Dec 19, 2023

The IDF mistakenly kills 3 Israeli hostages.

The IDF mistakenly kills 3 Israeli hostages.
Mourners attending the funeral of one of the Israeli hostages killed by the IDF. Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

The incident be a pivotal moment in the war.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

The death of three Israeli hostages in Israel has set off more domestic and international pressure for a ceasefire and hostage releases. Plus, an under-the-radar story about homelessness.

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Quick hits.

  1. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a law that allows state law enforcement to arrest migrants who cross the border from Mexico illegally. (The bill)
  2. The iconic American company U.S. Steel, the Pittsburgh producer, has agreed to be bought by Japan's Nippon Steel. (The sale)
  3. Pope Francis is allowing the Roman Catholic Church to bless same-sex relationships in certain situations, though he did not alter the church's doctrine around same-sex marriage. (The policy)
  4. At least 120 people were killed and hundreds injured in a magnitude 6.2 earthquake in Northern China. (The earthquake)
  5. Southwest Airlines will pay a record $35 million fine as part of a $140 million settlement in a federal investigation into the massive 2022 holiday service disruption. (The fine)

Today's topic.

The deaths of three Israeli hostages. On Saturday, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) said it mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza during a firefight, raising domestic pressure on the government to work toward a ceasefire and more hostage releases while ramping up international criticism of Israel's ground invasion.

IDF officials said the hostages were "mistakenly identified'' as a threat despite the fact they came out of a building shirtless, holding a white cloth attached to a stick above their heads. A soldier saw them and opened fire, killing two hostages instantly and injuring the third, according to an IDF spokesperson. After being injured, the third hostage ran back into the building then yelled "help" in Hebrew, causing a battalion commander to order his troops to stop firing. Despite the order, another shot killed the third hostage, the spokesperson said.

Details of the incident have been described only by members of the Israeli military, leaving independent journalists struggling to verify exactly what happened. The bodies of all three men were transferred to Israel for examination, at which point they were identified as hostages taken by Hamas on October 7.

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said shooting someone seeking to surrender and holding a white flag is forbidden in the Israeli army, but "this shooting was carried out during combat and under pressure." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it an “unbearable tragedy.”

The shooting immediately caused an outburst of anger in Israel and from critics of the Israeli army internationally, who said the killing was indicative of how indiscriminately Israeli soldiers have been killing Palestinians in Gaza.

“It’s heartbreaking but it’s not surprising,” said Roy Yellin, director of public outreach with the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. “We have documented over the years countless incidents of people who clearly surrendered and who were still shot.”

Roughly 129 hostages are believed to still be in Gaza. Shortly after news of the hostage killings broke, Netanyahu confirmed that new negotiations were under way to recover hostages being held by Hamas. The head of Mossad, Israel's spy agency, was reportedly meeting with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to discuss another round of hostage releases and a ceasefire. CIA Chief Bill Burns also met with Qatari leadership as part of the negotiations.

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says close to 20,000 Gazans have been killed since the Israeli bombardment began October 7, an estimate some Israeli officials have accepted. Israel says about two-thirds of those killed have been civilians, while citing the killing of dozens of Hamas leaders during this latest war. Meanwhile, 126 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting. The Biden administration is now applying pressure on the Palestinian Authority to re-activate members of its forces in Gaza after the conflict has concluded, a move the Israeli government opposes.

Today, we're going to break down some arguments about this incident, negotiations for more hostage releases and a prisoner swap, and the current state of the conflict. Throughout our coverage of this conflict we’ve highlighted views from American, Israeli, Palestinian, and international writers. Given the domestic focus on Israel and its military in the wake of this event, today we are going to focus on a range of opinion pieces from the United States and Israel. 

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are mourning the incident but stand firmly behind the IDF’s approach to fighting in Gaza.
  • While some note that tragedies like this are a part of war, others say Hamas is solely responsible for deaths on both sides of this conflict. 

