Israeli Military Clears General Who Approved Fire on House With Hostages on Oct. 7

by Pelican Press
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Israeli Military Clears General Who Approved Fire on House With Hostages on Oct. 7

The Israeli military said Thursday that one of its generals had acted properly when he authorized a tank to shell a house in an Israeli village where Hamas fighters were holding hostages, likely killing at least one captive and wounding another, in one of the most debated episodes of the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7.

The Israeli military’s investigation into the massacre in Be’eri, one of the hardest-hit communities on Oct. 7, marks the beginning of a national reckoning. It is the first of dozens of inquiries set to examine how and why Israel failed to protect its citizens from Hamas’s devastating assault, though critics and some survivors have raised questions about the military’s ability to transparently investigate its own failures.

In a statement summarizing the results of the investigation, the Israeli military conceded that it had “failed in its mission” to protect Be’eri and detailed a series of errors, including disorganization, a lack of coordination between forces and slow response times.

But the inquiry praised the actions of Brig. Gen. Barak Hiram, who led the fighting in Be’eri, the military said. The statement said General Hiram’s decision — together with other commanders — to fire the tank shells at the home was “professional and responsible” given the chaotic and challenging battle.

At the beginning of the firefight, Hamas gunmen were holding 14 living hostages in the home in Be’eri. Only two survived; the rest were killed in the firefight, and the inquiry said most of the hostages were probably murdered by their captors.

The episode ignited a fierce debate inside Israel over whether the military had done enough to protect Israeli civilians as it sought to repel Hamas militants who had overrun towns and military bases near Gaza.

In a statement, the Israeli military said that the investigators were “independent of the chain of command and not involved in the events themselves.” But one of those listed, Lt. Col. Elihay Bin Nun, served as General Hiram’s chief operations officer during the fight in Be’eri, raising questions about the inquiry’s independence.

Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, called on Thursday for an independent state commission that would investigate the Oct. 7 attacks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has resisted calls to launch such an inquiry, saying questions of responsibility ought to be sorted at the end of the war.

“It must investigate everyone: the decision makers and implementers; the government, the army, and security forces,” said Mr. Gallant. “It must check me, the defense minister. It must check the prime minister.”

More than 100 residents of Be’eri were killed as hundreds of Palestinian militants invaded the kibbutz, according to the Israeli military. All told, roughly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the Hamas-led attacks, and another 250 were taken hostage, according to Israel.

Despite some early warnings, Israeli officials dismissed the possibility that Hamas could pull off such a large-scale invasion. And on Oct. 7, as thousands of Palestinian gunmen stormed the border under heavy rocket fire, the Israeli military — caught unprepared — mounted a sluggish, chaotic response, leaving thousands of Israelis trapped for hours in fortified safe rooms.

Be’eri’s surviving residents described a bitter sense of having been left to fend for themselves by the government and military for hours as Hamas militants killed and took the villagers hostage. Rami Gold, who joined a handful of others who sought to fend off the Hamas invaders, said an independent state inquiry was necessary to reach the full truth.

“The government brought about this situation, and they must be held to account,” said Mr. Gold, a member of the village’s civilian response squad.

The inquiry listed a number of other problems with the military’s response. In the chaos, soldiers who did not understand the severity of the situation in the kibbutz gathered outside Be’eri without plunging into the fighting. Other troops prioritized evacuating wounded soldiers over civilians. The Israeli military said both decisions were key failures.

By late afternoon, Israeli soldiers were fighting their way into most of the border towns attacked by Hamas. General Hiram, a decorated commander who lost his eye in combat in Lebanon, took charge of the fray in Be’eri on his own initiative. His conduct prompted both praise and criticism of the decisions he took, particularly the move to authorize the tank fire on the house.

In an interview with The New York Times last year, General Hiram, recalled having ordered forces to “break in, even at the cost of civilian casualties” after heavily armed militants in the house fired a rocket-propelled grenade. He authorized the use of light tank shells, which he claimed would make a hole in the wall but “not necessarily kill everyone in the building.”

He said that he had greenlit the shelling after attempts to negotiate with the Hamas fighters inside reached a dead end. But families and residents were left wondering whether Israeli troops could have saved the hostages if they had taken a less heavy-handed approach.

On Thursday, the Israeli military briefed the Be’eri survivors on the inquiry at a hotel near the Dead Sea, where many of the kibbutz’s roughly 1,000 residents are still living in temporary housing over nine months after the attacks. During the meeting, a senior military official conceded to them that they had been abandoned, Mr. Gold said.

Omer Shifroni, three of whose relatives were killed in the hostage episode, said the military did not seem to have attempted a cover-up of its failures in Be’eri. But he said that the inquiry failed to reckon with how Israeli soldiers — including General Hiram — might have acted differently.

“The probe didn’t ask what the alternatives were,” Mr. Shifroni said. “I’m left with questions.”

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