Two soldiers killed in Gaza, bringing ground op toll to 134

IDF dog recorded escaped hostage calling for help days before mistaken slayings

Military probe finds canine entered building where Alon Shamriz, Samar Talalka and Yotam Haim were hiding, five days before they were shot in tragic error by troops

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

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)
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)

A military investigation into the accidental killing of three escaped hostages in the Gaza Strip by Israeli soldiers has found that one of the captives was recorded days earlier shouting for help during a gun battle between troops and Hamas terrorists at a site where they were being held.

The new details from the probe, released by the Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday, were the latest indication of how far hostages Alon Shamriz, Yotam Haim and Samar Talalka went to signal their identities to the IDF after they managed to escape captivity. Ultimately, they approached a group of soldiers, seeking to be rescued in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood on Friday, but the soldiers fired as they came near, killing all three.

According to the probe, on December 10, troops from the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit clashed with a group of Hamas operatives who opened fire at them from a building.

During the gun battle, a dog from the military’s Oketz canine unit was sent into the building, which the army, days later, determined was where the hostages had been held. The dog was killed by the Hamas gunmen, who were in turn killed by the Golani soldiers, enabling Shamriz, Haim and Talalka to escape, according to the investigation.

A camera mounted on the dog, which continued to record even after the animal was killed, caught the voice of a hostage, apparently Shamriz, shouting, “Help” and that there were hostages there. They were not seen in the footage.

The voice was also heard shouting at least one of the names of the hostages. Soldiers at the time may have heard Hebrew being shouted but assumed it was an attempt by terrorists to deceive them, the IDF found.

(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 apparently spending five days on the run, Shamriz, Haim and Talalka were killed on December 15.

The feed from the dog’s body camera was not being monitored live and was only discovered on December 18 after the body of the canine was recovered.

Families of the slain hostages were informed of the latest findings in the probe.

Previously, the IDF said the three approached troops shirtless, waving a white banner, and with their hands up, but the soldiers nonetheless opened fire on them.

The escaped hostages had also left a sign reading “SOS” and, in Hebrew, “3 hostages. Help,” on another building in the area, but soldiers who earlier found the messages believed it was a ruse by Hamas. The signs were written on fabric using leftover food.

Hamas kidnaped the three hostages during the terror group’s onslaught on southern Israel on October 7.

On Tuesday a television report revealed other details about the IDF’s probe into the killing of the hostages, including that troops were not informed of the signs indicating the captives may have been in the area.

The building with the signs, located a few hundred meters away from the tragic shooting of the hostages, was discovered by troops days earlier but was initially dismissed as potentially boobytrapped by Hamas, as the terror group had recently attempted to lure soldiers into traps in the area.

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

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the 17th Battalion, which was involved in the incident, was not briefed by the unit it was replacing, the Kfir Brigade, about the latter group’s spotting of the nearby sign calling for help.

Moreover, the probe reportedly determined that the IDF sharpshooter who killed Shamriz and Talalka did not recognize the white cloth they were carrying. In the briefing he received upon starting his shift, the soldier was told that the entire area was a combat zone and he was allowed to open fire at anyone suspicious.

The report said the probe was focusing on the killing of Haim, which was found to be particularly egregious since he managed to flee back into a nearby building after being shot along with Shamriz and Talalka.

The 17th Battalion commander shouted at the soldiers to hold their fire, but one of them nevertheless proceeded to shoot and kill Haim when he emerged from the building a second time.

An initial IDF probe into the incident found that the soldier who opened fire upon misidentifying the three men as terrorists did so against open-fire protocols, as did the soldier who killed Haim, according to a senior officer in the Southern Command.

Still, the IDF understood that conditions in the field were a factor in the soldiers’ actions; the senior officer said the military had not identified any Palestinian civilians in Shejaiya in recent days. The scenario itself, of hostages walking around in a battle zone, had not been taken into account by the IDF.

Immediately following the incident, the IDF sent new protocols to ground troops for the possibility of more hostages managing to flee captivity.

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)

“You see two people, they have their hands up and no shirts — take two seconds,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi told soldiers in Gaza on Sunday. Halevi said a day earlier that the soldiers who shot the three had opened fire in breach of IDF protocols.

“And I want to tell you something no less important,” Halevi continued. “What if it is two Gazans with a white flag who come out to surrender? Do we shoot at them? Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

“Even those who fought and now put down their weapons and raise their hands — we capture them, we don’t shoot them. We extract a lot of intelligence from the prisoners we have; we have over 1,000 already,” he told the soldiers.

Halevi added: “We don’t shoot them because the IDF doesn’t shoot a person who raises his hands. This is a strength, not a weakness.”

He told the soldiers that he was not speaking in order “to say whether [the soldiers who mistakenly opened fire on the captives] were right or wrong, but so that we will be right going forward.”

The IDF chief also said, “hopefully, we will have another opportunity where captives will come to us or we will reach a house, and do the right thing.”

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, left, visits troops of the Golani Brigade in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, December 14, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The war erupted when Hamas led some 3,000 terrorists in a devastating cross-border attack on October 7 that killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians. At least 240 people of all ages were kidnapped and taken as hostages.

Israel responded with a military campaign aimed at destroying Hamas, removing it from control over Gaza, and releasing the hostages.

A week-long truce saw 105 hostages released until Hamas violated the terms of the ceasefire and fighting resumed. One of those released, a dual Russian-Israeli citizen, reportedly also managed to escape his guards but was eventually recaptured after spending four days trying to reach Israel.

Families of hostages have repeatedly voiced their concerns that Israel’s military campaign, which includes intense airstrikes, is endangering the lives of those in captivity. They have urged the government to seek freedom for the hostages via a broad deal with Hamas.

On Wednesday, the IDF announced that two soldiers had been killed in Gaza, raising the number of troops who have died since the ground operation in Gaza to 134.

They were named as Master Sgt. (res.) Uriel Cohen, 33, a logistics commander in the Givati Brigade, from Tzur Hadassah and Cpt. (res.) Lior Sivan, 32, from Beit Shemesh, an officer in the Harel Brigade’s 363 Battalion.

The army also said that an infantryman in the Givati Brigade’s Rotem Battalion was seriously wounded during battles in southern Gaza and was taken to a hospital for treatment.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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