Fighting intensified in the Gaza Strip after a truce was left in tatters and Israel said one of its soldiers may have been taken captive.
Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, accused each other of shattering the cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and United Nations, which was supposed to enter force early yesterday and last for three days. President Barack Obama and UN chief Ban Ki-moon demanded the soldier’s release and blamed Hamas for the resumption of violence. Hamas denied capturing an Israeli soldier; other armed factions operate in the Palestinian territory.
The truce was the latest effort to halt fighting that entered a 26th day today and initiate talks on a more lasting settlement. The Palestinian death toll in Israeli air, ground and naval bombardments has topped 1,650, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra. Israel has lost at least 63 soldiers and three civilians while battling militants who have barraged it with rockets and raided it through underground tunnels.
Israel accuses militants of using Gaza civilians as human shields by placing rocket launchers and weapons in or near homes, mosques, hospitals and schools. The U.S. and European Union label Hamas a terrorist organization.
The Israeli military said it hit about 200 targets since the cease-fire unraveled, bringing to more than 4,500 the number of strikes carried out since the fighting began July 8. Targets struck overnight include a Hamas weapons development facility at the Islamic University in Gaza City and arms caches concealed in mosques, it said.
As the violence intensified, the U.S. House and Senate yesterday approved $225 million in emergency spending for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. The military says Iron Dome has intercepted 549 rockets fired at urban areas, including three today. In all, militants have launched more than 3,040 rockets since the conflict began, the military said.
The U.S. will resume efforts to halt the fighting, according to Obama. “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 will follow through,” he said yesterday at the White House.
Al-Qedra told reporters Israel violated the truce by shelling Rafah in southern Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas broke the accord by attacking Israeli forces about an hour after the cease-fire began. Two soldiers were killed in the assault and a third was suspected captured, he said in a text message from his office.
Israel identified the missing soldier as Hadar Goldin, 23. Commenting on his suspected capture, Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said troops destroying a tunnel were attacked by militants. It “looks like” a soldier was taken back through the tunnel, he said.
The last time a soldier was seized, Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners it held to free him in 2011 after five years in captivity.
The Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades said by e-mail that it has no information about the missing Israeli soldier, his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped arrange the accord, condemned the killing of the Israeli soldiers and the suspected abduction of another as an “outrageous violation” of the truce.
Israel says Hamas should be disarmed under any agreement, while Hamas demands the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian embargo on the territory.
The start of the cease-fire was due to be followed by negotiations in Cairo, with delegations from Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and the U.S. all involved. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi said today that his country’s July 14 truce initiative, which Israel accepted and Hamas rejected, was still on the table. “There’s no other alternative,” he said at a news conference in Cairo.
Hamas spurned the plan, saying it didn’t guarantee lifting the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza in 2006. Egypt, which banned Hamas activities earlier this year, has also closed its border crossing with the territory. Since el-Sisi led the ouster of his predecessor, Islamist President Mohamed Mursi last year, Egypt has destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels straddling the frontier with Gaza that Palestinians built to skirt the restrictions.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at email@example.com Amy Teibel, Caroline Alexander