier failed. It says nothing about his fate. The expectation of anyone reading it would be that the soldier was freed. But he was not. In order to prevent the success of the operation, the IDF killed him. Nana reports that the IDF fired a tank shell into the building, which is the same way another captured soldier was killed by the IDF during Cast Lead.
I would presume that once the militant fled into the tunnel with his prisoner that the IDF destroyed the tunnel and entombed those within it, including the soldier. I would also presume that the IDF knows he is dead because they retrieved his body.
To the uninitiated this will seem a terribly strange, uncivilized, even immoral act. But that’s where I learned something I’d never known before about the IDF. There is an unwritten secret regulation written by the IDF High Command, but nowhere codified in writing. Its existence is protected by military censorship. Journalists have rarely written about it. When they have it’s usually been in code or by inference.
It’s called the Hannibal Directive. Though the Wikipedia article doesn’t explain the reference to Hannibal, I assume it relates to the death of the great Carthaginian general, who took poison rather than allow himself to be captured by his mortal enemy, the Romans. Though Sara Leibovich-Dar wrote in 2003 that the name came from a military computer!
In my long history of dedication to this subject, I’ve rarely seen anything that has disturbed me as much. The Hannibal Directive is:
…A secret directive of the Israel Defense Forces with the purpose of preventing Israeli soldiers being captured by enemy forces in the course of combat.
…The order, drawn up in 1986 by a group of top Israeli officers, states that at the time of a kidnapping the main mission becomes forcing the release of the abducted soldiers from their kidnappers, even if that means injury to Israeli soldiers.
The order allows commanders to take whatever action is necessary, including endangering the life of an abducted soldier, to foil the abduction…
As happens so often in these cases, an IDF commander instrumental in drafting the order denied the horrific logic of the directive and then offered an example of how he would proceed which only confirmed it:
In a rare interview by one of the authors of the directive, Yossi Peled…denied that it implied a blanket order to kill Israeli soldiers rather than let them be captured by enemy forces. The order only allowed the army to risk the life of a captured soldier, not to take it. “I wouldn’t drop a one-ton bomb on the vehicle, but I would hit it with a tank shell”, Peled was quoted saying. He added that he personally “would rather be shot than fall into Hizbullah captivity.”
In other words, the IDF will do almost everything in its power to prevent capture of its soldiers including killing him. It might not put a bullet directly in his brain, but it would certainly shell a home or vehicle in which he was situated.
Perhaps there’s a lingering bit of the liberal Zionist I once was here, but I’d always heard that Israel never leaves a soldier behind. It does everything possible to bring all its troops home, and once captured does everything possible to retrieve or free them.
All this time I was sorely mistaken. When all hope is lost of liberating the soldier from captivity, he dies. What’s equally disturbing is that the existence of the directive is an open secret. Commanders warn their soldiers that no one may be captured and that if you are you must commit suicide. If you can’t do that, then they will do their best to kill you. Perhaps they don’t articulate it precisely in those words, but that’s the clear intent.
Lest you think Hannibal is a theoretical regulation, it has been implemented before and captured soldiers have been killed by the IDF. Most recently it happened during Operation Cast Lead:
During the war there was a case where the Hannibal directive was invoked. An Israeli soldier was shot and injured by a Hamas fighter during a search of a house in one of the neighborhoods of Gaza. The wounded soldiers’ comrades evacuated the house due to fears that it was booby-trapped. According to testimony by soldiers who took part in the incident the house was then shelled to prevent the wounded soldier from being captured by Hamas.
You have every right to ask: what soldier in his right mind would follow such an order. There are thankfully examples of ones who refused. But there are a number who didn’t including the tank commander who fired on his comrade in that home in Gaza, killing him.
You also have a right to ask how the IDF could approve such a regulation. The answer is it didn’t. It has never been vetted by military lawyers. If it had been, the High Command might’ve been told it was an illegal, immoral directive which had no standing. Then the IDF would have to implement an order its highest legal authorities had deemed treif. That would never do. So neither the generals, nor the Judge Advocate has ever delved into the matter. It is yet another example of the national security state refusing to examine the deepest, most troubling principles on which it is based.
