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Why Israel issued the “Hannibal Directive”

Gilad Shalit (centre): freed in 2011 in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinians. Getty

However the Israel-Hamas conflict ends, says Eyal Weizman in the London Review of Books, it will almost certainly involve a prisoner exchange. Hamas took around 200 captives during its attack on 7 October, and around 6,000 Palestinians are being held in Israeli prisons. The issue will be the “exchange rate”, which has ballooned over the decades. When a Palestinian militant group took 22 Israeli hostages after hijacking an El-Al flight in 1968, they secured the release of 16 Palestinians. In 1985, three captured Israeli Defence Force troops were swapped for 1,150 prisoners; in 2011, one IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit, was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinians.

This imbalance has led Israel to take extreme measures. In 1986, the army issued the so-called “Hannibal Directive” – a deeply controversial order that was taken by Israeli soldiers as a licence to “kill a comrade before they were taken prisoner”. It is thought to have been named after the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who killed himself in 181BC to avoid falling into Roman hands. On 1 August 2014, Palestinian fighters captured an Israeli soldier near Rafah, and “the Hannibal Directive came into effect”: rather than trying to rescue the hostage, the Israeli air force bombed the entire tunnel system where he had been taken. The army has since cancelled the directive. But the “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza in recent weeks suggests the Israelis may have returned to the principle of “preferring dead captives to a deal”.