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Friendly fire may have killed their relatives on Oct. 7. These Israeli families want answers now

By JULIA FRANKEL and ALON BERNSTEIN
Associated Press

KIBBUTZ BE’ERI, Israel (AP) — Relatives of civilians killed at a kibbutz in southern Israel during the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas are demanding the military immediately investigate signs that some may have been killed by Israeli security forces as they battled militants holding hostages.

The military has said it will conduct a thorough investigation of everything that went wrong on Oct. 7 and the days that followed once its war on Hamas is over.

But that’s not soon enough for some family members of 13 people killed during a violent standoff between Hamas and Israeli security forces at Kibbutz Be’eri, along the Gaza border. They fear valuable evidence could be lost as the war — now in its fourth month — drags on with no end in sight.

Representatives of eight bereaved families delivered a two-page letter to the army chief of staff and other officials late last week, demanding an immediate probe and a public release of the findings.

“In light of the seriousness of the incident, we do not think it is right to wait to investigate the incident until the end of the war, when it is not clear when it will end,” the letter said. It prodded the military to “start it immediately, when the memory is fresh for all those involved.”

Be’eri was one of the communities attacked on Oct. 7, when thousands of Hamas and other militants broke through the Gaza border barrier, rampaging through the small farming towns and cooperatives of southern Israel. By the end of the day, they had killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taken about 250 hostages.

The heavy death toll in Israel, the intelligence failures preceding the attack and the slow response by security forces that day have shattered the public’s faith in the country’s leadership and fueled calls for an investigation before the war is over.

A finding that Be’eri residents may have been harmed by Israeli security forces could add to that loss in faith — especially as the army deals with a growing number of friendly-fire deaths of soldiers fighting in Gaza. By the end of December — the most updated data provided by Israel’s military — 18 soldiers in the Gaza ground offensive were killed by friendly fire, as well as two from “shooting irregularities,” and nine from “accidents.”

Be’eri was among the hardest hit communities on Oct. 7. More than 95 people were killed there and 30 were taken hostage, according to the community’s spokesperson.

The families demanding a military investigation are focused on a standoff that took place at the home of Pesi Cohen, where Hamas militants had taken 15 hostages.

At one point, a Hamas commander asked Yasmine Porat — one of only two hostages to make it out of the Cohen home alive — to call the Israeli police. The commander sought to negotiate safe passage to Gaza with the hostages, in exchange for keeping them alive. Porat communicated with the commander with the help of an Arabic-speaking hostage, a Palestinian man from Jerusalem.

After seven or eight phone calls to the police, officers finally arrived outside the home, Porat said.

An hours-long gun battle ensued between some 40 militants and the Israeli forces outside, said Porat. The Israelis attempted to get into the house without killing the hostages, some of whom the militants had placed in the front yard. Porat said she was shot in the leg.

About an hour after the police arrived, the Hamas commander exited the home and surrendered, holding Porat in front of him as a shield. Porat then stayed with the Israeli forces until the end of the battle.

Porat saw a tank arrive, and asked a soldier if they were going to shell the house. He said yes, and that the tank unit wanted to break through the walls of the home.

Israel’s Channel 12 news reported on footage and voice recordings it obtained from a police helicopter on October 7 that appear to show a tank firing upon the Cohen house, causing an explosion that sent pillars of smoke into the sky. An officer in the helicopter can be heard exclaiming, “Wow, there was firing!”

The Channel 12 report cited forces on the ground who said that a first tank fired a shot at around 5:30 p.m., about an hour and a half after Israeli forces arrived at the home. That tank sustained damage, prompting another tank to arrive on scene. It was unclear from the Channel 12 report if the second tank fired on the house.

Porat said she did not see the tanks firing at the home, but heard two blasts.

The only other person who survived the standoff at the Cohen house, Hadas Dagan, told Channel 12 she was sure that a tank had fired at the house.

“Suddenly there was a terrible boom,” Dagan said. “It was clear to me that there was a tank. I was injured by shrapnel from a tank shell.”

It remains unclear how each of the 13 hostages died in the house that day. Porat said she believes that most of the hostages were alive when she exited the house.

In their letter to the military, the bereaved families of Kibbutz Be’eri asked the army to investigate why the general in charge of the operation, Brig. Gen. Barak Hiram, had ordered a tank to fire at the house despite the risk of civilian casualties. Hiram was quoted by the New York Times as telling the tank commander to “break in” after militants inside fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the forces.

“According to the evidence, the shooting of the tank was fatal and killed many hostages in addition to the terrorists,” the families wrote, demanding a “comprehensive and transparent investigation into the decisions and actions that led to this tragic outcome.”

The military said commanders had to make difficult decisions in a complex battlefield that day, and that it would investigate the Be’eri incident, and release its findings, “as soon as the operational situation allows.”

This week, the kibbutz was set to demolish the home where the hostages were held, said Omri Revach, whose mother-in-law, 78-year-old Chava Ben-Ami, was killed in the standoff. But the families managed to stop the demolition, preserving the home for investigation.

Determining whether the house was shelled by a tank would require an onsite search for weapons debris, said Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon official and war crimes investigator for the U.N. who reviewed photos of the Cohen home.

The longer the delay, the greater the risk of losing evidence, said Ron Shifroni. Three of his relatives — 73-year-old Ayala Hezroni, and 12-year old twins Liel and Yannai Hezroni — were killed in the incident. The military provided no information about how they had been killed.

Shifroni frets that waiting to conduct an investigation will mean losing the opportunity to determine exactly what happened to Ayala, Liel and Yannai.

“Some of the people involved may now be fighting in Gaza. Some of them may have already been killed. This war keeps claiming lives,” he said.

___

Frankel reported from Jerusalem.

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