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Israeli hostages mistakenly killed by IDF in Gaza were holding makeshift white flag, officials say

Rights groups say killing anyone who has surrendered is against international law

Bel Trew
in Tel Aviv
Sunday 17 December 2023 00:45 GMT
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Israeli military says it mistakenly killed 3 hostages

An Israeli hostage was waving a makeshift white flag and another called for help in Hebrew when they were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Gaza who “mistook them for militants”, a military official has said.

According to a preliminary investigation, three male hostages, all shirtless, appeared in Shejaiya in northern Gaza, holding a long stick with white fabric attached to it.

A soldier nearby opened fire, the military said, hitting two hostages while the third, who was wounded, managed to escape to a nearby building where other troops heard him crying for help in Hebrew. He was killed by a second soldier before a commander, concerned by the incident, issued a ceasefire order.

The Israeli military official said that they believed that the hostages – who were named by the military as Samer Fuad El-Talalka, Yotam Haim and Alon Shamriz – had either been let go or had escaped.

Yotam Haim, left, Alon Shamriz, centre, and Samer Fuad El-Talalka (Courtesy of the Shamriz, Al-Talalka and Haim families via AP)

Calling the killing of the three hostages “horrific and tragic” the Israeli military official told reporters that what happened was against the Israeli military’s rules of engagement. However, rights groups have said it is almost certainly a violation of international law.

Following news of the deaths, the families of other hostages in Gaza called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and an agreement to secure the release of the rest of the captives saying “every second counts” for those left behind.

On Saturday, they led massive rallies in Tel Aviv with people chanting “all of them now” and “you could have saved them”, while holding photos of the captives. They vowed to protest indefinitely outside the Israeli military main headquarters in the city “until the cabinet presents an Israeli outline for releasing the hostages”.

Raz Ben-Ami, 57, a German dual national, who was among those freed under a Qatar-brokered ceasefire deal last month and whose husband Ohad, is still being held in Gaza, spoke at the rallies.

She said those who had been released had warned that others hostages could be inadvertently harmed because of their proximity to the ferocious fighting.

“Ten days ago I warned cabinet members that the fighting could harm the hostages,” she said.

“Unfortunately I was right. Military action alone will not save their lives. Israel must lay out another round of cycles to release the hostages. Returning the hostages in exchange for prisoners is urgent and critical.”

“The hostages are experiencing hell and are in real mortal danger. Every day, every hour, every minute, is critical,” she added.

Israeli rights group B’tselem wrote on X that International Humanitarian Law prohibits the shooting of people who have surrendered and are carrying a white flag, “regardless [of] whether they’re combatants or not, regardless of their nationality and religion”.

Family and friends of those being held hostage by Hamas protest in Tel Aviv last night (Getty)

Ariel Bernstein, an IDF veteran and member of Israeli rights group “Breaking the Silence”, said on X, that the claim that the shooting of the hostages represented a violation of the rules of engagement was “an attempt by the command to place the blame on the soldier in the field, instead of standing behind the policy of opening fire in Gaza”.

Baronness Sayeeda Warsi said if Israel shot dead three hostages it was an indication of “what the Palestinians are suffering every day”.

“Israeli organisations like Breaking The Silence and others have been warning about IDF tactics for years. Trigger happy, pumped with hatred and out of control – the videos from Gaza, some filmed by IDF soldiers themselves, are public for all of us to see,” she added on X.

The military’s chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, admitted responsibility for the hostage deaths.

He said: “The IDF, and I as its commander, are responsible for what happened, and we will do everything to prevent such incidents from recurring in future combat.”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a “terrible tragedy” but – contrary to the demands of the families – appeared to double down on Israel’s military objectives saying “military pressure is necessary both for the return of the hostages and for victory”.

At a press conference on Saturday evening, he also revealed that Israel received requests for a ceasefire and to remove troops in Gaza but will not do so. He again also repeated that Israel’s aim after “Hamas’s elimination” was that Gaza be demilitarised and “under Israel’s security control”.

“Without military pressure, we would not have been able to bring about [November’s] deal for the 110 abductees,” who were released, he said.

He added: “The instruction I am giving the negotiating team is predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing.”

Pressure is mounting on the Israeli authorities from Israeli citizens to secure an immediate ceasefire deal amid concerns more hostages will die.

Tagit Tzin, the aunt of Dafna, 15, and Ela Elyakim, 9, who were freed from Gaza last month after more than 50 days in captivity, expressed mounting frustration with the Israeli government. She said the government was “not listening” to the families but instead pushing ahead with military objectives. Dafna’s and Ela’s father, stepmother and brother were killed by Hamas militants during their raid on south Israel on 7 October.

“Only a ceasefire deal will bring the hostages out alive and not put our soldiers in danger like this,” she said from a square in Tel Aviv where they were holding protests. “We want a ceasefire and for everybody to be released. It is the only way for them to be freed alive.”

People hold pictures in Tel Aviv last night of Israeli hostages held by Hamas (AP)

She said her niece Dafna, 15 – who was eventually freed in the week-long truce brokered by Qatar – thought she would only return back to Israel “in a coffin” as the bombing was so intense, the buildings around the teenager were collapsing.

“There were people in Hamas’s tunnels with Dafna who were in critical medical condition. They must get out for urgent medical care now. Time has already run out for them.

“We want the world’s leaders to pressure Qatar – or anyone who can help – to make this ceasefire deal happen, to bring them home. We need to get the world working on this, as we cannot do this by ourselves, we have to get them out.”

Inbal Zach, whose cousin Tal Shoham, 38, is still a captive in Gaza, reiterated “every second counts” for the hostages who remain behind.

Tal’s wife Adi, 38, and their children Yahel, 3, and Naveh, 8, were released in the same deal which saw Dafna and Ela get to safety. Tal, however, was being held separately and remains somewhere in Gaza, the family hopes.

“We have had no proof of life after he was taken, we hope he is alive,” Mr Zach said, clutching a poster of Tal’s face at a central square where relatives and supporters had gathered.

She said the families understood the killing of the three hostages in Shejaiya was a “mistake that can happen”.

“We hope it will not happen again. They must come home now.”

She said Yahel and Naveh say every day “we want dad back”.

“It was bittersweet when Adi and the children came home: you are laughing with one eye and crying with another. It’s not complete without Tal.”

“We are demanding the war cabinet talk to us,” said Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, 19, an Israeli soldier is being held captive in Gaza.

Speaking to crowds at “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv he added: “The Israeli government needs to be active they need to put an offer on the table... Put the best offer on the table to get the hostages back alive.”

The protest came as Israel continued its ferocious bombardment of Gaza, which has so far killed more than 19,000 civilians, 70 per cent of them women and children according to the local health authorities.

On Saturday, family members of hundreds of Christian Palestinians sheltering in the Catholic Church in Gaza City told The Independent Israeli forces had surrounded the complex and were firing into the compound.

The office of the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem said that a woman and her daughter shot dead by Israeli snipers in the attack, naming the victims as Nahida and Samar.

A spokesperson said: “One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety. Seven more people were shot and wounded as they tried to protect others inside the church compound.”

They said rocket fire from an Israeli tank targeted a convent within the same compound, which is home to over 54 disabled people who are now displaced and no longer have access to respirators some need to survive.

They added that the building’s generator and its fuel resources were destroyed, as well as solar panels and water tanks.

The IDF has been contacted by The Independent for comment, but is yet to respond.

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