In PJ Media, Rabbi Michael Barclay wrote about “the tragedies of Israel waging an ‘ethical’ war.”

“It has been a terrible day for Israel, and it is a demonstration not only of the horrors of war but also of the inherent dangers Israel consciously embraces daily. Three hostages were mistakenly killed in Shejaiya, a hotbed of terrorists and suicide bombers,” Barclay said. “Because of the value that Israel places on each human life, the IDF risks the lives of its forces every day in Gaza by clearing houses one at a time. In their attempts to not hurt Gaza civilians — even those who want Israel destroyed — IDF soldiers take daily risks and put themselves in harm’s way.”

“While we mourn the deaths of innocents, we must also give accolades to Israel: a nation so committed to saving every life possible that she risks her own forces clearing one house at a time rather than take the easier road of keeping her own soldiers safe. It is a true statement that Israel protects her citizens with her army, while Hamas protects its army with its civilians.”

RedState blogger Streiff discussed the “important context” around the hostages’ deaths. 

“The IDF had not considered the possibility that hostages would flee captivity and wander around the battlefield. New rules of engagement have been issued to take into account that scenario,” Streiff wrote. “It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback a young, frightened, probably sleep-deprived soldier over the actions that led to this tragedy. Rarely does complete information exist in combat. Soldiers have to use their training and experience to fill in the gaps and try to make the right decision.

“When you put incomplete information into the context of suicide bombers and terrorists operating with neither uniforms nor weapons, it is easy to see how this came to be. Regardless of the outcome of the IDF investigation, the one salient fact to keep in mind is that none of this would've happened had Hamas not attacked peaceful Jewish settlements on October 7. Every single death in this conflict emanates from that event, and Hamas alone is to blame for all the deaths on both sides.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is dismayed by the killing of the hostages, with some placing the blame on Netanyahu for enabling “shoot-first” policies in the IDF for years. 
  • Others say the ongoing hostage situation requires a new strategy from Israeli and U.S. negotiators. 

In The Guardian, Dahlia Scheindlin argued “Netanyahu’s shoot-first policies are harming all of us.”

“Netanyahu’s press conferences are an increasingly grotesque spectacle these days, given his apparent lack of remorse or sense of responsibility. Nevertheless, he got one thing right on Saturday evening: since the tragedy, he said, he could not stop turning over the tiny hypotheticals that could have saved the hostages’ lives.” 

“The one-way road to Friday’s nightmare was paved by the de facto indulgence of shoot-first policies. The idea that these unacceptable practices would be targeted only at Palestinians — as if the two populations are not joined at the heart of this mess — is a lie. Of course, it was Hamas that lured Israel into the current trap of this filthy war. Blinded by pain, rage and humiliation, Israel only followed one path: overwhelming force,” Scheindlin added. “The outcome is incomprehensible death, misery and destruction in Gaza, mistakes, like shooting the hostages, that can never be undone.”

In The Washington Post, Jason Rezaian warned against learning “the wrong lessons from the Israel-Hamas hostage deal.”

“Nearly every aspect of the ongoing conflict in Gaza has been a tragic disaster, except for the recent negotiations that led to the release of hostages… Freeing more than 100 people is a success by any metric. But even more critically, the effort should stand as a wake-up call to the world about the urgent need to combat the scourge of hostage-taking, a phenomenon that has only become more prevalent in recent years,” Rezaian said. “Above all else, the hostage deal stands as a rebuke of the tired notion that one does not negotiate with terrorists — state or non-state alike — to free the unjustly detained.”

“There is therefore an urgent need to come up with a comprehensive hostage strategy, to be pursued by the world’s democracies and other friendly governments, to cultivate deterrence options. It’s critical that the problem be approached holistically, not as a series of one-off outrages — which is how most countries approach each new case today,” Rezaian wrote. “Israel’s goal of neutralizing Hamas is legitimate, but the cost in innocent Palestinian civilian lives is tragic, unacceptable and ultimately counterproductive. And it certainly does nothing to combat future hostage-taking.”