Implementation of the Hannibal Directive comes on the heels of the freeing of Gilad Shalit after five years in captivity. The nation freed 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in order to release Shalit. Israeli hardliners screamed bloody murder about freeing murderers with blood on their hands. Some said it would have been better if Shalit had died rather than face this ignominy.
I believe that Benny Gantz and Bibi Netanyahu aren’t prepared to go through such a trauma again. They believe their constituency would understand if they killed a soldier rather than lose him to capture. Let’s make no mistake about this: it is a purely political calculation. A nakedly, cynical political calculation. It suggests that the interests of the nation trump the life of the individual. These are considerations of an authoritarian state and not a democratic one. A democracy values the individual. It recognizes that the nation cannot exist without the individual. Even that the nation should not exist unless it respects and values that individual.
The Hannibal Directive perverts such principles. It embraces a fascist perspective in which the individual is subsumed within the mass. He has no specific individual value unless he is serving the interest of the nation. And his interests may, when necessary be sacrificed to the greater good.
I thank Dvorit Shargel for raising an important, and thorny issue. She implored me to consider the trauma of Levy’s family hearing their son was killed not by Palestinian fire, which would be painful enough, but by his own comrades.
It’s very doubtful the IDF would tell the family the truth unless it had no other choice. So then the question is, should we allow the IDF to lie just to cover up the use of the Hannibal directive and allow the family to believe he was killed by the enemy instead of his own?
My answer to this reluctantly is No. The greatest good is served by transparency. By knowing the truth, telling the truth, forcing everyone involved to explain what they did and why. Secrecy and pandering helps no one, even the dead soldiers’s family. I am sorry if this causes them added suffering. But blaming me is blaming the messenger not the real culprit.
Here is some of the discussion around the matter conducted by military ethicists (if there can be such a thing):
Dr. Avner Shiftan, an army physician with the rank of major, came across the Hannibal directive while on reserve duty in South Lebanon in 1999. In army briefings he “became aware of a procedure ordering soldiers to kill any IDF soldier if he should be taken captive by Hizbullah. This procedure struck me as being illegal and not consistent with the moral code of the IDF. I understood that it was not a local procedure but originated in the General Staff, and had the feeling that a direct approach to the army authorities would be of no avail, but would end in a cover-up.” He contacted Asa Kasher, the Israeli philosopher noted for his authorship of Israel Defense Forces’ Code of Conduct, who “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” believing that `better a dead soldier than an abducted soldier’.
On this point however Asa Kasher was apparently wrong. In 1999 the IDF Chief of StaffShaul Mofaz said in an interview with Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth: “In certain senses, with all the pain that saying this entails, an abducted soldier, in contrast to a soldier who has been killed, is a national problem.” Asked whether he was referring to cases like Ron Arad (an Air Force navigator captured in 1986) and Nachshon Wachsman (an abducted soldier killed in 1994 in a failed rescue attempt), he replied “definitely, and not only.”
The legality of the order has never formally been examined by the IDF’s legal department. According to Prof. Emanuel Gross, from the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa:…”Orders like that have to go through the filter of the Military Advocate General’s Office, and if they were not involved that is very grave,” he says. “The reason is that an order that knowingly permits the death of soldiers to be brought about, even if the intentions were different, carries a black flag and is a flagrantly illegal order that undermines the most central values of our social norms.
I hate to harp on this, but liberal Zionists enjoy claiming Israel is a nation of laws. That is upholds the rule of law. But this is clearly not the case. No democratic nation would permit such a directive after undergoing legal review. So the answer in Israel is simply to prevent it from undergoing any such review. It allows the flourishing of a secret code that governs critical aspects of the Israeli military.
MSNBC contributor Rula Jebreal’s on-air protest of the network’s slanted coverage of Israel’s ongoing assault on the Gaza Strip has brought media suppression of the Israel-Palestine debate into sharp focus. Punished for her act of dissent with the cancellation of all future appearances and the termination of her contract, Jebreal spoke to me about what prompted her to speak out and why MSNBC was presenting such a distorted view of the crisis.
