Truce shatters; 142 die

Israeli forces scour town for missing officer

Posted: August 2, 2014 at 4:15 a.m.

Palestinians carry their belongings after salvaging them from their destroyed houses in the heavily bombed town of Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, close to the Israeli border, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. A three-day Gaza cease-fire that began Friday quickly unraveled, with Israel and Hamas accusing each other of violating the truce. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Backed by tank fire and airstrikes, Israeli forces pushed deep into southern Gaza on Friday, searching for an Israeli army officer believed to be captured by Hamas fighters during deadly clashes that shattered an internationally brokered cease-fire.

The apparent capture of the soldier and the collapse of the truce set the stage for a possible expansion of Israel's 25-day-old military operation against Hamas.

President Barack Obama and United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called for the immediate release of the soldier but also appealed for restraint. In Israel, senior Cabinet ministers convened late Friday in a rare emergency meeting after the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

The search for the missing soldier centered on the outskirts of the town of Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border.

At least 140 Palestinians were killed Friday in Gaza, including at least 70 killed in the Rafah area. Two Israeli soldiers also were killed.

Earlier Friday, Israel and Hamas accused each other of breaking the truce, which had been announced by the U.S. and the U.N., and took effect at 8 a.m. Gaza time.

The breakdown meant there would be no reprieve for the 1.7 million residents of Gaza, where large parts have been devastated by airstrikes and shelling. At least 1,600 people -- mostly civilians -- have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians.

The fighting in the Rafah area continued into the night, with residents reporting airstrikes along the Egypt-Gaza frontier as well as heavy tank and artillery shelling. The Israeli military said it was searching for the missing soldier and had sent automated calls or text messages to Rafah residents to stay indoors.

"We are under fire, every minute or so tanks fire shells at us," said Rafah resident Ayman Al-Arja. "I have been thinking of leaving since 2 p.m., but tank fire can reach anywhere, and I was scared they will hit my pickup truck. Now we are sitting in the stairwell, 11 members of my family, my brother, his nine children and wife. We just have water to drink and the radio to hear the news."

Al-Arja added: "We are just staying put waiting for God's mercy."

The heavy shelling in Rafah was part of operational and intelligence activity to find the missing officer, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, the Israeli military said.

An hour after the cease-fire began, gunmen emerged from one or more Gaza tunnels and opened fire at Israeli soldiers, with at least one of the militants detonating an explosives vest, said Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.

Goldin, a 23-year-old from the central Israeli town of Kfar Saba, apparently was captured in the ensuing mayhem, while another two Israeli soldiers were killed.

"We suspect that he has been kidnapped," Lerner said.

In a statement on its website today, Hamas' military wing said it is "not aware until this moment of a missing soldier or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance."

It said it believes the soldier might have been killed in a clash with Hamas fighters about an hour before an internationally brokered cease-fire was to set to begin early Friday.

Hamas says it has lost contact with those fighters and that "we believe all members of this group have died in an [Israeli] strike, including the Zionist soldier the enemy says disappeared."

The Israeli military declined comment on the statement.

The violence killed at least 70 Palestinians and wounded 440 in the Rafah area, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra. The dead included paramedic Assef al-Zamily, who was killed when an Israeli tank shell hit an ambulance in which he was riding, al-Kidra said.

Another 70 Palestinians were killed elsewhere in Gaza on Friday, al-Kidra said.

Hamas accused

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone that Palestinian militants had "unilaterally and grossly" violated the cease-fire and attacked Israeli soldiers after 9 a.m.

"Israel will take all necessary steps against those who call for our destruction and perpetrate terrorism against our citizens," Netanyahu told Kerry, according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

The Israeli military said Gaza militants fired at least 38 rockets as well as mortar shells at Israel after the start of Friday's cease-fire, and two rockets were intercepted.

The U.N. chief also blamed Hamas for violating the cease-fire and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Goldin.

Ban also urged both sides "to show maximum restraint and return to the agreed 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire that tragically lasted such a brief period of time," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Ban noted that the U.N. has no independent means to verify exactly what happened Friday morning, Dujarric said, but that the killing and kidnapping of IsraeIi soldiers after the cease-fire went into effect suggested Hamas was responsible.

"This would constitute a grave violation of the cease-fire, and one that is likely to have very serious consequences for the people of Gaza, Israel and beyond," Dujarric said. "Such moves call into question the credibility of Hamas' assurances to the United Nations."

Hamas' military wing, the Qassam Brigades, issued a statement several hours after the event denying it had violated the cease-fire and saying that Israeli troops had advanced into eastern Rafah well before the cease-fire's 8 a.m. start. It made no mention of the soldier's capture.

"Due to this Zionist invasion, our holy fighters clashed with the forces and killed a large number at 7 a.m.," the statement said. It added, "We emphasize that any Zionist forces violating our liberated land would be subject to our holy fighters' fire and a legitimate target."

