GAZA/JERUSALEM: Israel declared a Gaza ceasefire over on Friday, claiming Hamas fighters breached the truce soon after it came into effect and apparently captured an Israeli officer while killing two other soldiers.
Renewed Israeli shelling killed more than 70 Palestinians and wounded some 220, hospital officials said. Far-right Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu called his security cabinet into special session and publicly warned Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups they would “bear the consequences of their actions”. The 72-hour break announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was the most ambitious attempt so far to end more than three weeks of fighting, and followed mounting international alarm over the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths in Israeli bombardment of densely populated residential areas of Gaza Strip.
Kerry called on Hamas, which has neither confirmed nor denied it is holding the soldier, to release him immediately and unconditionally. He said he had asked Qatar, which is close to Hamas, and Turkey to help free him. “We have urged them, implored them, to use their influence to do whatever they can to get that soldier returned,” a senior State Department official told reporters travelling with Kerry. “Absent that, the risk of this continuing to escalate, leading to further loss of life is very high.”
Ban condemned Hamas’s reported violation of the ceasefire and demanded the release of the soldier. The ceasefire, which began at 8am (0500 GMT), had prompted Palestinian families to trek back to battle-devastated neighbourhoods where rows of homes have been reduced to rubble by Israel. It was to be followed by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo on a longer-term solution. A senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry official said the talks would start on Sunday, and that Cairo “expects the two sides to cease fire before the launch of negotiations”.
According to the Israeli military, 90 minutes into the truce, resistance fighters attacked soldiers searching for tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip. “Out of a tunnel access point or several, terrorists came out of the ground. At least one was a suicide terrorist who detonated himself. There was an exchange of fire,” said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman. Two of the soldiers were killed. “The initial indication suggests that a soldier has been abducted by terrorists during the incident,” he said told reporters. Mark Regev, a Netanyahu spokesman, said Hamas was responsible for the attack.
Asked if the ceasefire was over, Lerner replied: “Yes. We are continuing our activities on the ground.” He said Israeli forces were mounting an “extensive effort” to locate the officer, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23. Kerry said the international community “must now redouble its efforts to end the tunnel and rocket attacks by Hamas terrorists on Israel and the suffering and loss of civilian life”. White House spokesman Josh Earnest described the soldier’s apparent capture as “a rather barbaric violation of the ceasefire agreement”.
The Gaza Health Ministry said more than 70 people were killed and 220 wounded by Israeli shelling after the incident near the southern town of Rafah. There was no immediate word from resistance groups on whether any were holding the officer. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the dominant Hamas movement in Gaza, said Israel was trying to mislead the world and “cover up its Rafah massacre”. Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Kerry and told him “the Palestinians had blatantly breached the humanitarian ceasefire” and attacked Israeli soldiers. “Israel will take all necessary steps against those who call for its annihilation and terrorise its citizens,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying.
Israel launched its offensive in Gaza, which has been under its siege for several years, on July 8, unleashing air and naval bombardments. The Palestinian resistance groups retaliated by cross-border rocket attacks. Tanks and infantry pushed into the territory of 1.8 million on July 17. Gaza officials say at least 1,509 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed and 7,000 wounded. Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed and more than 400 hurt. The Palestinian death toll is now higher than during the last Israeli attacks on the coastal territory in 2008-2009, when more than 1,400 died.
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