Operation Hannibal: Why Israel risks killing its own soldiers rather than see them get captured

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…]

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Obama administration restates its commitment to shelter war criminals

UPI reports: The Obama administration opposes bringing a United Nations report on the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to the Security Council for a vote, the State Department said.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday the United States continues to review the U.N. report that found evidence of war crimes on the part of both the Israeli and Hamas-led Palestinian forces. Kirby said the United States calls into question the U.N. Human Rights Council’s process of appointing the investigative committee because of a “very clear bias against Israel.”

“We challenge the very mechanism which created it. And so we’re not going to have a readout of this. We’re not going to have a rebuttal to it. We’re certainly going to read it, as we read all U.N. reports,” Kirby said. “But we challenge the very foundation upon which this report was written, and we don’t believe that there’s a call or a need for any further Security Council work on this.”

The 200-page report found, among other things, 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli fire, noting over one-third were children. It added a large number of families lost three or more members in airstrikes against residences. Six Israeli civilians died during the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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UN report on Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza says those responsible for war crimes ‘must be brought to justice’

The Guardian reports: A United Nations inquiry into the 2014 Gaza war has accused Israeli and Palestinian factions of multiple potential violations of international law including suspected war crimes.

Calling on Israel to “break with its lamentable track record” and hold wrongdoers responsible, the hard-hitting report commissioned by the UN human rights council laid most of the blame for Israel’s suspected violations at the feet of the country’s political and military leadership. The commission said leaders should have been aware as the war progressed that their failure to change course was leading to huge civilian casualties.

“Those responsible for suspected violations of international law at all levels of the political and military establishments must be brought to justice,” it says. [Continue reading…]

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Israel needs Hamas to prevent ISIS gaining a foothold in Gaza

The Associated Press reports: Nearly a year after a devastating war, Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers appear to have formed an unspoken alliance in a common battle against the shared threat of jihadis aligned with the Islamic State group.

While Israel and Hamas remain arch-enemies, both have an interest in preserving an uneasy calm that has prevailed since the fighting ended in a cease-fire last August — a stalemate that is largely the result of a lack of options on either side.

More than 2,200 Palestinians were killed in last year’s fighting, according to Palestinian officials, and Hamas suffered heavy losses. It is isolated internationally, Gaza’s economy is in tatters and reconstruction efforts have moved slowly. A renewal of hostilities would be devastating for Gaza’s 1.8 million people.

On the Israeli side, 73 people, including 67 soldiers, were killed in last year’s fighting, and the summer-long war disrupted the lives of millions of people as they coped with repeated rocket attacks and air-raid sirens. But Hamas, which seized power in Gaza eight years ago, has survived three wars, and the cost of toppling the group would be extremely high, so Israel appears content to contain Hamas and keep things quiet.

Hamas officials say that efforts are underway, through Qatari mediators, to work out a long-term cease-fire. The deal would call for Israel to ease a stifling blockade on Gaza in exchange for Hamas pledges to disarm, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive negotiations. It is unclear whether any progress has been made in the cease-fire efforts, which include Hamas demands to reopen sea and airports in Gaza. Israeli officials declined comment. [Continue reading…]

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Long-term Gaza truce mooted as Hamas, Israel grapple with jihadi challenge

Reuters reports: It’s not quite a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but shared concern over Islamic State-inspired militant groups in Gaza could help redraw complex relationships between Hamas and a hostile Egypt and Israel.

Talk is rampant in the territory of 1.8 million of a prospective pullback from confrontation with Israel – a long-term ceasefire to cement further an Egyptian-brokered truce that brought an end to the Gaza war nearly a year ago.

That could allow Hamas to step up efforts to rein in radical Islamists, known as Salafis, who have claimed responsibility for recent rocket attacks against Israel, and open the way for more reconstruction aid to reach Gaza.

There are also signs of change along Egypt’s frontier with the Gaza Strip.

The military-run government in Cairo, which accuses Islamist Hamas of backing jihadi fighters in Egypt’s Sinai desert, opened its border with Gaza this week for the first time in three months, permitting Palestinians to travel in both directions.

“The new easing of measures results from the presence of a common enemy,” said Akram Attallah, a Gaza-based political commentator.

Hamas insists Islamic State has no foothold in Gaza, where the Palestinian group’s forces are dominant. It has described what Salafi groups say have been the arrests of dozens of their supporters as no more than action against “criminal elements”.

But by mounting such operations, some in the wake of Salafi-claimed rocket strikes, Hamas has also shown a commitment to a truce with Israel and demonstrated to Egypt that it is fighting the same jihadi enemy, Atallah said. [Continue reading…]

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Palestinian split widens as unity government quits

AFP reports: The Palestinian unity government formed last year in a bid to heal rifts between Hamas and president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party resigned on Wednesday, an official said.

