The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has confirmed that its troops accidentally killed 3 Israeli hostages held by Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip during an airstrike on December 15. The three men – Hisham al-Sayed, Tassana al-Sayed, and Khalil Awad – were reportedly held hostage by Hamas for several months.
Tensions between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza have been simmering for months, ever since Israel launched a major military operation called “Breaking Dawn” in August 2022. This operation was in response to the arrest of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank.
Since August, militants in Gaza have sporadically launched incendiary balloons and rockets into Israel, which has typically responded with airstrikes on militant targets. Efforts by Egypt to broker and maintain a truce have had mixed results.
Hamas is believed to be currently holding the bodies of 2 IDF soldiers killed during the 2014 Gaza war as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. Occasionally, Hamas also takes Israeli citizens hostage for potential prisoner swaps with Israel. The 3 men accidentally killed on Dec 15 were likely held by Hamas for this purpose.
Details of the accidental killings
According to Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, the IDF Chief of Staff, Israeli forces had accurate intelligence that the hideout where the airstrike occurred was being used by an Islamic Jihad rocket cell and did not know there were hostages inside. Kohavi said the troops involved were not properly updated that there might be Israelis present.
Brig. Gen. Oded Basiok, an IDF spokesperson, said the hostages were held in a multi-story building that was bombed after militants were seen entering. The IDF has admitted that the building was marked with Hebrew signs like “SOS” and “Help” that troops did not notice before bombing.
After the strike, IDF ground troops entered and were shocked to discover the bodies of the 3 Israeli hostages. The troops also found leftover food that the hostages had apparently used to create the Hebrew signs on the walls.
Outrage and protests in Israel
The accidental killing of the 3 Israeli hostages has sparked public outrage and protests against the government. Hundreds protested in Tel Aviv decrying the deaths as avoidable and calling for accountability.
Tamir Peretz, the father of one of the killed hostages – 26-year old Hisham al-Sayed – gave an emotional interview blaming the government and military leadership for his son’s death:
“You sent my son to death twice – first when you did not work for his release over the past eight years. Now again when you did not properly update the forces. I blame the leadership,” Peretz said.
The killings have put significant pressure on the new far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as it continues an intense bombing campaign in Gaza while supposedly trying to broker a long-term truce.
Critics have accused Netanyahu of escalating tensions with Gaza militants since returning to office last month and question whether he has a coherent strategy beyond bombing.
Impact on ceasefire negotiations
The accidental deaths have renewed international calls for both sides to agree to an immediate ceasefire and resumption of Egyptian-brokered talks for more permanent truce.
So far, Netanyahu has vowed to continue the airstrike campaign in Gaza dubbed “Operation Breaking Dawn” until there is “total quiet.” Israeli officials have said over 900 targets linked to militants have been struck in Gaza since August.
However, behind the scenes Israel and Hamas do appear to be exploring a potential revival of a swap deal where Hamas would release Israeli captives in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and potentially an easing of the Gaza blockade.
With the war increasingly unpopular domestically, Netanyahu may now face more pressure to moderate Israel’s position at the negotiating table after this tragic incident with the hostages.
|Israel launches Operation Breaking Dawn after arrest of Islamic Jihad commander
|December 15, 2022
|IDF accidentally kills 3 Israeli hostages in Gaza airstrike
|Mass protests erupt in Tel Aviv over hostage deaths
|Netanyahu faces growing calls for immediate ceasefire
|Exploratory talks over prisoner/hostage swap deal
What happens next?
In the coming days, the IDF will complete its formal investigation into the factors that led troops on the ground to accidentally kill the 3 hostages. The key questions will be why militants were entering the building apparently marked with Hebrew and why that information did not reach frontline troops.
There will likely be an intense debate in Israel over whether the rules of military engagement in Gaza need to change to improve efforts to identify and avoid civilian casualties. Critics will demand increased accountability up the chain of command.
Diplomatically, with protests mounting, Netanyahu will face heavy pressure domestically and from allies like the US to wrap up military operations in Gaza. The tragic deaths of the 3 hostages may, despite Netanyahu’s current defiant tone, act as a catalyst toward resuscitating ceasefire talks.
Much will depend on the stance of Hamas itself and whether the shock over the hostages deaths makes the militant group more amenable to negotiating a mutually face-saving deal with Israel. For now, the alarm caused by this tragic incident has returned focus to securing the return alive of Israelis held in the Gaza Strip.
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