GAZA CITY (AP) — Israeli forces, backed by heavy tank fire and airstrikes, moved deeper into southern Gaza late Friday in search of IDF soldier 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was apparently seized by Hamas gunmen during an attack earlier in the day.
At least 62 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in the fierce fighting that quickly shattered a US-brokered ceasefire.
The truce collapsed less than two hours after it began. 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.
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.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed Hamas for violating what was meant to be a three-day humanitarian ceasefire and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the missing soldier.
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.
A longtime friend of Goldin’s said he is engaged to get married and that he studied at a yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Eli. Goldin has a twin brother who is also in the military on the Gaza front-lines, said the friend.
The soldier’s father, Simha Goldin, is a Tel Aviv University professor specializing in Ashkenazi Jewry.
“We want to support the military in the fighting against Hamas in Gaza. We are sure the military will not stop before it turns over every stone in Gaza and returns Hadar home safe and sound,” the father said in a brief statement to media outside his home.
“We suspect that he has been kidnapped,” Lerner said.
The White House condemned the incident, describing it as an “absolutely outrageous” action by Hamas. Deputy National Security Adviser Josh Earnest said the soldier must be released immediately.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, told US Secretary of State John Kerry in a telephone conversation that Palestinian militants had “unilaterally and grossly” violated the ceasefire and attacked Israeli soldiers after 9 a.m.
“Israel will take all necessary steps against those who call for our destruction and perpetrate terrorism against our citizens,” Netanyahu told Kerry, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
...Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, said Hamas had “yet again thrown away a chance for a humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, by deliberately violating this ceasefire.”
... the heavy shelling in Rafah that followed was part of operational and intelligence activity designed to locate Goldin.
The breakdown of the truce and the apparent kidnapping of Goldin set the stage for a major escalation....
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...
...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.
...Gaza’s police operations room said that by Friday afternoon, Israeli ground forces had moved deeper into the Rafah area from the east. There were also airstrikes along the nearby Egypt-Gaza border, as well as heavy shelling.