An aide to president Mahmoud Abbas said that prime minister Rami Hamdallah “handed his resignation to Abbas and Abbas ordered him to form a new government.”

Discussions to form a new government would include consultations with the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas, he said.

Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh, however, told the official PA news agency WAFA that Hamdallah had not handed in his resignation.

Officials have said the planned dissolution of the government, made up of technocrats, had been under discussion for several months because of the cabinet’s inability to operate in the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have condemned the unilateral dissolution of the government, a decision they say they were not consulted over. [Continue reading…]

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Israel and U.S. lobbied UN to keep IDF off list of armies that kill children

The New York Times reports: Under unusual pressure from Israel and the United States, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, opted not to include either Israel or Hamas on a list of armies and guerrilla groups that kill and maim children in conflicts worldwide, despite the recommendations of one of his senior envoys, diplomats say.

The list was part of an annual report of violations of children’s rights, an advance copy of which was circulated to members of the Security Council on Monday morning, that goes into great detail on the actions of Israeli security forces during the 50-day war in the Gaza Strip last year. The report raised what it called “serious concern over the observance of the rules of international humanitarian law concerning the conduct of hostilities.”

The report says that at least 540 children were killed, another 2,955 wounded and 262 schools damaged by Israeli airstrikes. It also cited Palestinian militants for firing rockets indiscriminately toward Israel, killing a 4-year-old Israeli boy and gravely wounding at least six Israeli children. [Continue reading…]

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Gaza: Palestinians tortured, summarily killed by Hamas forces during 2014 conflict

Amnesty International: Hamas forces carried out a brutal campaign of abductions, torture and unlawful killings against Palestinians accused of “collaborating” with Israel and others during Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in July and August 2014, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

‘Strangling Necks’: Abduction, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict highlights a series of abuses, such as the extrajudicial execution of at least 23 Palestinians and the arrest and torture of dozens of others, including members and supporters of Hamas’s political rivals, Fatah.

“It is absolutely appalling that, while Israeli forces were inflicting massive death and destruction upon the people in Gaza, Hamas forces took the opportunity to ruthlessly settle scores, carrying out a series of unlawful killings and other grave abuses,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

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Hamas says ISIS has no foothold in Gaza Strip

Reuters: Islamic State sympathizers in the Gaza Strip are making their presence felt on social media, but the enclave’s Hamas rulers said on Thursday the group has no real foothold in the Palestinian territory.

Statements signed “Supporters of the Islamic State” have appeared recently on Twitter and several websites, accusing the Islamist group Hamas of arresting dozens of jihadists and threatening attacks in Gaza unless they are released.

Hamas said it had detained what it described as “lawbreakers” after an explosion earlier this month near a Hamas security headquarters and another blast outside the headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

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In sign of Palestinians’ mood, Hamas wins vote at a West Bank university

The New York Times reports: Lina Halsa certainly made a splash at the student rally for the Islamist Hamas movement here at Birzeit University last month. Wearing a sleeveless top, tight jeans, and with her hair in a ponytail, Ms. Halsa’s attire was revealing even by the standards of this liberal, secular campus. But it was downright scandalous according to Hamas norms.

Yet, Ms. Halsa was the very image of Hamas success on the campus, where the Islamist party beat out the more moderate Fatah faction in student elections. A photograph of her waving the faction’s signature green banner rocketed around social media, followed by a video in which she explained that she voted Hamas in part because her clothing “shows how much they are able to embrace other people.”

A headline in the Pan-Arab daily Al Hayat trumpeted: “A Blonde Turns Birzeit Green.”

The April 22 election was about far more than clothing, of course. Student elections are seen as an important benchmark of the Palestinian political mood, particularly since there has been no national balloting since Hamas won the legislative contests in 2006, and president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is starting the 11th year of what was to be a five-year term. The nod to Hamas was broadly interpreted as another indication of just how unpopular President Abbas and his government have become. [Continue reading…]

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Hamas cracks down on Salafists in Gaza Strip

Asmaa al-Ghoul writes: The confrontation between the Salafist jihadist movement and Hamas-led security services in the Gaza Strip has returned to the surface following a two-year truce between the two sides.

Strong tensions returned after security services arrested Salafist Sheikh Adnan Mayt, a prominent Salafist jihadist activist, April 6. This was followed by the arrest of other Salafists and raids of their homes, an April 29 statement by Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya (Arabic for “supporters of the Islamic State”) said.

