An air force colonel has said that Israeli airstrikes may have intentionally killed Israeli captives rather than let them be taken to Gaza.
Speaking in Hebrew about the airstrikes, Colonel Nof Erez told a Haaretz podcast in November, that “the Hannibal Directive was apparently applied” and that 7 October “was a mass Hannibal.”
After weeks of claiming that 1,400 “civilians” were killed that day, Israel last month revised its death toll down to about 900 civilians plus around 300 soldiers and police. An official Israeli account posting to X (formerly Twitter) on Saturday appeared to lower the death toll even further to “over 1,000.”
Erez’s interview was first reported in English by The Cradle.
The Electronic Intifada did its own independent translation and can verify The Cradle’s reporting. You can watch part of the Erez interview with English subtitles in the video below or read a transcript at the end of this article.
Named after Hannibal – an ancient Carthaginian general who poisoned himself rather than be captured alive – Israel established the secretive military doctrine about 30 years ago.Its aim was to stop resistance fighters from capturing Israelis who could be used to negotiate prisoner swaps. In 2011, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a single captured soldier who had been held in Gaza for five years.
Colonel Erez’s interview with Haaretz painted a picture of a chaotically indiscriminate Israeli response to the Palestinian military assault on 7 October.
Erez told the podcast there had been “tons of openings in the fence” with Gaza and that “thousands of people in every type of vehicle, some with hostages and some without” were moving back and forth between Gaza and the Israeli settlements and that “it was an impossible mission” for the aircrews to distinguish between Palestinian fighters and Israeli detainees.
Asked by Haaretz interviewer Lior Kodner about “rumors that the army exploded all kinds of houses inside the settlements” and about the Hannibal Directive, Erez confirmed that the air force did indeed “explode houses” but insisted they never did so “without permission.”But the Palestinian military assault that morning was so successful that it may have been impossible to obtain permission from senior officers.
Dozens of Israeli army bases and outposts were completely overrun by Hamas and other armed factions on 7 October. They deliberately targeted the Israeli army’s communications infrastructure across the whole region.
Israel’s regional military command and control was rapidly eliminated.
“There was no division command” left at that stage, Erez confirmed. It had been destroyed almost immediately by the Palestinian resistance assault that began at 6:30 am. There was no command and control left in the region until later in the day, he said.Erez explained that helicopter pilots had been reduced to using mobile phones to call the settlement emergency squads, effectively local Israeli militias in the area, who were trying to stop the Palestinian assault.
These militias apparently directed the pilots, telling them which houses to blow up. It seems that they often did so even at the expense of killing the captive Israelis.
After some prevarication by Erez about the controversial Hannibal Directive, the Haaretz host asked the colonel outright: “Did it happen this time?”
At first, Erez would only tacitly concede that Israeli captives may have been “harmed at the stage when helicopters and drones began firing towards the fence, when they saw the masses entering and exiting.”
But pressed further, Erez stated more clearly: “The Hannibal Directive was apparently applied at a certain stage.”
He explained that he had trained “for all of the last 20 years,” to execute the Hannibal doctrine in just such a scenario, of a Palestinian vehicle fleeing the scene with an Israeli captive.
What made 7 October new, he said, was that “this was a mass Hannibal. It was tons and tons of openings in the fence, and thousands of people in every type of vehicle, some with hostages and some without.”
“Shoot at everything”
Erez’s account backs up the testimony of an anonymous Israeli helicopter commander published by news website Ynet in October. The pilot was from 190 Squadron, which flies Apaches.
The Electronic Intifada translated the article into English last month.
“Lt. Col. A” said that on 7 October the air force sent more than two dozen attack helicopters – as well as Elbit drones – to shoot at everything along the Gaza fence with Hellfire missiles and machine guns.
Ynet reported the air force admitting that “it was very difficult to distinguish between terrorists and [Israeli] soldiers or civilians” but that the commander instructed his pilots “to shoot at everything they see in the area of the fence” with Gaza anyway.
“The frequency of fire at the thousands of terrorists was enormous at the start, and only at a certain point did the pilots begin to slow their attacks and carefully choose the targets,” the paper reported, citing an Israeli Air Force investigation.
According to the air force, in the first four hours the pilots “attacked about 300 targets, most in Israeli territory.”
Since 7 October, a growing body of evidence has been reported in Hebrew indicating that a significant, but undetermined, number of Israelis were killed by Israel’s own air and ground forces during the Palestinian assault.
In another recent discovery by The Cradle, these accounts have been backed up by an interview with members of a drone squadron conducted by the Israeli magazine Mishpacha, a publication targeted at religious Jews.
According to the magazine, Squadron 161 is the only Israeli unit operating the Elbit Hermes 450 assault drone, also known as the “Zik.”
Drones were the first aircraft to respond to the Palestinian military assault on 7 October, the magazine states. They carried out airstrikes “inside Israeli territory, inside bases, inside kibbutzim, something they had never prepared for.”
An anonymous pilot told the magazine of chaotic scenes that day. “We usually get an orderly intelligence briefing in advance,” he said. But since Palestinian fighters had so successfully taken down Israel’s military communications system, such a briefing was impossible.
