Gaza truce fails with at least 107 Palestinians dead, Israeli soldier missing
Three-day ceasefire lasts just a few hours as rocket attacks from Hamas and artillery fire from Israel continue through Friday night and reports indicate an Israeli solider kidnapped
At least 107 Palestinians were killed and an Israeli soldier was missing presumed captured as a fresh wave of violence swept through the Gaza Strip on Saturday following the failure of an agreed ceasefire.
The attacks continued throughout the night, leaving at least 35 Palestinians dead in the Gaza town of Rafah alone after a series of Israeli air raids in the hours since midnight, local time, on Friday.
US President Barack Obama called for the missing soldier, 23-year-old Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin to be “unconditionally” released, but also said more must be done to protect Gaza civilians.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a member of the eight-strong security cabinet, accused Hamas of being behind the disappearance of the missing soldier and said the group would pay a high price.
However early on Saturday the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, said it had no information on the whereabouts of the missing soldier.
“The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades has no information on this soldier. We have lost contact with one of our combatant groups, which was fighting in the sector where the soldier went missing and it is possible that our fighters and this soldier were killed,” the group said in a statement.
The intensive fighting resumed after the planned three-day ceasefire, which began at 8am local time on Friday, swiftly collapsed.
Early on Saturday morning, the Iron Dome aerial defence system intercepted two rockets over the Tel Aviv area and another over the southern Beersheba city, the army said.
The Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, said they had fired three rockets at Tel Aviv.
The toll on the Palestinian side was 107 people dead and hundreds others wounded since the toll collapsed, said Palestinian emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra.
Some 1,650 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, have been killed in the 26 days since the present conflict started, Qudra said. On the Israeli side, 63 soldiers and three civilians have died.
Hamas accused Israel of breaking the short-lived ceasefire, while the Jewish state said it was responding to the militant attacks.
The chances of a durable truce seemed as remote as ever after the presumed capture of the Israeli soldier.
The military also announced that two soldiers had been killed in the same incident near the southern city of Rafah.
“Our initial indications suggest a soldier has been abducted by terrorists in an incident where terrorists breached the ceasefire,” according to army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.
He said a suicide bomber blew himself up, adding that first reports “indicate that a soldier was seized”.
In 2006, Hamas militants from Gaza captured Israeli conscript Gilad Shalit and held him for five years before freeing him in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Friday’s short truce gave people in the battered Gaza Strip a brief respite from the fighting.
But within hours, air raid sirens were heard on the Israeli side, and heavy shelling resumed in Rafah.
Obama said the United States “unequivocally condemned Hamas and the Palestinian factions that were responsible for killing two Israeli soldiers, and abducting a third almost minutes after a ceasefire had been announced”.
“If they are serious about trying to trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released, as soon as possible.”
Obama added: “We have also been clear that innocent civilians in Gaza caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience and we have to do more to protect them.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry had said that once the ceasefire was under way, Israeli and Palestinian representatives, including from Hamas, would begin talks in Cairo on a more durable truce.
The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad later said Egypt was postponing the talks after news of the Israeli soldier’s capture, but Cairo said the invitation to talk was “still in place”.
And Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said a joint delegation, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would travel to Cairo on Saturday for talks despite the renewed fighting.
Before the truce, Israeli tank fire and aerial bombardment killed 14 Palestinians in Gaza, and the army said five soldiers died in mortar fire near the shared border.
In a speech published after the ceasefire broke down, Saudi King Abdullah denounced “inexcusable” world silence over Israel’s “war crimes” in Gaza.
“We see the blood of our brothers in Palestine being shed in collective massacres ... all taking place under the eyes and ears of the international community... that has stood [by] indifferently,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office accused Hamas and other Gaza militants of “flagrantly violating” the ceasefire.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum responded that “It is the [Israeli] occupation which violated the ceasefire. The Palestinian resistance acted based on ... the right to self defence.”