Israel strikes Gaza as pressure grows to free more hostages

3 hostages mistakenly killed by Israeli troops had been holding a white flag, military official says

JERUSALEM: Three Israeli hostages who were mistakenly shot by Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip had been waving a white flag and were shirtless when they were killed, a military official said Saturday, in Israel’s first such acknowledgement of harming any hostages in its war against Hamas.
Anger over the mistaken killings is likely to increase pressure on the Israeli government to renew Qatar-mediated negotiations with Hamas over swapping more of the remaining captives, believed to number more than 130, for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Hamas has conditioned further releases on Israel halting its punishing air and ground campaign in Gaza, while Israeli leaders have said the hostages’ release can only be achieved through military pressure.
The account of how the hostages died raised questions about the conduct of Israeli ground troops. Palestinians on several occasions have reported that Israeli soldiers opened fire as civilians tried to flee to safety. Hamas has claimed other hostages were previously killed by Israeli fire or airstrikes, without presenting evidence.
The Israeli military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to brief reporters in line with military regulations, said it was likely that the hostages had been abandoned by their captors or had escaped. The soldiers’ behavior was “against our rules of engagement,” the official said, and was being investigated at the highest level.
The hostages, all in their 20s, were killed Friday in the Gaza City area of Shijaiyah, where troops are engaged in fierce fighting with Hamas militants. They had been among more than 240 people taken hostage during an unprecedented raid by Hamas into Israel on Oct. 7 in which around 1,200 people were killed, mostly civilians. The attack sparked the war.
The hostages’ plight has dominated public discourse in Israel, and their families have led a powerful campaign urging the government to do more to bring them home.
Speaking at a Saturday night rally in Tel Aviv, Rubi Chen, father of 19-year-old hostage Itay Chen, criticized the government for believing hostages could be retrieved through continuous military pressure on Hamas. “Put the the best offer on the table to get the hostages home alive,” he said. “We don’t want them back in bags. We have no time,” he said, holding up an hourglass.
The Israeli military official said the three hostages had emerged from a building close to Israeli soldiers’ positions. They were waving a white flag and were shirtless, possibly trying to signal they posed no threat.
Two were killed immediately, and the third ran back into the building screaming for help in Hebrew. The commander issued an order to cease fire, but another burst of gunfire killed the third man, the official said.
Israeli media gave a more detailed account. The mass circulation daily Yediot Ahronot said that according to an investigation into the incident, a sniper identified the hostages as suspects when they emerged, despite them not being armed, and shot two of the three.
Soldiers followed the third when he ran into the building and hid, shouting at him to come out, and at least one soldier shot him when he emerged from a staircase, Yediot Ahronot said.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz gave a similar account based on a preliminary investigation, saying the soldiers who followed the third hostage believed he was a Hamas member trying to pull them into a trap.
Local media also reported that soldiers had seen a nearby building marked with “SOS” and “Help! Three hostages” two days earlier but feared it might be a trap.
Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political analyst, said it is unlikely that the mistaken killings will massively alter public support for the war. Most Israelis still have a strong sense of why it is being fought and believe Hamas needs to be defeated, she said.
“They feel like there’s no other choice,” she said.
The killings emphasized the dangers faced by hostages held in areas of house-to-house combat like Shijaiyah, where nine soldiers were killed this week in an ambush on one of the deadliest days for ground forces in the war. The military has said Hamas has booby-trapped buildings and ambushed troops after emerging from a tunnel network it built under Gaza City.
Hamas released over 100 hostages for Palestinian prisoners during a brief cease-fire in November. Nearly all freed on both sides were women and minors. Talks on further swaps broke down, with Hamas seeking the release of more veteran prisoners for female soldiers it holds.
Hamas said it will only free the remaining hostages if Israel ends the war and releases all Palestinian prisoners. As of late November, Israel held nearly 7,000 Palestinians accused or convicted of security offenses, including hundreds rounded up since the start of the war.
The offensive has killed more than 18,700 Palestinians, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Thursday. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths. Its count did not specify how many were women and minors, but they have consistently made up around two-thirds of the dead.
It was the ministry’s last update before a communications blackout that continued to hamper telephone and Internet services in the Gaza Strip. “Now 48 hours and counting. The incident is likely to limit reporting and visibility to events on the ground,” Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, a group tracking Internet outages, told The Associated Press.
Dozens of mourners held funeral prayers Saturday for Samer Abu Daqqa, a Palestinian journalist working for the Al Jazeera network who was killed Friday in an Israeli strike in the southern city of Khan Younis. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the cameraman was the 64th journalist to be killed since the conflict erupted: 57 Palestinians, four Israelis and three Lebanese.
The war has flattened much of northern Gaza and driven 85 percent of the territory’s population of 2.3 million from their homes. Displaced people have squeezed into shelters mainly in the south in a growing humanitarian crisis. Only a trickle of aid has been able to enter Gaza and distribution is disrupted by fighting.
Residents in northern Gaza, meanwhile, reported heavy bombing and the sounds of gunbattles in devastated Gaza City and the nearby urban refugee camp of Jabaliya.
“It was a violent bombardment,” Assad Abu Taha said by phone from Shijaiyah. Another resident, Hamza Abu Seada, reported heavy airstrikes in Jabaliya, with non-stop sounds of explosions and gunfire.
An Associated Press journalist in southern Gaza reported airstrikes and tank shelling overnight in Khan Younis and Rafah.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has expressed unease over Israel’s failure to reduce civilian casualties and its plans for Gaza’s future, but the White House continues to offer support with weapons shipments and diplomatic backing.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is expected to visit Israel soon to continue discussions on a timetable for winding down the intense combat phase of the war.
The US has pushed Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, and the government said it would open a second entry point to speed up deliveries.

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