What Israeli writers are saying.

  • Some Israeli writers maintain that defeating Hamas should be the government’s priority, even if it means more hostage deaths. 
  • Others say the incident is a wake-up call for the government to do whatever it takes to bring the remaining hostages home. 

In The Jerusalem Post, David M. Weinberg argued “destroying Hamas is more important than saving hostages.”

“It is time for Israel’s wartime leaders to concentrate once again their efforts on the one most critical goal of this war; the main, most consensual, and most legitimate objective. Distilled to its essence, this is eradication of the Hamas threat to Israel and the consequent restoration of Israel’s deterrent posture versus all enemies in the Middle East,” Weinberg said. “Everything else is secondary. Every other interest and concern, no matter how poignant, compassionate, or pressing, must remain subordinate to the overarching master goal of erasing Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip.”

“Alas, this means that humanitarian concerns, both for the one hundred or so Israeli civilians still held hostage by Hamas and for the millions of Palestinian civilians held hostage by Hamas, must be relegated to the sidelines. It is not easy or nice to say so, but concern for the hostages (and yes, Palestinians in Gaza are brutally kept captive by Hamas in every way) cannot dominate Israeli decision-making.”

In Haaretz, Robi Damelin wrote “free my son's Palestinian killer to free the Israeli hostages held by Hamas.”

“I think about David, my beloved son, who was killed by a Palestinian sniper while on reserve duty in the West Bank in 2002. I am sure, if he were still with us, that he would have been with you demonstrating for all these terrible days that have passed since October 7,” Damelin said. “I think about that sniper who is in jail for killing him along with nine other soldiers and civilians. I say free him if it will bring back even one of your loved ones.”

“I can only speak for myself, not for those other bereaved families, but I say: Free him because the sanctity of human life is so much more important than anything else. It's more important than some of the professional fearmongers in this government who would so easily sacrifice the lives of the hostages in the name of our ‘security’ they have done so much to damage since taking office — culminating on October 7, a catastrophic and unprecedented failure to protect our country,” Damelin wrote. “Bringing the hostages back now, while — we hope — all, if not most, are still alive, is the only humane thing to do.”

My take.

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  • This event is emblematic of the many unnecessary deaths that are happening in Gaza right now. 
  • Anyone who has been reading Tangle knows that I believe in Israel’s right to exist and defend itself.
  • Yet it seems very obvious to me that the last two months have made Israel less safe, not more, and that new leadership and new strategies are desperately needed.

On the one hand, there is something uncomfortable about how much attention this event has gotten — especially in Israel — given the number of innocent Palestinians in Gaza who are dying every day at the hands of the Israeli army. On the other hand, it's also pretty understandable that this story is reverberating so strongly: The image of an army mistakenly killing the hostages it is supposed to bring home is such a horrible reminder of how awful war is that it cannot be ignored.

I'm not going to sit here and judge the individual soldiers responsible for this shooting. I've never been in a war, and I can’t imagine what it's like for a 19-year-old traversing Gaza in these conditions trying to differentiate enemy combatants from innocent Palestinians from Israeli hostages. As gut-wrenching as they are, mistakes are bound to happen, and it's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback from thousands of miles away after events like this. I’ve also seen time and again during this war how risky it is to draw conclusions from big events that I don’t yet know enough about. I'm not here to do that.

At the same time, it's also ridiculous to ignore the implications of such an event — not just for this particular war, but for the conflict more broadly. If a group of Israeli soldiers can mistakenly shoot three shirtless Israeli hostages holding a white flag above their heads screaming for help in Hebrew, how many other people have they killed who didn’t deserve to die? How many Gazan civilians who have no affiliation with Hamas and no intention of joining the fight? 

