Tank fire and airstrikes pummeled Gaza, as Israeli forces moved deeper into the West Bank, searching for a soldier apparently captured by Hamas militants, despite a three-day cease-fire that didn't even last two hours Friday.
The suspected kidnapping occurred shortly after a heavy exchange of gunfire erupted in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. Militants reportedly emerged from a tunnel shaft before a suicide bomber detonated himself, one senior Israel Defense Forces source told The Jerusalem Post.
Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old 2nd Lt. 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.
Haaretz reported Saturday that Hamas' military wing said it had no knowledge of the soldier's whereabouts, but he could have been killed in an Israeli bombing after being nabbed by Hamas.
"We lost contact with the group of combatants that took part in the ambush, and we believe they were all killed in the bombardment," the statement said. "Assuming that they managed to abduct the soldier during combat, we assess that he was also killed in the incident."
At least 62 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in the fierce fighting that quickly shattered an internationally brokered cease-fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Secretary of State John Kerry that Hamas militants will ”bear the consequences of their actions, ” after reports of the kidnapping. Netanyahu told Kerry by phone Friday that Israel will continue to defense itself against attacks, Jewish newspaper Algemeiner reported.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu told U.S. Secretary of State Kerry that Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip will bear the consequences of their actions and that Israel would take all necessary steps against those who call for our destruction and perpetrate terrorism against our citizens,” an Israeli government press office statement read.
Kerry issued a statement while traveling back to the U.S. from India Friday, condemning the violence in Gaza and possible kidnapping of the Israeli soldier, calling it an ‘”outrageous violation of the cease-fire. “
“Hamas, which has security control over the Gaza Strip, must immediately and unconditionally release the missing Israeli soldier, and I call on those with influence over Hamas to reinforce this message,” Kerry’s statement 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,” the statement concluded.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed Hamas for violating the cease-fire and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the missing soldier.
A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, would neither confirm nor deny the capture, saying it was being used -- along with news that two Israeli soldiers were killed in the Rafah area -- as a cover for a "massacre."
The Israeli military said the heavy shelling in Rafah that followed was part of operational and intelligence activity designed to locate Goldin. 62 Palestinians died and at least 400 were wounded in Rafah, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Rescue workers were searching for people buried under the rubble, he added. He did not say whether those killed were civilians or militants.
Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor sent a letter to U.N. Secretary –General Ban Ki-moon Friday, calling for the U.N. to condemn Hamas for violating the cease-fire and preventing humanitarian assistance in Gaza. The letter also demanded Hamas be held responsible for murdering and kidnapping Israelis, and called for the missing soldier’s safe return.
“While Israel agreed to this cease-fire to allow humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, Hamas agreed so that it could plan and carry out an attack and kidnap a soldier. Hamas has sent hundreds of suicide bombers into our cities and towns and kidnapped our children. In the last month, Hamas has also launched 3,073 rockets into Israel. How much more evidence is needed before the United Nations will finally designate Hamas as a terrorist organization and call for its disarmament?” the letter read.
Britain’s Channel 4 News reported that the soldier is from a family of British-Jewish immigrants and is a cousin – either second or third – of Israeli's defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon.
The cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. local time and was expected to last for a period of 72 hours. Both Israel and Hamas accused each other of breaking the cease-fire within two hours of its start.
U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said Friday if the soldier was, in fact, kidnapped by Hamas militants, it was a “barbaric violation of the cease-fire agreement,” and he must be immediately released.
"We urge those with influence over Hamas to exercise that influence to get Hamas to return the soldier that has been taken hostage and to live up to the agreements that were made just yesterday," Blinken said.
"There's no doubt that that soldier should be returned unharmed and immediately."
"Once again, Hamas and the terror organizations in Gaza have blatantly broken the cease-fire to which they committed."
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
United Nations Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace Robert Serry’s office issued a statement Friday, following reports of the cease-fire violation, urging Palestinian parties to reaffirm their commitment to the ceasefire.
“Serry is deeply concerned regarding the serious consequences on the ground that could arise as a result of this incident. He will continue his efforts to contain the violence and the risk of renewed escalation,” the statement said.
A tweet from the official account of the Israel Defense Forces said that eight rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from Gaza, one of which was intercepted while the other seven hit "open areas."
"Once again, Hamas and the terror organizations in Gaza have blatantly broken the cease-fire to which they committed, this time before the American Secretary of State and the U.N. Secretary General," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in an earlier statement Friday.
An Israeli official said the apparent abduction marked a "very dangerous escalation of violence" and that there would be no three-day humanitarian cease-fire. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The U.S. and U.N. said they had gotten assurances that all parties to the conflict had agreed to an unconditional cease-fire during which there would be negotiations on a more durable truce.
The Israeli Cabinet held a rare session after the start of the Jewish Sabbath on Friday evening to weigh options, including whether to expand the 25-day-old operation against Hamas.
If confirmed, Goldin's capture could dramatically change the trajectory of the conflict. Any cease-fire 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 hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier who had been captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006.
The conflict has already devastated large swaths of the coastal area and killed at least 1,500 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to Palestinian officials. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians.
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 injured were young children, their clothes stained with blood. In one hospital room, four children were treated on a single bed.
"We are under fire. Every minute or so, tanks fire shells," said Ayman al-Arja, 45, a resident of the area.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.