It was, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succinctly said, “an unbearable tragedy.”
On the morning of December 15, three male Israeli hostages held by Hamas since the October 7 massacre — Yotam Haim and Alon Shamriz of kibbutz Kfar Aza and Samar Fouad Talalka of kibbutz Nir Am — were mistakenly killed in a friendly fire incident in Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold in northern Gaza classified as a war zone by Israel.
Much to its credit, the Israel Defence Forces took full responsibility for the terrible mishap. The IDF did not attempt to make excuses or cover it up.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this disheartening event.
First, incidents along these lines are virtually inevitable during the fog of war. There is not a single army in the world that has not encountered this problem during the heat of warfare. It is a price a nation must sometime pay in the pursuit of victory.
Second, Israel must neither be distracted by this heart-rending accident nor should it lose sight of its overarching mission in Gaza. In plain language, Israel should press on with its land, air and sea offensive regardless of international criticism and demands for an immediate ceasefire, which would allow Hamas to regroup, rearm and get away with mass murder.
Above all else, Hamas must be eradicated as a military and political force once and for all. Israel cannot rest until it achieves this important strategic goal. As well, the remaining hostages must be rescued.
As IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari noted, this unfortunate incident took place in “a battle zone where troops encountered many terrorists in recent days, and today, fought hard battles. In some cases, suicide bombers were encountered, and also attacks in which terrorists tried to lure our forces … into an ambush.”
Since its invasion on October 27, Israel has pummelled Shejaiya, a suburb of Gaza City which was heavily fortified by Hamas in anticipation of an Israeli attack. Last week, this neighborhood was the scene of a battle during which nine soldiers, including two senior officers, were killed during an ambush.
As is often the case, Hamas foot soldiers sent into battle are dressed in civilian clothes, in accordance with Hamas’ tactic of melting in with Palestinian civilians. In light of this, Israeli forces operating in Shejaiya on December 15 were on high alert.
When the three ill-fated hostages suddenly emerged, shirtless, from a building close to Israeli soldiers, they held aloft a stick bearing a white cloth, the IDF noted in a preliminary investigation. No one yet knows with any certainty why the hostages appeared. They may have managed to escape, or have been abandoned by their captors.
Thinking they posed a clear and present threat, one of the soldiers opened fire, killing two hostages and wounding the third. The injured hostage fled into the building and let out a cry in Hebrew for help. Startled by his plea, the battalion commander ordered the soldiers to cease fire. But when the wounded hostage reemerged, he was tragically shot and killed.
An Israeli military official described the incident as a violation of the IDF’s rules of engagement. Hagari disclosed that new protocols for identifying hostages have been conveyed to commanders and soldiers in the expectation that a similar incident will not reoccur.
Be that as it may, Israel has an existential obligation to carry on with its offensive. This should be Israel’s priority.
“Our responsibility is to win this war, and part of that victory will be bringing home the hostages home,” said Benny Gantz, a member of the war cabinet and the former minister of defence.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had a similar message. “This is a painful incident for every Israeli,” he said. “But we must remain resilient and continue operating — for the hostages, for our citizens and for our soldiers.”
This is precisely what Israel’s approach should be as the war drags on. Israel is duty bound to demolish Hamas and, if possible, to rescue the hostages.