Updated Dec 16, 2023 - Politics & Policy

3 hostages mistakenly killed by Israeli troops were holding white flag, official says

Families and supporters of hostages hostages held by Palestinian militants since the October 7 attack hold a demonstration outside the Israeli ministry of defence in Tel Aviv on December 15, 2023

Families and supporters of hostages hostages held by Palestinian militants hold a demonstration outside the Israeli Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on Dec. 15. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The three Israeli hostages who were mistakingly killed by Israeli troops were holding a stick with a white piece of cloth and shouted "help" in Hebrew before being shot, Israeli Defense Forces officials said on Saturday.

The latest: "The shooting at the hostages was done in violation of the IDF rules of engagement," IDF chief of staff Herzi Halei said in a statement. "It is not allowed to shoot at a person who is holding a white flag and wants to surrender. But this shooting was conducted under stress and on a battlefield," he added.

  • It's the first time since the Israel-Hamas war began that the IDF has acknowledged accidentally killing hostages during its ground operation in Gaza. Hamas has previously claimed some hostages have been killed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.
  • The incident is increasing pressure on Israel to strike a new deal to release the more than 130 hostages still held by Hamas.

Details: The incident took place Friday morning in the Shijaiyah neighborhood, IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said in a press conference later Friday.

  • The IDF said soldiers who were operating in the area mistakenly identified three Israeli hostages as a threat and fired on them.
  • Hagari said the IDF thinks the three hostages had either managed to escape or were abandoned by their Hamas captors during the fighting in the neighborhood.
  • He said the troops' suspicion about their identities arose only after the incident. Their bodies were transferred to Israeli territory for examinations that confirmed they were three of the Israeli hostages who'd been held in Gaza.

The IDF identified one of the victims as Yotam Haim, who was kidnapped by Hamas militants from Kfar Aza, a kibbutz in Israel near the Gaza border, during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

  • Another victim was identified as Samer Talalka, who was kidnapped from Nir Am, another Israeli kibbutz near the border.
  • The third victim was identified as Alon Shamriz, who was taken from Kfar Aza.

The IDF's preliminary investigation found that the three Israeli men walked together without shirts, IDF officials said in Saturday's briefing with reporters. It appeared that the three men were aware they might be recognized by soldiers as Hamas militants and therefore took several steps to indicate they were hostages, including waving the white cloth.

  • The IDF investigation found that two of the hostages were killed by a sniper who fired at them from a distance.
  • The third hostage managed to escape into a building. When the soldiers came close to the building, the hostage shouted "help" in Hebrew. A battalion commander told the soldiers to hold their fire but some of them shot at the hostage and killed him.
  • The IDF officials added that two days before the incident soldiers found the words, "SOS" and "Help three hostages," written on the walls in the area where the three were killed. IDF officials said the assessment was that this was a deception attempt by Hamas.

What they're saying: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday called the incident "a tragedy" and said the IDF will investigate it and learn from it.

  • "The IDF expresses deep remorse over the tragic incident and sends the families its heartfelt condolences. Our national mission is to locate the missing and return all the hostages home," the IDF said in a statement.
  • In Washington, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said President Biden had been briefed on the incident and that the hostages' deaths were "heartbreaking" and that the U.S. was sure Israel would examine what happened.

The big picture: Hamas is still holding more than 130 hostages. More than 100 were released recently as part of a deal to pause the fighting for seven days.

  • After Friday's incident, several family members of the remaining hostages publicly called on Israel's government to present a plan for a new hostage deal as soon as possible.
  • Netanyahu said Friday that Israel "will continue in the effort to bring all our hostages home."

The family members and thousands of others demonstrated in front of the IDF's headquarters in Tel Aviv to demand the government take action.

  • Since the ceasefire collapsed and Israel expanded its ground operation to southern Gaza two weeks ago, there have been no hostage negotiations.

This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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