“In this case, our intelligence source was civilians on the ground,” the anonymous drone pilot said, verifying Colonel Erez’s account. “We entered our control stations with our phones, which is usually against protocol.”
In the same way as Erez’s men: “we called civilians in the kibbutzim and yishuvim [Editor’s note: two types of Israeli settlements] in real time, and they gave us terrorists’ locations.”
The Mishpacha article does not explicitly mention the Hannibal Directive.
But it does report that during each assault the drones “killed dozens of terrorists,” preventing them from “returning to the [Gaza] Strip with captives.”
It’s hard to imagine any way a remotely piloted war drone like the Hermes 450 could prevent Palestinian fighters from returning to Gaza with their Israeli captives other than killing all of them together.
Why did Nof Erez speak?
Erez spent 20 years in the military and a further 24 years as a reservist.
But his temporary refusal to serve in the military over political differences didn’t last long. In his Haaretz interview he said that he “saw numerous drones above every [Gaza frontier] settlement on a computer image” in an Israeli military command center on 7 October.
Ynet reported at the end of October that he had been on “active service,” but was relieved of his command soon after, following promises he made privately to “dismantle” Netanyahu’s government after the current war is over.
Erez’s personal animosity towards Netanyahu might partly explain his willingness to talk explicitly about the Hannibal Directive to the press.
Source: Haaretz podcast “The Week”
Date: 9 November 2023
Lior Kodner (host): In recent days, after 7 October, Netanyahu’s poison machine has been saying that the air force didn’t join the battle quick enough, and was not ready. You were there. Was it ready?
Colonel (res.) Nof Erez: Like all the IDF [Israeli military] it was not technically ready for an event that occurs suddenly without any warning. But the slanders emanating and emerging [from Netanyahu] are utter lies. The attack helicopter squadrons, both of them, pulled themselves together very quickly. By the way, it takes time to get from Tel Aviv to Ramon [air force base] on Saturday morning. But … within two or three hours, they put no small number of helicopters in the air: 10 am, I believe. The first ones, even by 7:15 am. But it took time for other teams to reach the base. You need to understand one simple thing that isn’t clarified for anyone: I was involved in teaching it to the whole IDF for the last two years, I did forty days reserve duty of instruction to the IDF. The way a helicopter squadron works is it arrives at the area of activity and tries to speak to the division command. There was no division command at that stage. Even by 6:30 [am] there was no division command. If unsuccessful, it speaks with the brigade command. It too wasn’t [responsive] by… then. And the battalion command, battalion 13 that was there in the area, it too, unfortunately, was… not easily reachable. By the way I know some stories of attack helicopter pilots that communicated via cellular phones with the settlement emergency squads, who coordinated with them firing inside the settlements by cellular phone.
Lior Kodner: Apparently that is also the source of the rumors that the army exploded all kinds of houses inside the settlements, the Hannibal Directive, and all kinds of conspiracy theories running around in the first few days.
Nof Erez: They didn’t explode houses without permission. By the way I saw numerous drones above every settlement on a computer image, which we can see in every IDF command. There is a serious problem with using drones on our territory when we don’t know who is the enemy and who is the emergency squad, and who are our soldiers – by 10 am there were some already there. And identifying them from the air without the FLIR [thermal imaging] system of the attack helicopter or the drone is totally impossible. If there is no one for you to talk to, and they can tell you, “My location is near or at house so-and-so, and everyone on the other side is an enemy,” it’s very hard to hit and to launch. The Hannibal Directive that is also being talked about, it’s a command for stopping the capture of a single vehicle, authored on the basis of kidnappings carried out in Lebanon thirty years ago. There too is no unequivocal decision that the attack helicopter or drone that identifies the vehicle will fire upon the vehicle itself in order to prevent the kidnapping at any cost, obviously also at the cost of harm to the hostage. There is no unequivocal directive for that.
Lior Kodner: And did it happen this time?
Nof Erez: We don’t know if hostages were harmed at the stage when helicopters and drones began firing towards the fence, when they saw the masses entering and exiting.
Lior Kodner: But Hannibal Directive is on purpose. If it was used, it was used intentionally. If hostages were hurt in this case, that is something else.
Nof Erez: The Hannibal Directive was apparently applied at a certain stage, because at the moment they understand there is a kidnapping, they immediately say, “Guys, this is Hannibal.” But the Hannibal we trained for all of the last twenty years, is for a vehicle we know at what point of the fence it enters, on what side it drives, and maybe even on which road it drives. This was a mass Hannibal. There were tons and tons of openings in the fence, and thousands of people in every type of vehicle, some with hostages and some without. It was an impossible mission to identify and to do what they did. I know that whoever had weapons at hand, the attack helicopters and the drones, did everything they could – without control, without coordination with ground forces, because there were none in the first stage. Later on, when army forces had already arrived, there were a few more people to talk to. By the way, the special units arrived pretty quickly, but they didn’t work as units, they worked as individuals, and that’s also why we saw the numbers of wounded among MATKAL and SHALDAG commandos. They didn’t work connected, you could say they ran with knives in their mouths, broke into the houses, and tried to free [hostages], and they succeeded in a great many cases. But they had no communication capacity to coordinate the attack helicopters or to receive any help. And that is one of the things that also led them to do their utmost, but without continuous air support.
Hebrew translation by David Sheen.