Dan Ephron writes: On the morning of August 1, 2014, during the broadest Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in years, a squad of Hamas fighters emerged from a shaft in the ground near the town of Rafah and ambushed three Israeli soldiers. The Israelis, members of an elite reconnaissance unit from the Givati Brigade, had been searching for a tunnel in the area, one of a network that the militant group Hamas had built under the Palestinian territory in recent years. In humid 80-degree heat, a firefight ensued that killed two of the Israelis and one of the Palestinians. It lasted less than a minute.
The war in Gaza, which had raged for three weeks by then and claimed the lives of dozens of Israelis and some 1,500 Palestinians, seemed to be tapering off. The ambush near Rafah would have gone down as one more skirmish. But as the surviving Palestinians retreated, they did something that would turn that Friday into the bloodiest day of the summer and embroil Israel in a possible war-crimes ordeal that reverberates even now: They dragged the third Israeli, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, with them underground.
The sound of the gunfire drew other Israeli soldiers to the site, including Lieutenant Eitan Fund, the reconnaissance unit’s second-in-command. What Fund saw when he got there — bodies on a sandy road and an opening in the ground a few feet away — filled him with dread. Dead soldiers were disturbing enough, but for Israel, a missing fighter was about the worst possible outcome of any battlefield engagement. The last time Hamas had seized a soldier was in 2006: Corporal Gilad Shalit’s captivity lasted five years and set off a searing national trauma.
Fund, who was 23, had come to know Goldin during an officers’ training course. The two had also studied at the same religious seminary in the West Bank before their service. Fund radioed the details to his brigade commander, Col. Ofer Winter, and asked permission to take a squad underground. Winter instructed the lieutenant to drop a grenade and lower himself in. He then announced over the radio the start of a controversial procedure that Israel deploys when a soldier is taken captive: “Hannibal, Hannibal.”
To the military in the United States and around the world, Israel serves as a kind of laboratory for battle tactics, especially those involving counterinsurgency. Its wars with guerrilla groups like Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — four in the past nine years — are pored over for the lessons they hold and the questions they raise. The story of Hadar Goldin raises one question in particular: How far should a modern military go to prevent one of its own from being captured?
For the United States, the answer has centered mostly on technology. Today’s American troops go into battle with portable computers and GPS devices, including a system known as Blue Force Tracking that allows commanders in Humvees to “see” their forces in the arena. Ground troops are also monitored by satellites and drones. This combination of new technologies has produced a staggering drop in battlefield captives in Afghanistan and Iraq compared with previous wars. But the risks of combat remain great: U.S. Army Sergeant Salvatore Giunta became the first living Medal of Honor recipient in the war in Afghanistan, in part, for rescuing a comrade being dragged away by the Taliban during an ambush in 2007.
Israel has its own technology, of course, but it supplements those tools with a tactic the army revived in the aftermath of the Shalit ordeal — code word Hannibal — that calls for a massive use of force when a soldier is captured. Two Israelis familiar with the wording of the classified procedure described it to me as measured and restrictive. But from conversations with others, including more than a dozen Israelis in and out of uniform, it’s clear that soldiers often interpret it as something less nuanced—a kind of signal from commanders that a dead Israeli fighter is better than a captured one. Fund seemed to share that interpretation. As he entered the shaft, he told one of his squad members: “If you see something, open fire, even if it means killing Hadar or wounding Hadar.” [Continue reading…]