Friendly-fire killings of hostages may force Israel to reconsider Gaza strategy.
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Gaza City Dec. 17, 4:01 p.m.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III will visit Israel and two Persian Gulf nations this week, as Biden administration officials push Israel to end its large-scale ground and air campaign in the Gaza Strip within weeks and transition to a more focused phase in its war against Hamas.
Mr. Austin will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant to discuss in detail when and how Israeli forces will carry out a new phase that American officials envision would involve smaller groups of elite forces that would move in and out of population centers in Gaza, conducting more precise, intelligence-driven missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels, U.S. officials said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Sunday to keep fighting in Gaza, even as anguish over the Israeli military’s accidental killings of three hostages in the enclave raised new questions about how his government is prosecuting the war.
Mr. Netanyahu began a government meeting in Tel Aviv on Sunday by reading from a letter that he said came from families of Israeli soldiers killed fighting in Gaza.
As Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III travels to the Middle East on Sunday to press Israel to scale back its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza, two of Israel’s most important allies are urging the same — while advocating for a “sustainable” cease-fire.
In a published in The Sunday Times of London, the foreign secretaries of Britain and Germany displayed an important change in tone from their previous, all-out support for Israel. That echoes an apparent tonal shift from Washington, which has said Israel to civilians in Gaza.
The fatal shooting by Israeli soldiers in Gaza of three unarmed men who turned out to be Israeli hostages could give momentum to those pushing for a new cease-fire to allow for more hostages to be released.
Critics of how Israel is prosecuting its war in Gaza also seized on the event, in which Israeli soldiers fatally shot three shirtless men who were waving a white flag, as an example of its military’s failure to live up to its promises to protect civilians.
The incident has caused anguish in Israel and added new urgency to arguments over how the country should pursue its goals in Gaza.
The Israeli government has vowed not to stop its operations in Gaza until the military has destroyed Hamas, which led a surprise assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7 that killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis and took about 240 others to Gaza as captives, according to Israeli officials.
A week of cease-fires between Israel and Hamas last month saw 105 Israeli hostages freed in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians from Israeli jails before negotiations broke down and the war resumed on Dec. 1.
About 120 Israeli soldiers and civilians remain captive in Gaza, and their relatives have been holding protests and lobbying the government to push for another cease-fire so that their loved ones can return home.
Ruby Chen, an Israeli American citizen whose son, Itay, is believed to be held hostage in Gaza, said that he supported freeing Palestinian prisoners charged with murdering Israelis if it meant the release of his son.
The families of hostages were trapped in a game of “Russian roulette,” Mr. Chen said in a statement given by a hostage family advocacy group on Saturday. “We have no time to lose — should we wait for another 10 hostages in coffins?”
Palestinians and critics of how Israel has been fighting in Gaza have called the killings, which likely only became public because the three men were Israeli, a small example of the Israeli military’s disregard for civilians in Gaza.
“Under the laws of war, people are presumed to be civilians,” said Sari Bashi, the program director at Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be strong information to suggest they are not before you can kill them.”
Those rules do not appear to have been followed in this case, she said, given that the men were shirtless and waving a white flag.
“Nobody batted an eye before killing them,” she said, noting that the investigation came only after the soldiers thought the men could be Israelis.
“The Israeli military is right to investigate the apparently unlawful attacks on these three men,” Ms. Bashi said. “But it should investigate when Palestinian civilians are the victims too.”
Since Israel responded to the Hamas-led attack with a vast military campaign in Gaza, nearly 20,000 Palestinians have been killed, about 70 percent of whom were women and children, health authorities in Gaza say.
The Israeli military said that it went to great lengths to avoid harming Gaza’s civilians and accused Hamas of endangering them by embedding its fighters within the population. It also said the shooting of the three men on Friday violated the army’s rules of engagement.
Akram Attaallah, a columnist for Al-Ayyam, a Palestinian newspaper in the West Bank, said that he was not surprised Israeli forces had shot the three men and that Israel would not have had to disclose what happened to them had they been unarmed Palestinians.
“Israel kills even those who surrender and raise the white flag,” said Mr. Attaallah, who is from Gaza. “The narrative is a condemnation of the Israeli army.”
Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.
— Ben Hubbard Reporting from Istanbul
Gaza has been plunged into a near communication blackout for two days — at least the fifth such mass outage of phone and internet lines during the 10-week war — leaving more than two million Palestinians virtually cut off from the outside world and one another as Israel’s offensive continues.
This is the longest such outage so far in the war. Previous blackouts have been caused either by Israeli attacks on telecommunication towers, Israeli control of the enclave’s communication lines or a shortage of fuel, according to Gazan authorities and communication companies."