The Israeli army misidentified shirtless male hostages waving a white flag in Gaza and shot all three in violation of its rules of engagement, said a military official on Saturday.
The killing of Yotam Haim, Alon Shamriz and Samer Talalka, who are presumed to have escaped from Hamas captivity, is being investigated by the Israel Defense Forces.
The hostages were within “tens of metres” of Israeli positions, said the official. An Israeli soldier thought they were Hamas fighters trying to lure Israeli soldiers into a trap, and deemed them to be “terrorists”, said the military official.
Two were killed immediately and the third died as he ran for cover while calling for help in Hebrew. A military official said that during the shooting the local commander issued a cease fire order that the soldiers did not obey.
Their bodies were only examined because one of the hostages had a “western appearance”, the Ynet media outlet reported, leading to the realisation that the dead men were hostages. Haim, 28, had pale skin and ginger hair.
The killing of the hostages came after Palestinian human rights groups documented several instances of Gazan civilians waving white flags who were shot by Israeli soldiers.
Hamas has said that a handful of other hostages have been killed in Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza, which US President Joe Biden described last week as “indiscriminate”.
Israel could come under further pressure to scale back the intensity of its combat operations when US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and General CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visit this week.
Israel has killed more than 18,000 Palestinians in its ground invasion and bombing of Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials.
The families of the approximately 130 hostages still in Hamas’s hands held a protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, attended by thousands of other demonstrators, to repeat their demands that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engage in negotiations to secure the release of their relatives.
The government maintains that weakening Hamas militarily will result in the hostages’ freedom. A recently released hostage, Raz Ben-Ami, said the government must engage in another round of prisoner-for-hostage exchanges immediately.
“10 days ago I warned Cabinet members that the fighting could harm the hostages,” she said. “I begged them and warned that the fighting could harm the hostages. Unfortunately I was right.”
The IDF’s chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, said he took responsibility for their deaths, and that while Israeli soldiers in Gaza were operating under difficult and unpredictable situations, the decision to open fire on shirtless men carrying a white flag contravened the current rules of engagement. “But these shots were carried out during combat and under pressure,” 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 bombings and firefights reported in the cities of Shejaiya and Khan Younis.
An Al Jazeera cameraman was killed and the correspondent wounded in a drone strike at a school being used to shelter displaced Gazans. The French government on Saturday said a foreign ministry employee had died from injuries sustained during an Israeli bombing in Gaza on Wednesday.
He had taken refuge with a colleague from the French consulate in a residential building. The foreign ministry called on Israel to explain the circumstances of the attack.
During a visit to Israel on Sunday, French foreign minister Catherine Colonna called for a “new humanitarian truce”, saying it needed to be a lasting one and should lead to a ceasefire. France was “highly concerned” by the situation in Gaza, she said, adding that “too many civilians are being killed”.
Hamas took about 240 people hostage on October 7 during a cross-border raid that killed 1,200 people in Israel, according to the Israeli government.
Dozens were released during a Qatar-brokered swap in which three Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails were freed for every Israeli hostage — mostly women and children — set free.
That exchange took place under a truce that allowed an influx of humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave.
Most of the coastal strip’s 2.3mn population have been displaced to southern Gaza, with little clean water, food or medicine in their tent cities and UN shelters. David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, met Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani on Friday night in Europe in an effort to revive talks over a possible deal with Hamas to secure the release of the hostages.
Hamas has classified most of the remaining hostages as Israeli soldiers. Netanyahu said on Saturday the first round of hostage releases only took place because of Israel’s military pressure on Hamas, and vowed to continue the war to help release the rest.
“The instruction I am giving the negotiating team is predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing,” he said.
Hamas has said their release would require Israel to free many, if not all, of the more than 7,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. The talks were positive but progress was slow, said a person briefed on the discussions.