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3 hostages killed by Israeli soldier in Gaza were waving a white flag, Israel says

Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this handout picture released on December 14, 2023.
ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES
/
via REUTERS
Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this handout picture released on December 14, 2023.

Updated December 16, 2023 at 11:09 AM ET

The Israeli soldier who shot and killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza City after mistakenly identifying them as a threat did not follow Israel's rules of engagement, an Israeli military official said Saturday.

A preliminary report on the incident also found that the hostages had been dressed in civilian clothes and waving a white flag before they were shot, the official said in a press briefing. Israel says Hamas wears civilian clothes to deceive the military.

Initially it was unclear how many Israeli soldiers were involved in the incident.

The incident took place Friday in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of eastern Gaza City, an area that has seen intense ground fighting between Israeli forces and the militant group Hamas since Israel launched its invasion in response to the Oct. 7 attacks.

"During the fighting in Shijaiyah, the IDF inadvertently identified three kidnapped Israelis as a threat. As a result, the IDF fired at them and they were killed," said Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for the Israeli military, also known as the Israel Defense Forces, said Friday.

"This is a sad and painful event for all of us, and the IDF bears responsibility for everything that happened," he told reporters.

The circumstances in which the Israeli soldier encountered the hostages, and why the soldier believed the hostages were a threat, remain unclear.

An initial assessment suggested the hostages either "fled or were abandoned" by their captors during a skirmish, Hagari said. Asked whether the abductees had their hands up or spoke in Hebrew, Hagari responded only that the military's investigation was still underway.

The issue of the hostages has roiled Israel since Oct. 7. Families of the hostages and missing have mounted major pressure on Israel's political elite — pressure that has only grown in recent weeks as more hostages have spoken out about the conditions they experienced in captivity.

On Friday, news that three had been killed at the hands of an Israeli soldier prompted grief and outrage in Israel.

Soon after the announcement, which came after sundown on the Jewish Sabbath, thousands of Israelis flocked to the military's headquarters in Tel Aviv to protest the hostages' deaths.

Protester Ella Vinokur, 30, said she felt "rage" at the news. The military operation to eliminate threats to Israel must come "second to people dying," she said, her voice shaking as she called for more negotiations to free the remaining hostages.

"The grief and the pain, it just keeps accumulating," said Addam Yekutieli, 37. "It's even more of a tragic sign that the trajectory that we're on — it's not the right one."

In a statement, Israel's military expressed "deep remorse" over the incident.

"The IDF emphasizes that this is an active combat zone in which ongoing fighting over the last few days has occurred. Immediate lessons from the event have been learned, which have been passed on to all IDF troops in the field," the military said.

The Israeli military identified the three victims as Yotam Haim, 28, Samer Talalka, 25, and Alon Shamriz, 26.

Talalka, an Israeli Bedouin, was working with his father at a poultry hatchery in Kibbutz Nir Am on Oct. 7 when militants attacked, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said in a statement. Haim, a musician, and Shamriz, a computer engineering student, were at their homes in Kibbutz Kfar Aza when they were abducted, the group said.

Friday was the hostages' 70th day in captivity.

Militants kidnapped more than 240 Israelis and other foreign nationals during the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Some 110 have been freed, most of them during a seven-day ceasefire late last month in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and detainees held by Israel.

At least 110 others are thought to remain alive in captivity in Gaza, according to the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Around 20 others are believed to be dead with their remains held by Hamas, according to Israeli officials.

"Together with the entire people of Israel, I bow my head in deep sorrow and mourn the fall of three of our dear sons who were kidnapped," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement. "My heart goes out to the grieving families in their difficult time."

Additional reporting by Carrie Kahn and Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Kat Lonsdorf