Despite so much news coverage about the suffering and mayhem in Gaza, I doubt we hear even a fraction of what is happening on the ground. Approximately 20,000 Gazans have been killed, about two-thirds of whom are civilians (a number Israeli officials do not seem to dispute).  The suggestion that this event is somehow demonstrative of the Israeli army’s great care for life (as Rabbi Michael Barclay argued under “What the right is saying”) is so nonsensical it’s almost difficult to articulate an argument against it. And while I don’t share Barclay’s conclusions, I can’t refute his implication: Events like this — people being killed who shouldn't be — are even more common than we understand. And at least some Israeli soldiers are so scared, angry, or discombobulated in this incredibly difficult environment that they are shooting first. 

That is the reality of this war that we have to grapple with right now.

So let me preface what I am about to say by just reminding readers that I am an American Jew who fundamentally believes in and supports the existence of the state of Israel: Killing one enemy soldier for every two Palestinian civilians is not going to stabilize the region or make Israel safer. 

The destruction of Gaza and the harm to Palestinians is obvious. But it should be clear to everyone that this is harming Israel, too. Surging support for Hamas does not make Jews and Israelis safer. Havoc in Gaza that generations of young Palestinians will forever blame on Israel does not make Jews and Israelis safer. Instability in the Middle East does not make Jews and Israelis safer. A scorned international community that views Israel as dismissive of international law does not make Israel and Jews safer. This is not helping.

In the days after Hamas's attack in Israel, I said that this was going to be a war unlike any we'd seen. Not just urban warfare, a fraught affair even in "normal" circumstances (if war can ever be called that), but urban warfare with hostages, tunnels, and 2 million civilians — including a million who are 18 or younger — packed into a strip of land about the size of Philadelphia.

Where is this headed? What is the plan? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas but also rejected the idea of the Palestinian Authority — the only remotely possible alternative for leadership in Gaza — taking power in their place. The only option he appears open to is more killing in Gaza, the potential expulsion of Gazans, expanding settlements in the West Bank, and re-occupying Gaza with Israeli forces when this ends. It is a strategy as unimaginative as it is dangerous. 

Rather than destroy Hamas, this war has helped their popularity in Gaza soar. Two months later, over half of the hostages taken from Israel have been saved — but they likely could have been brought home via prisoner exchange without any ground invasion. Three have now been killed by Israeli forces. Gaza is in ruin, with about half of all civilian housing destroyed and roughly 1.8 million people displaced. Over 100 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

Meanwhile, violence in the West Bank, on the other side of Israel, is surging — as is support for Hamas. The international community is turning against the Israeli government, and the actions of the Israeli military are angering the surrounding Arab world, threatening a larger regional conflict that has already begun to disrupt shipping through the Red Sea — where Iran-backed Houthi rebels are now attacking American ships.

At what point does Netanyahu look around and realize this is not working? He is a failed leader. Corrupt, divisive, incapable of keeping his people safe, and now dragging the country into the kind of war that will hurt it more than it helps. The best argument he has for continuing this offensive is "deterrence by force" — that Hamas and other Iran-backed proxy groups will look around, see what Israel is doing, and decide they want none of that in the future. 

And yet all this has actually done is justify to Palestinians Hamas’s stance of armed opposition. Israel is providing them with even more justification for future violence in the eyes of the international community and more legitimacy as a political group that can competently negotiate the release of hostages. All the while, the deterrence has been totally non-existent. There have been increased attacks on U.S. and Israeli forces throughout the Middle East and more of Israel’s neighbors are rattling their sabers about a larger war.

Again: Netanyahu’s stated goal was to destroy Hamas. But the IDF’s push into Gaza may have moved Israel farther away from that goal than ever.

Israel is not going anywhere. There is not going to be a Palestine from the river to the sea. There is not going to be a massive return of 20 million Palestinians to the state of Israel. As difficult and terrible as that might be to some people, it's the honest truth. Israel exists as a state the same way most countries in the modern world have come to exist: Through conflict, victory in war(s), global recognition, and connection to the land. Any pragmatic people looking for genuine solutions to this conflict need to move forward understanding that any end to it will involve a Jewish state existing in or around places like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. 

