Three Israeli hostages who were mistakenly shot by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip had been waving a white flag and were shirtless when they were killed, military officials said Saturday, in Israel's first such acknowledgement of harming any hostages in its war against Hamas.
Anger over the mistaken killings is likely to increase pressure on the Israeli government to renew Qatar-mediated negotiations with Hamas over swapping more of the remaining captives, which Israel says number 129, for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Hamas has conditioned further releases on Israel halting its punishing air and ground campaign in Gaza, while Israeli leaders have said the hostages' release can only be achieved through military pressure.
The account of how the hostages died raised questions about the conduct of Israeli troops. Palestinians on several occasions have reported that Israeli soldiers opened fire as civilians tried to flee to safety. Hamas has claimed other hostages were previously killed by Israeli fire or airstrikes, without presenting evidence.
Protesters march through the streets after demonstrating outside the Israel Defense Force headquarters on December 15, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Earlier today, the IDF said its forces accidentally killed three hostages being held in Gaza when it mist
An Israeli military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters in line with military regulations, said it was likely that the hostages had been abandoned by their captors or had escaped. The soldiers’ behavior was "against our rules of engagement," the official said, and was being investigated at the highest level.
The hostages did everything they could to signal they weren't a threat, "but this shooting was done during fighting and under pressure," Herzi Halevi, chief of the military's general staff, said in a statement later Saturday.
Halevi added: "There may be additional incidents in which hostages will escape or will be abandoned during the fighting. We have the obligation and the responsibility to get them out alive."
The three hostages, all in their 20s, were killed Friday in the Gaza City area of Shijaiyah, where troops are engaged in fierce fighting with Hamas militants. They had been among more than 240 people taken hostage during an unprecedented raid by Hamas into Israel on Oct. 7 in which around 1,200 people were killed, mostly civilians. The attack sparked the war.
The hostages’ plight has dominated public discourse in Israel. Speaking at a Saturday night rally in Tel Aviv, Rubi Chen, father of 19-year-old hostage Itay Chen, criticized the government for believing hostages could be retrieved through military pressure on Hamas. "Put the the best offer on the table to get the hostages home alive," he said. "We don't want them back in bags."
The Israeli military official said the three hostages had emerged from a building close to Israeli soldiers’ positions. They waved a white flag and were shirtless, possibly trying to signal they posed no threat.
Two were killed immediately, and the third ran back into the building screaming for help in Hebrew. The commander issued an order to cease fire, but another burst of gunfire killed the third man, the official said.
Israeli media gave a more detailed account. The mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot said that according to an investigation into the incident, soldiers followed the third man and shouted at him to come out, and at least one soldier shot him when he emerged from a staircase.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz gave a similar account based on a preliminary investigation, saying the soldiers who followed the third hostage believed he was a Hamas member trying to trick them. Local media also reported that soldiers had seen a nearby building marked with "SOS" and "Help! Three hostages" two days earlier but feared it might be a trap.
Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political analyst, said it is unlikely that the killings will massively alter public support for the war. Most Israelis still have a strong sense of why it is being fought and believe Hamas needs to be defeated, she said.
"They feel like there’s no other choice," she said.
A protester with red paint on his hand marches through the streets after demonstrating outside the Israel Defense Forces headquarters on December 15, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
The killings emphasized the dangers faced by hostages held in areas of house-to-house combat like Shijaiyah, where nine soldiers were killed this week on one of the deadliest days for ground forces in the war. The military has said Hamas has booby-trapped buildings and ambushed troops after emerging from a tunnel network it built under Gaza City.
Hamas released over 100 hostages for Palestinian prisoners during a brief cease-fire in November. Nearly all freed on both sides were women and minors. Talks on further swaps broke down.
Hamas said it will only free the remaining hostages if Israel ends the war and releases all Palestinian prisoners. As of late November, Israel held nearly 7,000 Palestinians accused or convicted of security offenses, including hundreds rounded up since the start of the war.
The offensive has killed more than 18,700 Palestinians, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Thursday. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths. Its count did not specify how many were women and minors, but they have consistently made up around two-thirds of the dead.
A picture taken from southern Israel on the border with the Gaza Strip shows Israeli battle tanks returning from northern Gaza on December 16, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by GIL COHEN-MAG
It was the ministry's last update before a communications blackout that continued to hamper telephone and internet services in the Gaza Strip. "Now 48 hours and counting. The incident is likely to limit reporting and visibility to events on the ground," said Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a group tracking internet outages.
The war has been deadly for journalists. Dozens of mourners held funeral prayers Saturday for Samer Abu Daqqa, a Palestinian journalist working for broadcaster Al Jazeera who was killed Friday in an Israeli strike in the southern city of Khan Younis. The Committee to Protect Journalists said the cameraman was the 64th journalist to be killed in the conflict: 57 Palestinians, four Israelis and three Lebanese.
The war has flattened much of northern Gaza and driven 85% of the territory's population of 2.3 million from their homes. Displaced people have squeezed into shelters mainly in the south. Only a trickle of aid has been able to enter Gaza and distribution is disrupted by fighting.
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said two Christian women at a church compound in Gaza City were killed Saturday by Israeli sniper fire and seven others were wounded. The women were identified as a mother and daughter, with one killed trying to carry the other to safety. Gaza has a small Christian community consisting of about 1,000 people. There was no immediate Israeli comment.
Elsewhere in devastated Gaza City, resident Assad Abu Taha by phone from Shijaiyah reported "a violent bombardment." Another resident, Hamza Abu Seada, reported heavy airstrikes in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya.
An Associated Press journalist in southern Gaza reported airstrikes and tank shelling overnight in Khan Younis and Rafah.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has expressed unease over Israel’s failure to reduce civilian casualties and its plans for Gaza's future, but the White House continues to offer support with weapons shipments and diplomatic backing.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was traveling to Israel to continue discussions on a timetable for winding down the intense combat phase of the war.
The U.S. has pushed Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, and the government said it would open a second entry point at Kerem Shalom to speed up deliveries.
Jobain reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip and Magdy from Cairo. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Iris Samuels in Jerusalem and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece contributed to this report.