“I couldn’t stay silent after seeing the amount of airtime given to Israeli politicians versus Palestinians,” Jebreal told me. “They say we are balanced but their idea of balance is 90 percent Israeli guests and 10 percent Palestinians. This kind of media is what leads to the failing policies that we see in Gaza.”
She continued, “We as journalists are there to afflict the comfortable and who is comfortable in this case? Who is really endangering both sides and harming American interests in the region? It’s those enforcing the status quo of the siege of Gaza and the occupation of the West Bank.”
Jebreal said that in her two years as an MSNBC contributor, she had protested the network’s slanted coverage repeatedly in private conversations with producers. “I told them we have a serious issue here,” she explained. “But everybody’s intimidated by this pressure and if it’s not direct then it becomes self-censorship.”
With her criticism of her employer’s editorial line, she has become the latest casualty of the pro-Israel pressure. “I have been told to my face that I wasn’t invited on to shows because I was Palestinian,” Jebreal remarked. “I didn’t believe it at the time. Now I believe it.”
An NBC producer speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed Jebreal’s account, describing to me a top-down intimidation campaign aimed at presenting an Israeli-centric view of the attack on the Gaza Strip. The NBC producer told me that MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC executives are micromanaging coverage of the crisis, closely monitoring contributors’ social media accounts and engaging in a “witch hunt” against anyone who strays from the official line.
“Loyalties are now being openly questioned,” the producer commented.
The suppression campaign culminated after Jebreal’s on-air protest during a July 21 segment on Ronan Farrow Daily.
“We are disgustingly biased on this issue. Look at how much airtime Netanyahu and his folks have on air on a daily basis, Andrea Mitchell and others,” Jebreal complained to Farrow. “I never see one Palestinian being interviewed on these same issues.”
When Farrow claimed that the network had featured other voices, Jebreal shot back, “Maybe for thirty seconds, and then you have twenty-five minutes for Bibi Netanyahu.”
Within hours, all of Jebreal’s future bookings were cancelled and the renewal of her contract was off the table. The following day, Jebreal tweeted: “My forthcoming TV appearances have been cancelled. Is there a connection to my expose and the cancellation?”
Jebreal is the author of Miral, a memoir about her coming of age in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Her former partner, Jewish-American filmmaker and artist Julian Schnabel, adapted the book into full length film. A widely published journalist and former news presenter in Italy, Jebreal was a vocal supporter of the now-extinct peace process and a harsh critic of Islamist groups including Hamas. Her termination leaves NBC without any Palestinian contributors.
According to the NBC producer, MSNBC show teams were livid that they had been forced by management to cancel Jebreal as punishment for her act of dissent.
At the same time, social media erupted in protest of Jebreal’s cancellation, forcing the network into damage control mode. The role of clean-up man fell to Chris Hayes, the only MSNBC host with a reputation for attempting a balanced discussion of Israel-Palestine. On the July 22 episodeof his show, All In, he brought Jebreal on to discuss her on-air protest.
In introducing Jebreal, Hayes took on the role of the industry and network defender: “Let me take you behind the curtain of cable news business for a moment,” Hayes told his viewers. “If you appear on a cable news network, you trash that network and one of its hosts by name, on any issue — Gaza, infrastructure spending, sports coverage, funny internet cat videos — the folks at the network will not take kindly to it.”
“I did not think that i was stepping in a hornet’s nest,” Jebreal told me. “I saw Joe Scarborough criticizing the network. I thought we were liberal enough to stand self criticism.”
Yet when she appeared across from Hayes, Jebreal encountered a defensive host shielding his employers from her criticism. “We’re actually doing a pretty good job” of covering the Israel-Palestine crisis, Hayes claimed to her. “I think our network, and I think the New York Times and the media all around, have been doing a much better job on this conflict.”