But Kerry, who had worked to secure the cease-fire, and Obama also blamed Hamas for the collapse of the truce. Kerry urged Qatar and Turkey to use their influence to secure the release of the Israeli soldier.

Obama said it would be hard to salvage the truce.

"It's going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again if Israelis and the international community can't feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a cease-fire agreement," Obama said.

He dismissed questions about which faction of Hamas may have been responsible.

"If ... just moments after a cease-fire is signed, you have Israeli soldiers being killed and captured," he said, "it's hard for Israelis to feel confident that a cease-fire can be honored."

He also said Goldin's apparent abduction was a "barbaric" action and called for his immediate release.

A longtime friend of Goldin's said he is engaged to get married and that he studied at a Jewish seminary in the West Bank settlement of Eli. Goldin has a twin brother who also is in the military on the Gaza front lines, said the friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have the family's permission to discuss Goldin's personal details with the media.

The soldier's father, Simha Goldin, is a Tel Aviv University professor specializing in Ashkenazi Jewry, the friend said.

"We want to support the military in the fighting against Hamas in Gaza. We are sure the military will not stop before it turns over every stone in Gaza and returns Hadar home safe and sound," the father said in a statement to reporters outside his home.

more shelling, more blood

The shelling in Rafah sent families fleeing from apartment blocks. One woman carrying two children rushed toward a parked car, yelling to a bystander, "Quick, open the car door!"

Ambulances ferried the wounded to al-Najar hospital, where family members frantically searched for loved ones among the bloodied bodies on stretchers. Many of the wounded were children. In one room, four children were treated on a single bed, while others were examined on the floor.

On July 8, Israel began an aerial campaign against Gaza aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire and later sent in ground troops to target launch sites and tunnels used by Hamas to carry out attacks inside Israel.

Four previous humanitarian cease-fires have been announced, but each broke within a few hours.

The latest cease-fire, announced by Kerry and Ban, was intended to be the first step toward a lasting truce, with Egypt inviting Israeli and Palestinian delegations to Cairo for talks.

An Egyptian government official said Friday that Cairo had not canceled its invitation for Palestinians and Israelis to hold talks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media.

Soon after the cease-fire started, Gaza's residents took advantage of the lull to return to their homes, many of which had been destroyed. In the heavily bombarded Gaza district of Shijaiyah, less than a mile from the Israeli border, residents surveyed the damage.

Bassem Abul Qumbus found that his three-story home -- in which he had invested tens of thousands of dollars -- had been shattered. Shells had punched a hole in the ceiling of one bedroom and a wall had collapsed into the kitchen.

"The work of all those years is gone," he said as he struggled to salvage flour from bags that had been torn apart by shrapnel.

In the southern town of Khan Younis, residents searched for bodies in destroyed homes. Rescuers and volunteers used makeshift stretchers to carry away corpses, some badly burned.

Nidal Abu Rjeila found the body of his disabled sister on the side of the road, her wheelchair flipped upside down. He said her body had been there for five days.

"I tried to reach human-rights groups and the Red Cross, but no one was answering me," he said, overcome by grief.

Israel said it has tried to spare civilians by warning them before military strikes, and that Hamas endangers Gazans by firing rockets from residential areas.

Obama on Friday called the situation in Gaza "heartbreaking" and repeated calls for Israel to do more to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties.

"Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience, and we have to do more," Obama said. He added that Israel must be able to defend itself, but that irresponsible actions by Hamas have put civilians in danger.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah condemned the war in Gaza on Friday as a "collective massacre" and a crime against humanity, but stopped short of directly condemning Israel for its ground campaign against Hamas.

Saudi Arabia has so far pledged nearly $80 million in aid for the Palestinian people since the Gaza war began.

The king did not call for any action to be taken against Israel in his remarks. Instead, Abdullah appeared to suggest that both Israel and Hamas were responsible, saying the violence in Gaza has led to "various forms" of terrorism whether from groups, organizations or states.

Palestinian militants have shot hundreds of rockets into Israel during the conflict, extending their reach to major cities but causing few casualties, in part because Israel's "Iron Dome" defense system has intercepted many of the missiles.

Hamas has vowed to keep fighting until Israel and Egypt lift a crippling blockade of Gaza imposed after the Islamic militant group seized power there in 2007.

Information for this article was contributed by Karin Laub, Hamza Hendawi, Ibrahim Barzak, Yousur Alhlou, Aron Heller, Matthew Lee, Edith M. Lederer, Aya Batrawy, Abdullah Al-Shihri and staff members of The Associated Press and by Peter Baker, Isabel Kershner, Fares Akram and Michael R. Gordon of The New York Times.

A Section on 08/02/2014