Israeli soldier feared captured as Gaza truce fails
GAZA CITY — Israel's military said Friday that it fears one of its soldiers was captured by Hamas gunmen soon after a 72-hour truce collapsed in renewed fighting, just hours after it began.
Both sides, which resumed fierce fighting, accused the other of breaching the planned cease-fire. The apparent abduction of a soldier threatened to escalate the 4-week-old conflict.
As Israeli forces continued to demolish cross-border tunnels during the cease-fire, troops came under fire by gunmen emerging from one or more of the tunnel openings. At least one of the militants detonated an explosives vest, Israeli army Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.
It's believed that 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, was taken back into Gaza through a tunnel during the battle, which left two Israeli soldiers dead, Lerner said. The attack took place about an hour and a half after the cease-fire began, he said.
"We urge our soldiers to leave no stone unturned in your search for our son," Simcha Goldin, Hadar's father, said outside his home in Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, would not confirm or deny Goldin's capture, but he said it was being used as a cover for Israeli shelling in Rafah, which the Israeli military said was part of an operation to locate the soldier. Gazan Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 62 Palestinians were killed and 400 wounded as a result of that shelling.
Since the conflict began July 8, at least 1,500 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed — mostly civilians — Gaza's Health Ministry says. Israel's military says at least 63 of its soldiers have died, along with three civilians.
The capture of an Israeli soldier could dramatically change the trajectory of the conflict. Israel has gone to great lengths to return captured soldiers home. In 2006, Palestinian militants captured Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held for five years before being swapped for hundreds of prisoners.
The Obama administration called the attack and apparent abduction an "outrageous" action by Hamas.
"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today's attack," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "The international community must now redouble its efforts to end the tunnel and rocket attacks by Hamas terrorists on Israel and the suffering and loss of civilian life," he said.
At a new conference on Friday, President Obama demanded that Palestinians release the Israeli soldier, He also pledged that the United States will work to restore the cease-fire. "Trying to put that back together is going to be challenging," he acknowledged. "It's a volatile mix, but we have to keep trying."
The latest cease-fire efforts, announced by Kerry and United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon, came after at least four short humanitarian truces in recent weeks were all broken within a few hours.
"Once again, Hamas and the terror organizations in Gaza have blatantly broken the cease-fire to which they committed," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement.
Ban blamed Hamas for violating the cease-fire, urging "those with influence over the parties to do everything to convince them to observe the humanitarian cease-fire."
Hamas blamed Israel for the collapse of the cease-fire and said it had no military operations after the truce was supposed to go into effect, according to Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas' deputy leader.
Some Gazans are skeptical about bringing an end to the conflict through diplomacy and questioned U.S. and Egyptian support for Israel in any peace talks.
"They are not honest brokers," said Hani Abu Zaid from Gaza City.
Egypt invited Israeli and Palestinian delegations to Cairo for talks.
In Israel, Rea Lavi, 31, from the northern town of Pardes Hanna-Karkur, had not expected the operation to continue for so long.
"I underestimated how tenacious Hamas would be," Lavi said. "Now I can't tell how long this will go on for and where it will go."
Al-Helou reported from Gaza City, Conway from Tel Aviv and Collins from Berlin. Contributing: Michele Chabin in Jerusalem; the Associated Press.