At least 107 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip Friday and Saturday, Palestinian officials in Hamas-controlled Gaza said, as Israeli forces, backed by heavy tank fire and airstrikes, moved deeper into southern Gaza in search of IDF soldier 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was apparently seized by Hamas gunmen during an attack earlier in the day.
Israeli attacks continued throughout the night, leaving at least 35 Palestinians dead in the Gaza town of Rafah alone in a series of air raids in the hours since midnight.
The Palestinian officials did not say how many of the dead were gunmen. Israel says hundreds of those killed in Gaza in the past two weeks were Hamas and other Islamist fighters.
US President Barack Obama called for the missing soldier, 23-year-old 2ndLt. 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.
Hamas’s armed wing said it had no information on the whereabouts of the missing soldier.
The intensive fighting on Friday and early Saturday ensued after a planned three-day ceasefire collapsed after just hours with a Hamas ambush of Israeli troops in Rafah.
The security cabinet held a rare session after the start of the Sabbath on Friday evening to weigh options, including whether to expand the 25-day-old operation against Hamas.
The toll on the Palestinian side was 107 people dead and 350 others wounded, said Gaza emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra.
Fifteen of those victims, including five children aged 3-12, came from the same family whose house was destroyed, he added.
In Gaza’s southern Rafah area, where Goldin was said to have been captured, the military urged residents in phone calls to stay indoors as troops advanced.
“We are under fire. Every minute or so, tanks fire shells,” said Ayman al-Arja, 45, a resident of the area.
An hour after Friday’s ceasefire started, gunmen emerged from one or more Gaza tunnels and opened fire at soldiers from Goldin’s Givati Brigade, with at least one of the terrorists 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, was apparently captured during the ensuing mayhem and taken back into Gaza through a tunnel, while another two soldiers were killed.
The breakdown of the truce and the apparent kidnapping of Goldin set the stage for a major escalation. The conflict has already devastated large swaths of the coastal area and killed around 1,600 Palestinians — hundreds of whom Israel says are Hamas gunmen. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians, including 11 soldiers killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from tunnels inside Israel.
If confirmed, Goldin’s capture could dramatically change the trajectory of the conflict. Any ceasefire efforts would likely be put on hold and Israel might instead expand its ground operation. Israel has in the past gone to great lengths to return captured soldiers. In 2011, it traded 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been kidnapped by Hamas-allied terrorists in a raid into Israel via a cross-border tunnel in 2006.
The shelling in Rafah sent families fleeing from apartment blocks as pillars of smoke caused by the shelling rose from them. One woman carrying two children rushed toward a parked car. “Quickly, open the car door!” she yelled to a man standing nearby.
Ambulances ferried the wounded to Rafah’s al-Najar hospital, where bloodied bodies on stretchers were carried inside and family members frantically searched for loved ones. Many of the wounded were children, their clothes stained with blood. In one hospital room, four children were treated on a single bed. Others were being examined on the floor.
On July 8, Israel launched 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 brief humanitarian ceasefires had been announced since the conflict began, but each broke within a few hours. The military said Gaza militants had fired at least 23 rockets and mortars at Israel since the start of Friday’s ceasefire, one of which was intercepted.
The latest ceasefire had been intended to be the first step toward a lasting truce, with Egypt inviting Israeli and Palestinian delegations to Cairo for talks.
Despite the collapse of the latest truce, an Egyptian government official said Cairo had not canceled its invitation for Palestinians and Israelis to hold talks there. “Invitations were delivered already to the delegations,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
After the ceasefire started, Gaza’s residents took advantage of the lull to return to their homes, many of which had been destroyed in the fighting.
In the heavily bombarded Gaza district of Shejaiya, less than 1.6 kilometers from the Israeli border, residents surveyed the damage.
Bassem Abul Qumbus found his three-story home — in which he had invested tens of thousands of dollars — 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 the rubble of their homes as rescuers and volunteers carried away corpses, some charred, on makeshift stretchers.
Nidal Abu Rjeila found the body of his disabled sister on the ground 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 as he lay down by his sister’s body, overcome by grief.
Israel says it has tried to spare civilians, including by warning people ahead of military strikes, and has said Hamas endangers Gazans by firing rockets from residential areas.
Palestinian militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel since the start of the conflict, extending their reach to major cities but causing very few casualties, in part because Israel’s Iron Dome defense system has intercepted many of the projectiles. Hamas has killed 11 soldiers in a series of cross-border attacks through its underground tunnels.
Hamas has vowed to keep fighting until Israel and Egypt lift a blockade of Gaza imposed after the Islamic militant group seized power there in 2007, which has devastated the local economy. Israel and Egypt maintain the blockade to try to prevent weaponry being brought into Gaza.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.