The so-called “one state solution” — a single, unified nation of Israelis and Palestinians living side by side — currently feels impossible, and some version of a partition and two state solution continues to look to me like the only realistic path out of this mess. I wish for an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. I pray for people smarter than I am who can get us there.

Given that, every moment of what is happening now has to hold the tension of Israel's right to exist and defend itself with the need and equal right for the Palestinian people to exist, with self-determination, without being subjected to indiscriminate killing by their neighbors, and next to a neighbor (Israel) that is obeying international law. 

After October 7th, there was always going to be a forceful response. Hamas's heinous attack forced Israel's hand, and Hamas deserves plenty of blame for the current state of Gaza (in more ways than one). I wish the Palestinian people could see that more clearly and I hope they abandon Hamas as a leadership group the first chance they get. But Israel is beyond "responding with force." It’s beyond a planned counter-measure. And it’s well beyond bringing peace or security. Israel is nearly alone in this war (with its most important remaining ally now wavering), killing not just civilians but its own people, and making the region less safe for itself along the way. It is time — beyond time — for a new strategy. 

Your questions, answered. 

We're skipping the reader question today to give our main story some extra space. Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

The Gen Z economist.

I got to sit down with economist Kyla Scanlon to talk about the current state of the Biden economy, what people get wrong about Gen Z, and what stories she is keeping her eye on in 2024. Scanlon is one of the most-followed voices for economic news on TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter, and the way she addressed some of my questions is the reason why. Enjoy:

Under the radar.

Homelessness in the United States hit its highest level since the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) started tracking the figure in 2007. Over 653,100 people experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2023, a 12% increase (about 70,650 more people) from January 2022. About six in 10 of the people experiencing homelessness had "sheltered homelessness," meaning they were either in an emergency shelter, transitional housing, or a safe-haven program. The remaining four in 10 were living in places not meant for human habitation. HUD attributed the spike to changes in rental housing and end of pandemic protections and programs. Fox Business has the story. 


  • 239. The approximate number of people taken hostage by Hamas on October 7. 
  • 129. The approximate number of hostages still being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli military. 
  • 240. The number of Palestinians released from Israeli prisons as part of the prisoner swap last month. 
  • 59%. The percentage of Israelis who said their government should negotiate with Hamas for the release of its hostages, according to a November 2023 poll from The Israel Democracy Institute.
  • 32%. The percentage of Israelis who said their government should not negotiate with Hamas for the release of its hostages, or wait until the current fighting ends. 
  • 54%. The percentage of Israeli Jews in favor of Israel negotiating with Hamas for the release of its hostages. 
  • 81%. The percentage of Israeli Arabs in favor of Israel negotiating with Hamas for the release of its hostages. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered last November's inflation numbers.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the story on the Senate staffer sex tape.
  • Smoke screen: 968 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about the formal impeachment inquiry into President Biden with 39% saying the House was definitely not right to launch the inquiry. 35% said the House was probably not right, 15% said they were probably right, and 11% said they were definitely right. "Where there's smoke there's fire some claim, but not when one is running a smoke machine and crying 'Fire,'" one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: What's the meaning behind the 12 Days of Christmas?
  • Take the poll. What do you think Israel should be doing next? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

At 92 years old, Lew Burja is still kicking. And punching. The English grandfather practices kung fu and tai chi daily, and he credits the practice for his good health. “At my age, I have friends dying all around me and [tai chi] has kept me going,” said Burja. “It’s really important to keep moving — which is lucky because I can’t stand still.” He can still walk up to seven miles a day and he says running is no problem. Burja, from Leeds, England, found tai chi in his 50s after suffering from repeat chest infections and a bad back. He had already played sports most of his life, but he found the slow motions and focused practice of tai chi particularly captivating. “Plenty of exercise is what keeps you going, and it also gives you a really positive outlook on life,” said Burja. Good News Network has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.