The arrests increased following the two roadside bomb blasts that detonated in the Gaza Strip on April 18, which the Interior Ministry described as “primitive.” One of the blasts exploded near the outer wall of the UNRWA headquarters, and the other went off near the UNRWA general prosecutor’s office. A third explosion took place a day earlier near the Abu Mazen roundabout in western Gaza. [Continue reading…]

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In Gaza, rubble lies on top of rubble

Matthew Duss writes: Two weeks ago saw the latest blow to the on-again-but-mostly-off-again reconciliation between the two leading Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah. A Fatah delegation from the West Bank entered Gaza for what was planned as a weeklong visit to address the sticky issue of payment to some 40,000 Hamas government employees, which was one of the main drivers of Hamas’ decision to accept a reconciliation agreement in April 2014, largely on Fatah’s terms. Instead, the Fatah delegation stayed only one day, departing after claiming that Hamas had prohibited it from traveling from their beachfront hotel to their offices. Hamas, for its part, responded that the makeup of the delegation had not been appropriately cleared in advance.

A few days later, as Israelis celebrated their Independence Day, the first rocket was fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip in four months. An Israeli tank barrage into Gaza followed shortly after.

It was not the first rocket launched since the August cease-fire that ended Operation Protective Edge, the summer of 2014’s hugely destructive Israeli assault on Gaza that lasted 52 days. Back in February, Hamas lobbed two rockets into the Mediterranean, ostensibly to test their launch system and intimidate Israel. Omar Shaban, a Palestinian analyst who runs the small think tank, PalThink, in Gaza, had a different interpretation. “They’re sending you a message,” he told me. “You should be wise enough to hear it.”

The message is that Gaza is creeping toward another explosion. It’s a depressingly similar pattern. Just like after previous conflicts, Israel’s cease-fire demands have been met. Hamas has prevented rocket fire, while the group’s demand for an end to the blockade that has suffocated Gaza for nearly a decade has not. Last month I visited the coastal strip to view the damage from the summer’s war, assess the state of reconstruction, and explore the possibilities of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

I’d last been to Gaza in February 2012. There have been two wars since then, in addition to a number of smaller incursions and exchanges of fire. In February 2012, much of Gaza City remained in rubble from December 2008-January 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. This time, there was rubble lying atop the rubble.

Shaban pulled up next to a huge pile of broken cinder block and twisted metal. “Here’s the Finance Ministry.”

Despite Hamas’ role in the escalation that led to the war, however, polls have shown that the group retains a significant measure of public support. One poll taken immediately after Operation Protective Edge found, for the first time since 2006, Hamas would best its rival Fatah in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Part of this has to do with Hamas being seen, unlike Fatah, as a party willing to fight the status quo. Part of it has to do with Hamas’ strategic distribution of resources to activists and supporters. But it’s also related to the fact that their civil servants are actually respected for the work that they continue to do in hugely difficult circumstances. [Continue reading…]

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Pro-ISIS group in Gaza says Hamas is ‘worse than Israel’

RFE/RL reports: Tensions are rising in Gaza between the Palestinian group Hamas and Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya Fi Bayt al-Maqdis (The Supporters Of Islamic State In Jerusalem), a Salafist faction that considers itself loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group.

The flare-up was sparked on May 3 when Hamas destroyed a mosque belonging to the Supporters Of Islamic State In Jerusalem (SISJ) in the coastal enclave’s Deir al-Balah city.

SISJ responded to the demolition of the mosque by issuing a statement threatening to carry out actions against Hamas targets if the Palestinian group did not release several SISJ militants who were detained in Gaza last month. [Continue reading…]

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The parallels between Zionist and Palestinian militancy

The Times of Israel interviews Bruce Hoffman, author of Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle For Israel 1917-1947: Former Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell negotiated with the IRA for nearly a decade under Tony Blair’s New Labour Government to bring about the Good Friday Agreement and peace to Northern Ireland. Hoffman cites Powell’s book, “Talking To Terrorists,” three times in his new work.

In conversation a year ago, Powell admitted that powerful Western governments throughout the 20th century — particularly the British — operated with appalling hypocrisy by initially claiming that men like Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuinness, and Menachem Begin were terrorists, then, in the blink of an eye, portraying these men as honorable statesmen and forgetting about past atrocities.

Crucially, Powell admitted, states use the word “terrorist” as a form of insult and to help hold the balance of power when certain dissident actors threaten their legitimacy. And if so-called terrorists are using violence for purposes governments like, well, they tend to skip over that, Powell said.

In recalling this conversation to Hoffman, he nods his head in agreement.

“Look, that is absolutely right,” he says. “Terrorism is resorted to for practical reasons because there is no other tool available. And those who use terrorism, and then subsequently become the targets of terrorism, understand its power and how difficult it is to counter it. Not just militarily. But especially in terms of international perception. And that’s where Begin really was a master strategist.”

