Gaza Fighting Surges as Truce Frays, Soldier DisappearsSaud Abu Ramadan and Angela Greiling Keane
Fighting intensified in the Gaza Strip after a truce was left in tatters and Israel said one of its soldiers may have been captured.
Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, each accused the 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.
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 1,600, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra. Israel has lost more than 60 soldiers and three civilians 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 caches in or near homes, mosques, hospitals and schools.
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.
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 3,030 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.
Goldin’s father, Simcha, a professor of Judaic Studies at Tel Aviv University, told reporters outside his house that “we trust that the army won’t stop in any way until it turns over every stone in the Gaza Strip and brings Hadar back safe and sound.” 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.
Hamas’s military wing, one of several armed factions operating in the territory, denied capturing an Israeli soldier. The Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades said by e-mail that Israeli ground forces entered Rafah at 2 a.m. yesterday, and a gunfight that broke out about 7 a.m. continued after the cease-fire took effect. Al-Qassam has no information about the missing Israeli soldier, his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance, it said in a statement on its website.
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, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel, 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 Foreign Ministry said yesterday that the invitation still stands, according to the official Middle East News Agency, though there was no indication any talks would be held.
Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar also were involved in the talks that led up to the truce announcement. Kerry has been in touch with both countries since news broke of the missing Israeli soldier, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of talks.