IDF didn't consider hostages could be walking around warzone

Initial IDF probe: 3 hostages were shirtless, waving white flag when troops shot them

One of the 3 killed in tragic mistake shouted ‘Help’ in Hebrew; IDF says soldiers fired against protocols; on Wed., troops found ‘SOS’ and ‘Help, 3 hostages’ spray-painted nearby

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

An IDF APC is seen in northern Gaza's Shejaiya, December 15, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
An IDF APC is seen in northern Gaza's Shejaiya, December 15, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Three hostages shot dead by Israeli troops in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood Friday were shirtless, and one of them was carrying a stick with a makeshift white flag, the IDF said Saturday after an initial probe into the tragic incident.

Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz managed to escape Hamas captivity before they were mistakenly shot dead by troops on Friday morning at around 10 a.m.

According to a senior officer in the Southern Command, citing an initial probe, the incident began after a soldier from Bislamach Brigade’s 17th Battalion stationed in a building identified three suspicious figures exiting a building several dozen meters away.

All three were shirtless, with one of the figures carrying a stick with a makeshift white flag, according to the investigation.

The soldier, who believed the men moving toward him was an attempt by Hamas to lure IDF soldiers into a trap, immediately opened fire and shouted “terrorists!” to the other forces.

According to the probe, that soldier killed two of the men, while the third man, who was hit and wounded, fled back into the building from which he came.

(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)

At that stage, the commander of the battalion, who was also in the multi-story building where the soldier had fired from, went outside and called on the forces to stop shooting.

Meanwhile, sounds of someone — apparently the third hostage — shouting “Help” in Hebrew were heard by troops in the area.

Moments later, the third man came out of the building to which he had fled, and another soldier opened fire at him, killing him.

The battalion commander then realized that the appearance of the third man was unusual, and he was revealed to be an Israeli hostage. The three bodies were taken to Israel for identification.

The soldier who opened fire upon identifying the three men did so against protocols, as did the soldier who killed the third man, according to the officer.

Still, the IDF understood that conditions in the field were a factor in the soldiers acting in that way; the senior officer said the military has not identified any Palestinian civilians in Shejaiya in recent days.

The scenario itself, of hostages walking around in a battle zone, was not 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.

“There is a possibility that hostages were abandoned or escaped, and forces should be aware of the possibility of such an encounter and pay attention to tell-tale signs, such as speaking in Hebrew, raising hands, and clothing,” the new protocols read.

Shejaiya in northern Gaza has long been seen as a key Hamas stronghold, home to some of its most elite forces and heaviest fortifications. The area where the hostages were killed was close to the scene of a deadly battle on Wednesday where nine soldiers, including two senior commanders, were killed.

The military believes Hamas’s Shejaiya battalion’s command and control is largely disrupted, and the terror group is operating in the area in a less organized manner, with smaller squads.

A blast is seen in northern Gaza’s Shejaiya, December 15, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The officer said Saturday that troops have killed at least 38 Palestinian gunmen in Shejaiya in recent days.

The military said that the only people seen wearing civilian clothing there have been Hamas operatives, often unarmed.

The operatives collect weapons left behind in various buildings, open fire at troops, and then flee again unarmed to another building.

The IDF has also encountered several seemingly unarmed civilians in Shejaiya who turned out to be Hamas suicide bombers.

There have also been several attempts by Hamas men in the area to lure soldiers into an ambush.

Damaged buildings in northern Gaza’s Shejaiya, December 15, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

On Wednesday, in what was initially thought to be unrelated to the deadly mistaken shooting, the senior officer said that several hundred meters away troops found a building with spray paint on the wall reading “SOS” in English and another sign reading “Help, three hostages” in Hebrew.

The soldiers at the time believed the building was booby-trapped, but now the military is investigating a possible connection to Friday’s incident.

The initial probe was completed by the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, and was also presented to the families of Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz, who were killed by the troops.

The military said that the soldiers who had mistakenly killed the hostages were receiving psychological care.

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.

In the wake of the incident, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held a meeting Saturday with military and intelligence chiefs “focused on efforts to return the hostages held in Gaza.”

Gallant met with Halevi, Mossad director David Barnea and Shin Bet chief Tomer Bar, along with other senior officers and officials.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, Mossad director David Barnea and Shin Bet chief Tomer Bar, December 16, 2023. (Defense Ministry)

Anger among hostages’ families has mounted in recent days following reports that the government has been holding off on initiating a hostage deal proposal with Hamas, believing that only continued IDF operations in Gaza will bring the terror group back to the table with an offer Israel could accept.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly barred Barnea from traveling to Qatar for that reason earlier this week.

However, the Walla news site reported that Netanyahu has since changed his mind and agreed to dispatch Barnea to meet Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Europe this weekend to discuss resuming negotiations toward another hostage deal.

Families of the hostages met Saturday to discuss stepping up protests against the government in a bid to increase pressure for renewed talks that could lead to a further release of captives.

The forum representing the families said they would make an announcement late Saturday afternoon.

“We are playing Russian roulette,” Ruby Chen, whose son Itay is being held hostage, told reporters in Tel Aviv outside the Defense Ministry.

“We can’t go on like this any longer. Each day we don’t know when we will be the one to get a knock on the door,” he said.

Families and supporters of hostages held by terrorists since the October 7 assault hold a demonstration outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on December 15, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Raz Matalon, whose two relatives Yossi and Eli Sahrabi are hostages, called on the government to present fresh proposals for a deal with Hamas.

“They have to put forward an Israeli proposal. I’m looking leaders in the eyes, this is on you, stop it. Give us a proposal now.”

IDF forces have been battling Hamas in the Gaza Strip since late October. War erupted after the terror group’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages, mostly civilians.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas, and launched a wide-scale offensive in Gaza. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has claimed that more than 18,700 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war. However, the number cannot be independently verified and is believed to include some 7,000 Hamas and Hamas-affiliated terror operatives as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.

It is believed that 129 hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive. Four hostages were released prior to the first truce, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 20 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

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