WorldIsrael at War


Israel faces new truce calls over concerns of its wartime conduct

Gaza remained under a communications blackout for a fourth straight day on Sunday, the longest of the war.
Posted at 8:16 AM, Dec 17, 2023

Israel's government faced local protests and calls for a cease-fire from some of its closest European allies on Sunday after a series of shootings, including of three hostages who were waving a white flag, added to mounting concerns about its conduct in the 10-week-old war in Gaza.

The protesters are calling on the government to renew hostage negotiations with Gaza's Hamas rulers, whom it has vowed to destroy. Israel could also face pressure to scale back major combat operations when U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visits this week, as Washington has expressed growing unease with civilian casualties even while providing vital military and diplomatic support.

The air and ground war has flattened large parts of northern Gaza, killed thousands of civilians and driven most of the population to the southern part of the besieged territory, where many are packed into crowded shelters and tent camps. Some 1.9 million Palestinians — nearly 85% of Gaza's population — have fled their homes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel "will continue to fight until the end," with the goal of eliminating Hamas, which triggered the war with its Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel. Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people that day, mostly civilians, and captured scores of hostages. Netanyahu vowed to bring back the estimated 129 hostages still in captivity.

Gaza meanwhile remained under a communications blackout for a fourth straight day — the longest of several outages over the course of the war, which aid groups say complicate rescue efforts after bombings and make it even more difficult to monitor the war's toll on civilians.

Shootings Draw Scrutiny

Military officials said Saturday that the three hostages who were mistakenly shot by Israeli troops had tried to signal that they posed no harm. It was Israel's first such acknowledgment of harming hostages in a war that it says is largely aimed at rescuing them.

The three hostages, all in their 20s, were killed Friday in the Gaza City area of Shijaiyah, where troops are engaged in fierce fighting with Hamas. An Israeli military official said the shootings were against the army's rules of engagement and were being investigated at the highest level.

Israel says it makes every effort to avoid harming civilians and accuses Hamas of using them as human shields. But Palestinians and rights groups have repeatedly accused Israeli forces of recklessly endangering civilians and firing on those who do not threaten them, both in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, which has seen a surge of violence since the start of the war.

At least five Palestinians were killed during an Israeli raid in a built-up refugee camp in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, the Palestinian Health Ministry said Sunday.

Last week, Israel said it was opening a military police investigation after an Israeli rights group posted videos that appeared to show troops killing two men — one who was incapacitated and the second unarmed — during a West Bank raid.

In Gaza, Palestinians on several occasions have said Israeli soldiers opened fire at fleeing civilians. Hamas has claimed other hostages were killed by Israeli fire or airstrikes, without presenting evidence.

The offensive has killed more than 18,700 Palestinians, the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory said Thursday. It has not been able to update the toll since then because of the communications blackout, and has said for weeks that thousands more casualties are buried under the rubble.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths, but throughout the war has said that most of those killed were women and children.

The military says 121 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza offensive. It says it has killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.

Calls for Another Cease-Fire

In Israel on Sunday, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna called for an "immediate truce" aimed at releasing more hostages, getting larger amounts of aid into Gaza and moving toward "the beginning of a political solution."

France's Foreign Ministry had earlier said one of its employees was killed in an Israeli strike on a home in the southernmost town of Rafah on Wednesday. It condemned the strike, which it said had killed several civilians, and demanded clarification from Israeli authorities.

The foreign ministers of the U.K. and Germany meanwhile called for a "sustainable" cease-fire, saying "too many civilians have been killed."

"Israel will not win this war if its operations destroy the prospect of peaceful co-existence with Palestinians," British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote in the U.K.'s Sunday Times.

Austin is set to travel to Israel to continue discussions on a timetable for ending the war's most intense phase. Israeli and U.S. officials have spoken of a transition to more targeted strikes aimed at killing Hamas leaders and rescuing hostages, without saying when it would occur.

The plight of Palestinian civilians has gotten little attention inside Israel, where many are still deeply traumatized by the Oct. 7 attack and where support for the war remains strong.

But anger over the mistaken killing of the hostages is likely to ramp up pressure on Netanyahu to renew Qatar-mediated negotiations with Hamas over swapping more of the remaining captives for Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

Scores of protesters set up tents outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Saturday, saying they would stay until the government resumed hostage negotiations with Hamas. "The hostages are experiencing hell and they are in mortal peril," said Raz Ben-Ami, one of the hostages released in the last exchange. "Israel must offer another hostage-release deal."

Hamas has said no more hostages will be released until the war ends, and that in exchange it will demand the release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including high-profile militants.

Hamas released over 100 of more than 240 hostages captured on Oct. 7 in exchange for the release of scores of Palestinian prisoners during a brief cease-fire in November. Nearly all freed on both sides were women and minors. Israel has rescued one hostage.