Preliminary investigation of ‘Hannibal’ incident: Operational mistakes, but no war crimes

Givati Brigade commander says forces entered an unsecured area after cease-fire had taken effect, leading to kidnapping; IDF believes force used after kidnapping was proportionate.

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April 14, 2015 16:26
4 minute read.
Israeli air strike

Israeli air strike in Rafah.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The IDF concluded a preliminary investigation into the Hannibal Protocol or “Black Friday” incident – probably the most controversial incident in the entire Gaza war this past summer – finding operational mistakes by the IDF, but no war crimes.

Despite the initial finding, IDF Magistrate Advocate-General Danny Efroni will make the final decision on the incident, which led to the killing of up to 180 Palestinians or as low as 41 – with equal dispute on how many of those were civilian deaths, ranging from 144 to as few as between 13-29 (the IDF says it cannot determine the identities of 16 of the dead.)

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The incident started when a Givati Brigade unit working to unearth tunnels was attacked despite a humanitarian cease-fire being in effect, and the late Lt. Hadar Goldin was kidnapped. After the IDF sent in a small unit to attempt to prevent the kidnappers from escaping, the probe found, IAF fighter jets hit 19 military targets, and ground forces and attack helicopters fired hundreds of artillery rounds and missiles into the area at an additional 14 military targets.

The report is a preliminary probe by commanders, analyzing the incident from a military perspective, not from a legal perspective.

They make recommendations to Efroni about the warcrime charges, though he is not formally obligated to accept the commanders’ version of events.

The release of the report prior to his decision means that there is now clear public pressure on him – though it could also be making his final decision simpler if he has reached similar conclusions.

Army Radio released portions of the investigation on Tuesday, and the IDF Spokesman’s Office confirmed it had approved the release.

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However, it was not clear if the leaking of the probe’s details had been cleared with Efroni, and some Givati commanders involved have used an ongoing public relations campaign – an unusual step during an investigation – to justify their actions and get the MAG not to open a criminal investigation.

The leaked report details reveal that senior IDF officials who were not involved in the incident largely approved the decision-making of the commanders involved in the incident, including that of highly valued Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter.

Winter said during the investigation that at the time of the incident, the brigade was operating in an unsafe area that it normally would not have entered had the cease-fire not been in effect.

“The brigade’s plan of operation took into account the cease-fire going into effect and was based on a situation in which, by 8 a.m., the forces would cease attacks and only after securing the territory, would initiate searches for tunnels. However, this was not the situation, and when the cease-fire went into effect, forces from the patrol unit entered to search an area that had not been conquered and in an unsecured sector,” he said.

Implying that soldiers may have fired at unintended targets due to misunderstandings about the situation on the ground, Winter added that “from an analysis of the unit’s actions, it can be determined that in contrast to standard warfare and the simple instructions given during Operation Protective Edge, here, as a brigade, we managed to confuse the fighters and to put them in an unreasonable situation.

In those conditions, the situation should have been assessed with the regiment commander before the cease-fire went into place.”

Once the “Hannibal Protocol” – the use of force in an area where the IDF believes the enemy is trying to kidnap a captured soldier – was declared, it was decided to open heavy fire.

Human rights groups and the Palestinians have claimed that the IDF used disproportionate force.

However, the details published from the investigation describe a different picture, in which the IDF reacted with proportionate force.

Military commanders accepted Winter’s stance that “our assumption was that Hadar Goldin was alive, and in accordance, we used the necessary force to disrupt the movements of the [kidnapping] cell.”

Winter explained that the use of force was intended to cut off an escape lane for the terrorists to abscond with Goldin.

At this stage, Winter said, the fire was meant to help the ground forces that continued to advance in Rafah.

The preliminary investigation supported Winter’s narrative that only the use of force prevented the terrorists from exiting the tunnel.

There are no specific explanations about how this volume of fire was legal, as has been explained in final reports that the MAG issued on other incidents.

Senior IDF officials determined that the force used was proportionate and effective for the mission, that it paralleled the exceptional characteristics of the incident and that it did not violate international law.

Army Radio said the MAG was expected to issue a final decision soon.

Noam Amir at Ma’ariv contributed to this story.

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