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Times Of Israel
Times Of Israel
16 Dec 2023

NextImg:‘And suddenly darkness’: IDF’s tragic killing of 3 hostages a new, heartbreaking blow

The Israel Defense Forces knew how dangerous and complex the war against Hamas would be on the terrorist army’s home ground in Gaza. And knew nonetheless that it was a war that had to be fought after October 7 — a war that has yet to be won — to make sure that Hamas can never again slaughter Israelis in our own country.

What Friday showed is that the IDF did not recognize every possible dimension of the danger and complexity.

It had been fighting for 10 weeks, and troops had been on the ground for seven of them. Every second of every minute of every hour, day after day and week after week, their lives were and are at risk.

Some 7,000 Hamas gunmen had been eliminated, but some 120 soldiers had lost their lives in the ground operation — standing army and reservists. They had been killed by close-range missile fire, killed in booby-trapped buildings and by blasts from booby-trapped tunnel shafts, killed in friendly fire incidents and accidents, and killed by gunmen emerging from nowhere — men in civilian clothing suddenly producing deadly weapons.

But, according to the senior IDF officer who on Saturday briefed reporters about the terrible, mistaken shooting by IDF soldiers of three Israeli hostages in northern Gaza on Friday morning, the valiant troops for whom death lurks in every building, at every corner, beneath every footfall, had not been warned to take into account the possibility of encountering escaped hostages in the middle of the war zone.

At this stage, only initial findings have been made public regarding the heartbreaking sequence of events that saw soldiers shoot and kill Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Shamriz in the Hamas stronghold of Sajaiya on Friday morning.

The initial probe is said to have found that the soldiers who fired did so in breach of IDF protocols; that the three hostages who had escaped or had been abandoned by their captors were shirtless and waving an improvised white flag but were misidentified as terrorists; that after two had been killed and the third fled, apparently injured, this third hostage was heard crying “Help” in Hebrew before he reemerged, but was still then fatally shot. And that two days earlier, the messages “SOS” and, in Hebrew, “Help, 3 hostages,” had been spotted spray-painted on a building nearby.

(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)

Imagine the national rejoicing had the three been safely embraced by the IDF.

Unsurprisingly, families of the estimated 128 hostages still in Gaza are beyond despair.

Many of them have already been critical of what they perceive as the government’s failure to honor its pledge to make every effort to bring the hostages home, to prioritize their fate, including via any and every possible deal with their terrorist captors.

Fearful for over 70 days that some of their loved ones were dead, that others were close to death, fearful of what their captors might have done or are doing to them, fearful that their captors might kill them or that the IDF campaign against Hamas might inadvertently kill them, fearful of any and every possibility in every waking moment, they now carry the added fear that even an improbable escape from captivity might lead to their deaths in such hitherto unthinkable circumstances as occurred on Friday morning.

In the hours that have passed since the bitter news was delivered, relative after relative has wailed that they don’t want their loved one coming back dead; they want them home, alive, now. At a rally in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on Saturday evening, relative after relative pleaded for “initiative” from the government.

Raz Ben-Ami, a mother of three from Kibbutz Be’eri who was freed after 54 days and whose husband Ohad is still held captive in Gaza, said the families “all warned the war cabinet” at a meeting two weeks ago, that “the war risked harming the hostages.”

“Put down a proposal and get the world behind it,” she implored. “You promised that you’d bring the hostages back alive. What are you waiting for? Bring them home now.”

Raz Ben-Ami, a released hostage whose husband is still captive in Gaza, other families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza hold a press conference at “Hostages Square,” outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, December 16, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The IDF, and its astoundingly courageous troops, have started to regain a degree of public faith since October 7, when the army failed to stop 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists massacring 1,200 people with monstrous, exultant brutality.

Amid the heartbreak this weekend, there is respect for IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari’s straight and empathetic delivery of the tragic news to the nation on Friday night, after the families had been updated, and his declaration that the IDF bears “full responsibility.”

IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari announces that, in a tragic mistake, IDF troops in northern Gaza shot dead three hostages who were trying to escape their terrorist captors, December 15, 2023. (Screenshot)

There is, inevitably, also disquiet regarding the emerging details of the hostages’ deaths.

Yet speakers at Saturday night’s rally by the hostage families stressed, on behalf of all the families, that far from blaming the IDF, its commanders, and the soldiers involved, they love and support them. “We want you to know that we are behind you,” said Naom Peri, whose father Chaim, 79, was abducted from Kibbutz Nir Oz. “We want you to hold your heads high. The entire State of Israel and we are all with you.”

Israel’s political leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by contrast, was unpopular before the war, broadly distrusted in the wake of the October 7 catastrophe, and has not regained significant public faith — including because of Netanyahu’s refusal to take personal responsibility for the failure to prevent the Hamas invasion, and because of his government abiding dysfunction. This crisis of faith will be further strained and tested now.

This is a hard, bloody war, necessitated by the unprecedented slaughter on October 7, complicated by Hamas’s amoral warfare amid the population it supposedly governs, and being fought without the backing a better world would have provided Israel.

Friday’s tragedy will deepen some of the fissures within Israel — the nationwide imperative to have all of the hostages home, alive, now, complicated by Hamas’s predictable cynicism and intransigence in leveraging their releases. Hamas has been demanding terms since the last truce collapsed at the end of November that, Netanyahu has indicated, Israel cannot accept — terms that go beyond an “all-for-all” exchange involving the freeing of all Palestinian security prisoners. Hamas’s conditions include an end to the war — that is, the opportunity to survive and come back to carry out more massacres until Israel is destroyed.

Much of the public shares the political and military leadership’s conviction that the relentless military pressure applied by the IDF in Gaza is not just the only means of defeating Hamas but also the best means of securing the release of more hostages as the terrorist leadership sees its options narrowing. And Friday’s disaster is not about to change Israel’s overall approach to this war of no choice. Hamas must be dismantled.

But the argument that “military operations alone will not bring the hostages home,” advanced Saturday night by Raz Ben-Ami, resonates too.

“There was light at the end of the tunnel,” Ido Shamriz, brother of Alon, tweeted on Saturday afternoon. “And suddenly, darkness.”