Israel continued its search for reportedly captured IDF officer Hadar Goldin overnight Friday and throughout Saturday, bombarding targets in the Gaza Strip said to conceal terrorist command centers and training facilities.
As the conflict raged into a 26th day following the collapse after only two hours of a 72-hour humanitarian truce, when Hamas attacked Israeli troops in Rafah, a top-level Palestinian delegation was due in Cairo for talks on a permanent ceasefire agreement.
The team, which would include senior members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was to arrive late Saturday for talks with Egyptian officials. It did not include representatives from Gaza.
Israel said it would not be sending its team because Hamas had proved that it could not be trusted to honor a ceasefire.
The chances of the sides halting fire seemed remote after Israel said it believed terrorists had captured 23-year-old soldier Hadar Goldin in a Friday morning ambush near the southern Gaza city of Rafah in which two other soldiers were killed. President Barack Obama led international demands that Hamas return the soldier, and the US called the Hamas breach of the truce “barbaric.”
Immediately afterwards, Israel began intensely bombing the Rafah area in shelling that was still ongoing Saturday, with Hamas-affiliated medics saying 114 people were killed in the strikes. It gave no figures on how many of the dead were gunmen.
Meanwhile, terrorists in the Gaza Strip continued to shoot rockets toward southern and central Israel. Two rockets were intercepted over Tel Aviv early Saturday morning.
Saturday’s clashes raised the overall death toll in Gaza to 1,654, the vast majority of whom Israel says were armed combatants involved in the fighting.
Hamas also said 400 houses had been leveled across Gaza since Friday, with local residents reporting rubble and devastation. The IDF said in statements early Saturday afternoon that it had struck over 200 terror targets in Gaza since Friday, including “multiple Hamas command and training facilities found concealed within 5 different Gazan mosques” and “a weapons development center located in the Islamic University.”
UN figures show that up to 25 percent of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million may have been forcibly displaced due to Israel’s offensive against Hamas and its terrorist infrastructure, including rocket launchers based in hospitals and terror tunnels leading into Israeli territory.
The UN said more than a quarter of a million people were now seeking safety in shelters belonging to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, in whose schools rockets have also been found.
The reported capture of Second Lieutenant Goldin, which Hamas denied late Friday, drew sharp condemnation from the United Nations and the White House, who had jointly brokered the abortive 72-hour truce, and which demanded he be immediately released.
Israel has said it believes Goldin was snatched and the two other soldiers were killed in an ambush that involved a suicide bomber.
‘Lost contact with the mujahedeen’
Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged its terrorists had staged an ambush early Friday in which soldiers were killed, but denied holding the missing soldier, saying the attackers were missing and presumed dead.
“At 7 a.m. on Friday, our mujahedeen started an exchange of fire with the occupation forces … east of Rafah, and a lot of Israeli soldiers were killed and injured,” the group said.
“We have lost contact with the mujahedeen unit that was in that ambush, and we think that all the fighters in this unit were killed by Zionist shelling along with the soldier, who the enemy says is missing, assuming our combatants captured this soldier during the fighting,” it said.
“Until now, we in Qassam have no knowledge of the missing soldier, or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.”
Israel, which said the attack took place after 9 a.m., more than an hour after the truce began, said it was focusing its search for Goldin on the outskirts of the sprawling city of Rafah, an area home to some 210,00 Palestinians.
Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said “our understanding is that the force was attacked by a suicide bomber, (but it) seems there were several other gunmen who carried out this attack,” and that Goldin had been “snatched into a tunnel.”
Israel considers the capture of its soldiers a casus belli.
In 2006, Gaza terrorists kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in a raid inside Israel and held him hostage for five years before freeing him in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Weeks after Shalit’s capture, Israel launched a 34-day offensive on the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon after it seized two soldiers, whose remains were later returned in another swap deal.
Obama “unequivocally condemned” the killing of two soldiers and the lieutenant’s alleged capture, saying that if those responsible wanted an end to the bloodshed, Goldin would need to be “unconditionally released, as soon as possible”.
“I think it’s going to be very hard to put a ceasefire back together again if Israelis and the international community can’t feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a ceasefire commitment,” he said.
Egypt offers ‘concrete solution’
Despite the collapse of the ceasefire initiative, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is leading a delegation to Cairo for talks that his Egyptian counterpart said can offer a solution to the spiraling violence.
“Abbas has formed the delegation, which will head Saturday for Cairo whatever the circumstances,” his office said Friday of the 12-member group.
The delegation includes Abbas aide Azzam al-Ahmed, Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj; several senior Hamas officials, including Mussa Abu Marzuq, and a leading Islamic Jihad member, Ziad al-Nakhale.
Ahead of the meeting, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said a truce proposal by Cairo “is the real chance to find a solution to the crisis in Gaza and to end the bloodshed”.
“Time is decisive, we have to take advantage of it quickly to douse the fire in the (Gaza) Strip… and to stop the bloodshed of Palestinians,” he told a news conference.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.