Israel says soldiers mistook hostages waving a white flag for Hamas fighters

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The Israeli army misidentified shirtless male hostages waving a white flag in Gaza and shot all three in violation of its rules of engagement, a military official said 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, the official said. An Israeli soldier thought they were Hamas fighters trying to lure Israeli soldiers into a trap, despite one of them having pale white skin and red hair.

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.

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 President Joe Biden described last week as “indiscriminate”. 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 held by Hamas are planning to protest in Tel Aviv later on Saturday 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.

Netanyahu called the killing of the three men “an unbearable tragedy”. He added: “Even on this difficult evening, we will dress our wounds, learn the necessary lessons and continue with our supreme effort to return all our hostages home safely.”

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.

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, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, met Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani on Friday night in Europe in a bid 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.

Hamas has said that 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, a person briefed on the discussions said. It is the first time Barnea has met the Qatari prime minister since December 2.

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