Hoffman, like Powell, says he is not championing terrorism. But as a realist, he claims the point of his book is not to get bound up by moral judgments when speaking about the subject.

Given that Israeli politicians fundamentally understand how Jewish terrorism played such an effective role in helping bring about the State of Israel, is it naïve to think they might have more of a sympathetic understanding of why Palestinians currently use terrorism to try to achieve their political objectives?

“Well it’s far more simple than that,” Hoffman replies. “No country that is created where terrorism has played some role wants to admit it, for fear of that weapon being used against them. And that’s what is really at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” [Continue reading…]

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Hamas warily eyes proposals for long-term truce with Israel

Adnan Abu Amer reports that international envoys visiting Gaza are in discussions with Hamas: The increased tempo of international proposals to extend the truce is coinciding with mounting warnings about a conflagration in Gaza caused by the continued siege, the lack of progress in reconciling with Fatah and the similarity in the security and on-the-ground conditions today, compared with those that preceded the last war in July 2014. Taher al-Nunu, Hamas’ media adviser, told Al-Monitor, “The proposals currently considered complement efforts to bolster the cease-fire with Israel. Hamas will present those proposals to all remaining factions, with whom we shall consult to adopt a unified stance.”

Israeli media outlets published details about the truce proposals on March 11, reporting that Israel and Hamas were considering achieving a 15-year cease-fire, during the first five years of which both sides would undertake to cease all military operations in exchange for lifting the siege and building sea and air ports in Gaza.

But Gaza’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad, one of Hamas’ most prominent negotiators with international envoys, told Al-Monitor, “No practical progress has been achieved with Western diplomatic sources visiting Gaza in relation to the sea and air ports dossier; because Israel refuses to hand Hamas a victory after the last battle.” [Continue reading…]

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In the rubble of Gaza, militias prepare for inevitable war with Israel

Bel Trew reports: The fighters in Gaza are preparing for a new war every day. It could come at any time: In the past few weeks, Israeli planes and drones have been increasingly circling the 26-square-mile coastal enclave. The Israel Defense Forces have repositioned troops at the eastern borders, an area almost entirely flattened during last summer’s 51-day war.

“The war could start any minute,” says Abu Mujahid. “There is a lot of kinetic movement, so all the fighting groups evacuated the bases, we’ve postponed training sessions, and many of the men have moved underground.”

“There are people right now under your feet,” his wiry second-in-command, Abu Saif, 28, adds with a toothless grin.

Gaza today is a powder keg waiting to explode. The key aspects of the cease-fire agreement that ended the war last summer remain unfulfilled — both Israel and Hamas feel that only more violence can force their enemy to assent to their demands. Meanwhile, the reconstruction of Gaza has stagnated due to Israeli restrictions on letting material into the territory, as well as the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, sapping Gaza residents’ hope for a better future and leading them to believe that there is no alternative but armed struggle. [Continue reading…]

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Hamas reacts to potential Egyptian attack

Adnan Abu Amer writes: Hamas never imagined that it would be classified as a terrorist movement by an Arab country — a classification that has dangerous political, media and perhaps military repercussions.

However, Egypt’s Court of Urgent Matters declared Hamas a terrorist organization on Feb. 28 against the backdrop of the proven movement’s implication in armed operations that claimed the lives of Egyptian officers and soldiers in Sinai Peninsula, after its members seeped through the tunnels into Egypt.

Why is this decision dangerous? Egypt is considered the only leeway for Gaza where Hamas is in control. Egypt’s classification of Hamas as a terrorist organization implies that all efforts are being made to cut off its arms supplies and funding by all means necessary. Moreover, whoever cooperates with Hamas is considered a criminal by law, according to a statement on March 4 by Egypt’s Minister of Justice Mahfouz Saber. The law stipulates seizing Hamas properties, arresting all its affiliated members and confiscating their funds and locations. [Continue reading…]

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Gaza’s plight grows worse

The Washington Post reports: In almost every way, the Gaza Strip is much worse off now than before last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas. Scenes of misery are one of the few things in abundance in the battered coastal enclave.

Reconstruction of the tens of thousands homes damaged and destroyed in the hostilities has barely begun, almost six months after the cease-fire. At current rates, it will take decades to rebuild what was destroyed.

The economy is in deep recession; pledges of billions in aid have not been honored; and the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the enclave, refuses to loosen its grip and is preparing again for war.

Diplomats, aid workers and residents warn of a looming humanitarian crisis and escalation of violence.

“After every war, we say it cannot get worse, but I will say this time is the worst ever,” said Omar Shaban, a respected Gaza economist. “There is no sign of life. Trade. Import. Export. Reconstruction. Aid? Dead. I’m not exaggerating when I tell my friends abroad: Gaza could collapse, maybe soon.” [Continue reading…]

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