‘We failed in our mission,’ IDF chief acknowledges

Battalion chief told hostage to approach; when he did, a soldier shot him, probe finds

Full investigation into IDF’s mistaken killing of 3 hostages in Gaza finds troops had ‘insufficient awareness’ they could encounter captives, deaths ‘could have been prevented’

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

This infographic published by the IDF on December 28, 2023, details the locations of an incident in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighborhood where three hostages were killed by troops (Israel Defense Forces)
This infographic published by the IDF on December 28, 2023, details the locations of an incident in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighborhood where three hostages were killed by troops (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday published its final findings of a probe into the mistaken killing of three Israeli hostages by troops in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood earlier this month, saying forces on the ground did not have “sufficient awareness” of the possibility that troops would encounter Hamas-held captives while not engaged in a special operation to rescue them, despite the army having intelligence of possible hostages in the area.

The soldiers involved in the incident were not expected to be dismissed or to stand trial due to their actions.

The three hostages killed by troops were Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz.

The probe, conducted by the head of Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, found that on December 15 during “intense fighting” in Shejaiya, a soldier of the Bislamach Brigade’s 17th Battalion opened fire at three figures he had wrongly identified as a threat, killing two, while the third fled to a nearby building.

Commanders at the scene called on the soldiers to cease their fire in order for the third figure to be identified. Some 15 minutes later, the battalion commander heard someone shouting from the building “Help” and “They are shooting at me” in Hebrew, and again ordered troops to halt their fire, while shouting back at the figure: “Come my way.”

The third man — later confirmed to be Haim — came out of the building toward the troops, but two soldiers who, according to the probe, had not heard the commander’s order due to noise from a nearby tank, shot and killed the hostage.

The IDF said that based on its analysis and aerial footage, the three hostages were shirtless and one was waving a makeshift white flag as they initially approached the forces. The probe says the position from which the first soldier opened fire at the hostages gave him limited vision of the trio.

(From L-R) Hostages Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz, who were killed mistakenly by IDF troops in Gaza on December 15, 2023. (Courtesy)

After the gunfire, commanders at the scene sent the men’s bodies to Israel for identification.

Before the incident, on December 10, the IDF said troops found a note next to a tunnel shaft in Shejaiya, reading “Help” in Hebrew. It said that next to the note was an ID card belonging to a Hamas operative. The note was taken for examination, but the probe said there was no information linking it to the presence of hostages in the Shejaiya area, and troops assessed it was an attempt by Hamas to lure them into an ambush.

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari in a press conference Thursday said the three hostages had been held in that tunnel.

“We estimate that due to our ground operation in Shejaiya, the terrorists holding the hostages came out from underground and moved to a hideout building,” Hagari said.

Also on December 10, troops of the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit operating in Shejaiya raided several buildings to locate Hamas gunmen and weapons. In one building that the troops breached, a dog of the Oketz canine unit was sent in, after which a gun battle broke out between Hamas operatives and Golani soldiers.

The Golani troops returned fire, killing at least one Hamas gunman. The Oketz dog was also killed in the battle.

Amid the fighting, Golani commanders heard shouting of “Help” and “Hostages” in Hebrew from the building, but the troops believed it was an attempt by Hamas to lure them into an ambush.

Combat engineers with the Golani force also suspected the building was booby-trapped, and the troops did not enter further into the building.

“Some of the forces heard the cries but suspected it was an attempt by the terrorists to draw the forces inside the building to harm them, as had happened in the past,” the probe said.

Troops and dogs of the Oketz canine unit are seen in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published November 26, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said the forces left the building and directed an attack helicopter and tanks to strike the building. In the strikes, at least five Hamas operatives were believed to have been killed.

Only on December 18, when troops scanned the building where the gun battle had taken place and recovered the camera on the Oketz dog, did the military find that it had recorded the three hostages’ cries for help. The three were not seen in the video, only heard.

“At the end of the battle, after the terrorists holding the hostages were killed, the hostages likely fled the building,” the probe said.

On December 14, a day before the deadly shooting, signs written in Hebrew reading “SOS” and “Help, 3 hostages” were identified in drone footage on the side of a building around 200 meters from where the incident with the canine took place. “Near the building, blue barrels were spotted commonly found in rigged locations forces had encountered in the Shejaiya area, thus it was suspected as a trap,” the probe said.

This photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on December 17, 2023, shows signs reading ‘SOS’ and ‘Help, 3 hostages,’ that were put up in Gaza by three Israeli hostages who were later mistakenly killed by IDF troops. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said the investigation revealed that commanders involved had information about the presence of Israeli hostages in the Shejaiya area, “and even took actions to prevent strikes on locations suspected of having hostages inside.”

As part of the assessments on the issue, special forces were prepared in every combat zone, immediately available for intervention in case a force identified a building with hostages inside, it said.

But “in this case, there was no intelligence about either building where the hostages were.”

The probe added that “there was insufficient awareness among the forces in the field regarding cases of hostages reaching IDF forces, or regarding forces encountering hostages during the clearing of buildings as part of combat and not as part of a special operation to free hostages.

“IDF soldiers involved in the incident had experienced complex combat situations in the days preceding the incident and were in a state of high alert for a threat. During the battles, they encountered deceptions by the enemy and attempts to draw them into shafts and buildings rigged with explosives,” the probe concluded.

This infographic published by the IDF on December 28, 2023, details the locations of an incident in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood where three hostages were killed by troops (Israel Defense Forces)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi in a statement said the shooting of Haim, Talaka and Shamriz was a “grave event with very grave outcomes.”

“The IDF failed in its mission to rescue the hostages in this event,” he said.

“The entire chain of command feels responsible for this grave event, regrets this outcome, and shares in the grief of the families of the three hostages,” Halevi said in his conclusion of the probe.

Halevi said the shooting of the hostages “could have been prevented” but that “there was no malice in the event,” and that the soldiers believed they were acting correctly in the moment.

“The shooting at the hostages should not have occurred. This shooting did not match up to the risk and the situation. However, it was carried out under complex circumstances, and in intense combat conditions under a prolonged threat,” he said.

This infographic published by the IDF on December 28, 2023, details the locations of an incident in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood where three hostages were killed by troops (Israel Defense Forces)

The chief of staff also emphasized “the utmost importance of adhering to open-fire regulations.”

“In a situation where there is no immediate threat and the identification is not a clear enemy, there is a need for a moment of examination before firing, given the opportunity. This action is necessary to prevent, among other things, incidents of our forces firing at our forces. In this case, the three hostages were not moving threateningly and held up a white flag; therefore, it was appropriate to confirm the identification before firing. The pressure conditions and operational environment made it difficult for the soldiers to implement these aspects,” Halevi said.

“We, the commanders, must ensure that the operational instructions are clear, and that forces’ actions in the field take into account use of soldiers’ and commanders’ discretion. The open-fire regulations are necessary, and they are also intended to protect us, so that we do not kill our own forces. They determine and impact fateful decisions, as happened in this event,” he added.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)

Halevi also instructed all commanders to review the probe and raise awareness for hostages among forces, including possible locations, their photographs and other various findings about them.

Responding to a question, Hagari said Thursday it was not possible to judge “what was going through the soldiers’ heads when they carried out the shooting.”

“The fighting includes very difficult and complex moments. After days of encountering explosives, seeing friends die, getting shot at with RPGs, and encountering gunmen in civilian clothing without weapons trying to lure you to bombs in the streets — in this situation, a soldier had limited vision and made an error,” he said.

“He opened fire in error, this needs to be said. But still, he saw, and reported truthfully after the gunfire that one of them was holding a white flag, he spoke the truth,” Hagari said.

“This is an operational investigation to draw lessons, nothing further,” he added.

IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari gives a statement to the media in Tel Aviv on October 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The probe was also shared with the families of Haim, Talaka and Shamriz, the IDF said.

Hostage Yotam Haim, 28, was a drummer for the heavy metal band Persephore. He was last seen in a video he took on the morning of October 7, showing himself in the front door of his Kfar Aza home, before he was abducted to Gaza.

Samar Talalka, 22, from Hura, was working in the Kibbutz Nir Am hatchery, where he often did the weekend shifts, when Hamas terrorists stormed the kibbutz.

Alon Lulu Shamriz, 26, a computer engineering student, was abducted from his Kibbutz Kfar Aza home on October 7.

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