Three Israeli Hostages Killed in Error Had White Flag, Israel Says

The Israeli military on Saturday said three hostages mistakenly killed by Israeli troops had been shirtless, unarmed and bearing a makeshift white flag. The troubling details of how they died have created widespread anguish and prompted renewed calls for a pause in the fighting to allow more hostages to be released.

The military, which acknowledged that the killings violated its rules of engagement, announced the deaths on Friday, hours after saying it had recovered the bodies of three other Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevy, the Israeli military chief of staff, said on Saturday that the three hostages had done “everything so that we would understand” that they were harmless.

“The shooting of the hostages was carried out contrary to the open-fire regulations,” he said. “It is forbidden to shoot at those who raise a white flag and seek to surrender.”

As the death toll of Palestinians killed in 70 days of war soared to nearly 20,000, according to Gazan health officials, the shootings of the Israeli hostages underlined the continuing risks for the more than 120 people who Israel says are still captive and raised questions about Israel’s prosecution of the war.

Some families of the hostages seized on the shootings to urge the government to make securing the captives’ freedom its highest priority.

Itzik Horn, whose children Eitan, 37, and Yair, 45, were abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz, said the killings reinforced his belief that Israel must immediately reach a deal to free all the captives, even if it means releasing Palestinians being held in Israeli jails on terrorism charges.

“Let them free all the Palestinian prisoners we have here, all the terrorists — what do I care,” Mr. Horn said in an interview. “The most important thing isn’t to defeat Hamas. The only victory here is to bring back all the hostages.”

As Israelis took to the streets to demand the return of the hostages, David Barnea, the head of Mossad, Israel’s spy service, met with Qatari officials on Friday in Europe to discuss the possibility of a renewed pause in the fighting and further exchanges of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. The meeting had been planned before the death of the hostages.

Describing the results of a preliminary inquiry, the Israeli military said on Saturday that its soldiers had been operating in Shejaiya, an area of Gaza City that had seen intense fighting. The soldiers were on alert for attempts by Hamas to ambush Israeli forces, possibly in civilian clothes, the military said.

The three hostages emerged without shirts from a building tens of yards away from the Israeli soldiers, bearing a stick with a white cloth, the military said. One soldier, believing the men posed a threat, opened fire, killing two of them and wounding the third, the early investigation found.

The third hostage fled into the building, from which a cry in Hebrew for help could be heard, the military said. The battalion commander ordered the forces to hold their fire. But the wounded hostage later re-emerged, after which he was shot and killed, the military statement said.

The hostages may have escaped or had been abandoned by their captors, said an Israeli military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under military protocol.

All three men killed — identified by the military as Yotam Haim, Alon Shamriz and Samer Talalka — were kidnapped on Oct. 7 from two kibbutzim in southern Israel near the Gaza border.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which represents those kidnapped on Oct. 7 and their relatives, said Mr. Talalka, a member of Israel’s Bedouin minority, had been working at a chicken hatchery when he was abducted. Mr. Haim was a drummer who had been set to perform at a heavy-metal music festival in Tel Aviv on the night of the Hamas attacks. Mr. Shamriz was about to start college courses in computer engineering.

As Israelis mourned their deaths, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the killings “an unbearable tragedy” and praised the “brave warriors who are devoted to the sacred mission of returning our hostages, even at the cost of their lives.”

The Israeli military has come under widespread international criticism for what President Biden described last week as indiscriminate bombing. In 10 weeks of war, Israel has struck more than 22,000 targets in the Gaza Strip, a barrage that has killed thousands of civilians, prompting the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, last month to describe Gaza as a “graveyard for children.”

Palestinians and critics of how Israel has been fighting in Gaza have called Friday’s shootings a small example of the Israeli military’s disregard for civilians in Gaza.

“Under the laws of war, people are presumed to be civilians,” said Sari Bashi, program director at Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be strong information to suggest they are not before you can kill them.”

In this case, she said, “nobody batted an eye before killing them.” She added that the investigation came only because the men were Israelis.

Akram Attaallah, a columnist for Al-Ayyam, a Palestinian newspaper in the West Bank, said that the episode was a “condemnation of the Israeli army” and showed that Israeli forces were fighting the war with little regard for civilian life.

“Israel kills even those who surrender and raise the white flag,” said Mr. Attaallah, who is from Gaza.

Israel says it seeks to limit civilian casualties and places blame for the high death totals in Gaza on Hamas, which it says puts military installations in civilian areas as well as in schools, mosques and hospitals.

The Israeli military has said that approximately 20 percent of Israeli soldiers who have died in the war have been killed by its own forces in airstrikes, shelling, gunfire and accidents, many because of mistaken identification. As of Saturday, 119 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

Yagil Levy, a civil-military relations expert at the Open University of Israel, described the 20-percent rate of so-called friendly-fire mistakes as “unprecedented” for the Israeli military.

Also killed in the war have been 135 staff members of the United Nations and 64 journalists and news media workers, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization based in New York.

Over the past week, the Israeli military has described intense urban warfare in Gaza; nine Israeli soldiers were killed on Tuesday while trying to rescue wounded troops in Shejaiya, the same neighborhood of Gaza City where the three hostages were killed on Friday.

Alongside the fighting, United Nations officials have described scenes of chaos, starvation and utter despair in Gaza among the territory’s 2.2 million people, most of whom have been forced to flee their homes.

Philippe Lazzarini, who leads the U.N. agency charged with aiding Palestinians, traveled to Gaza last week. He described the territory as a “living hell.”

James Elder, a spokesman for the United Nation’s Children’s Fund, also visited northern and southern Gaza during a weeklong cease-fire late last month. He wrote this week of chaotic hospitals inundated by the wounded and surrounded by piles of rotting garbage.

“In my 20 years with UNICEF, traveling from one humanitarian crisis to the next — from famines to floods and war zones to refugee camps — I’ve simply never seen such devastation and despair as is happening in Gaza,” he said.

Global concern also grew on Saturday about tensions spilling over from the war and disrupting crucial shipping lanes in the Red Sea, where the Houthis, an armed group that controls much of northern Yemen, have been staging drone and missile assaults.

The Egyptian state media reported that the forces had shot down a drone off the coast of Dahab, a beach town on the Gulf of Aqaba. The report did not say where the drone had come from.

The Houthi militia claimed to have launched a number of attack drones toward the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat. Nir Dinar, an Israeli military spokesman, said he could not confirm that claim.

In recent weeks, the United States has been in discussions with its allies to establish a naval task force to protect maritime traffic through the region, an initiative that became more urgent this past week after the Houthis hit a Norwegian tanker bound for Italy with a cruise missile.

Reporting was contributed by Ronen Bergman, Liam Stack, Mike Ives and Gaya Gupta.