Jebreal appeared on screen as a “Palestinian journalist” — her title as a MSNBC contributor had been removed. When she insisted that American broadcast media had not provided adequate context about the 8-year-long Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip or the roots of Palestinian violence, Hayes protested that he had wanted to host Hamas officials alongside the Israeli government spokespeople he routinely featured but that it was practically impossible.
“Not all Palestinians are Hamas,” Jebreal vehemently replied.
“Airtime always strikes me as a bad metric,” Hayes responded. “I mean there are interviews and then there are interviews. I had [Israeli government spokesman] Mark Regev on this program for 16 minutes, alright? That’s a very long interview but there was a lot to talk to him about.”
The NBC producer remarked to me that the network’s public relations strategy had backfired. Hayes’ performance was poorly received on social media while Jebreal appeared as another maverick journalist outcasted by corporate media for delivering uncomfortable truths.
For her part, Jebreal told me she was disturbed by Hayes’ comments. “I admire that Chris [Hayes] wanted to have me on but it seems like he was condoning what happened to me,” she said. “He was saying, ‘What do you expect? We rally around our stars.’ Well, I rally around reality, if that still matters in media.”
Jebreal continued: “I didn’t tell him this on air but I said, ‘I hope you don’t condone other things the network did, like what happened with Ayman.’”
Jebreal was referring to NBC correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin and his sudden removal by the network from the Gaza Strip. Mohyeldin, a rising star in the network and its only Arab-American reporter in the region, was an eyewitness to the Israeli killing of four young boys who had been playing soccer on a beach near Gaza City.
Moments after the killings, Mohyeldin relayed intimate accounts of the scene through Twitter, then released harrowing footage of the boys’ mother wailing as she learned of their deaths. Oddly, NBC correspondent Richard Engel was summoned to deliver Mohyeldin’s package that evening.
The NBC producer told me that the network was deluged with angry letters and phone calls from pro-Israel activists about Mohyeldin’s reporting.
Hours later, Mohyeldin’s summary of the US State Department’s statement defending Israel’s actions disappeared from his Facebook and Twitter accounts. He had apparently been forced to delete the postings. Next, NBC removed Mohyeldin from Gaza, sending him out of the area on the first plane available.
To replace Mohyeldin, NBC dispatched Engel, a veteran foreign correspondent well-liked by top brass and regarded as the network’s “star.” Engel was the keynote speaker at a 2013 event at the Newseum in Washington DC honoring journalists killed that year. Under Israel lobby pressure, the Newseum had removed the names of three Palestinian journalists killed in targeting Israeli strikes during the November 2012 assault on Gaza, accepting claims by anti-Palestinian groups like the Anti-Defamation League that their employment by Hamas-affiliated outlets rendered them enemy combatants. During his speech, Engel carefully avoided condemning the Newseum for its capitulation.
The removal of Mohyeldin sparked an international backlash, with tens of thousands from around the world protesting the decision through viral Twitter hashtags like, #LetAymanReport and #FreeAyman. Two days later, an apparently chastened NBC returned Mohyeldin to the Gaza Strip, but the damage had been done.
Unwilling to explain its unusual actions, NBC left it up to media critics to guess at its motives. CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter chalked up the removal of Mohyeldin to “infighting and bureaucracy,” claiming that NBC was concerned primarily with ratings. Glenn Greenwald, the editor-in-chief of the The Intercept, wrote that Mohyeldin was ordered out of Gaza by David Verdi, a top NBC executive, for political reasons — his reporting was deemed too sympathetic to Palestinians.
The NBC producer insisted that Greenwald’s account was the more accurate one. “Greenwald was right,” the producer told me. “And I hate to say that.”
For her part, Jebreal does not expect to be welcomed back on MSNBC again. “I’m done there,” she told me. “It’s not happening any more. My contract is over. I’m fine with it. I’m not complaining.”
She cited the distorted coverage of Israel-Palestine in American broadcast as the central reason behind the American public’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza.
“I believe this is a shifting moment in history and we need to make a decison,” Jebreal said. “It’s easier when there’s Bridgegate but there is another gate: This is Mediagate and we need to begin to challenge our responsibilities.”