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The Israeli military mistakenly identified shirtless male hostages carrying a white flag in Gaza and shot all three in violation of its rules of engagement, an army official said on Saturday.
The Israel Defense Forces are investigating the killings of Yotham Haim, Alon Shamriz and Samar Talalka, who are believed to have escaped from a Hamas prison.
The hostages were “tens of meters” from Israeli positions, the official said. An Israeli soldier thought they were Hamas fighters trying to lure Israeli soldiers into a trap and called them “terrorists,” an army official said.
Two were killed instantly and a third died as they ran for cover while calling for help in Hebrew. An army official said the local commander issued a cease-fire order during the firing and the soldiers disobeyed it.
Only their bodies were examined because one of the hostages had a “Western appearance,” leading to the realization that the dead were hostages, Ynet media reported. Haim, 28, had pale skin and ginger hair.
The hostages were killed after Palestinian human rights groups documented several instances of Gazan civilians waving white flags being shot by Israeli forces.
Hamas said a handful of hostages were killed in Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza, which President Joe Biden last week described as “blindsided.” According to Palestinian health officials, Israel’s ground occupation and bombing of Gaza has killed more than 18,000 Palestinians.
The families of some 130 hostages still held by Hamas plan to hold a rally in Tel Aviv again Saturday to demand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engage in talks to free their relatives. The government believes that weakening Hamas militarily will lead to the release of the hostages.
Ras Ben-Ami, a recently freed hostage, said the government should immediately engage in another round of hostage-to-prisoner exchanges.
“I warned the cabinet members 10 days ago that the fight would harm the hostages,” he said. “I pleaded with them and warned them that fighting would harm the hostages. Unfortunately I was right.
The IDF’s chief of staff, Herzey Halevi, claimed responsibility for their deaths and said the decision to open fire on shirtless men carrying a white flag while Israeli soldiers were operating under difficult and unpredictable conditions in Gaza was contrary to current rules of engagement. .
“But these scenes were carried out during times of war and stress,” he said. “In an instant, the complexity of our just war in Gaza was revealed.”
Israel stepped up military operations on the eastern edge of the Gaza Strip on Saturday, with both explosions and gunfire reported in the cities of Shejaya and Khan Younis. An Al Jazeera cameraman was killed and a reporter was injured in a drone attack on a school used to shelter displaced Gazans.
The Israeli government said on October 7 that Hamas took about 240 people hostage during a cross-border attack in Israel that killed 1,200 people. Dozens were freed during a Qatar-brokered exchange in which three Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails were freed for every Israeli hostage – mostly women and children.
The exchange took place under a ceasefire that allowed humanitarian aid to flow into the besieged region. Most of the coastal enclave’s 2.3 million people have been displaced to southern Gaza, where their tent cities and UN shelters have little clean water, food or medicine.
David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, met with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Europe on Friday night in an attempt to renew talks on a possible deal with Hamas to free hostages. Hamas has classified most of the remaining hostages as Israeli soldiers.
Netanyahu said on Saturday that the first round of hostages was released only because of Israel’s military pressure on Hamas, and vowed to continue fighting to free the rest. “My instructions to the negotiating team are predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing,” he said.
Hamas said their release would require the release of more than 7,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
Talks have been positive, but progress has been slow, a person briefed on the discussions said. This is Barnia’s first meeting with the Qatari Prime Minister since December 2.