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Israeli soldier thought captured is declared dead, Israeli officials say

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This undated photo shows Israeli Army 2nd. Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, from Kfar Saba, central Israel. (AP/YNET News)

Hadar Goldin, the Israeli soldier believed to have been abducted by Palestinian gunman, has been declared dead by the Israeli military, officials announced early Sunday.

The 23-year-old's death was announced after Israel's defense minister, along with the chief rabbi, met with the soldier's family at their home in the town of Kfar Saba, the Associated Press reported. Military officials said that the Goldin, of the Givati infantry brigade was killed in battle on Friday.

Hundreds of people from around the country had gathered outside their home, praying and showing their support. There was an outpouring of grief when the military's announcement was made public.

"Prior to the decision, all medical considerations, religious observances, as well as additional relevant issues were taken into consideration," the military said.

The Israeli military had previously said it believed the soldier was grabbed in a Hamas ambush about an hour after an internationally brokered cease-fire took effect Friday morning. The alleged capture prompted widespread international condemnation. President Obama called for Goldin's unconditional and immediate release on Friday.

Haaretz reported Saturday that Hamas' military wing said it had no knowledge of the soldier's whereabouts, but that he could have been killed in an Israeli bombing after being kidnapped 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 would ”bear the consequences of their actions, ” after reports of the kidnapping.

For Israel, the capture of a soldier or civilian by Palestinian militants is a nightmare scenario with far-reaching implications.

Israel has gone to great lengths in the past to get back its captured soldiers. In 2011, it traded over a thousand Palestinian prisoners, many involved in deadly attacks on civilians, for a single Israeli soldier who had been captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006. The capture of two soldiers in a cross-border operation by Lebanon's Hezbollah gunmen in 2006 sparked a 34-day war between the Iranian-backed militant Shiite group and Israel.

Soon after the soldier was believed abducted on Friday, Israel conducted extensive searches in the territory and deployed heavy fire.

On Saturday, Israel signaled it plans to scale back its military operation in Gaza and said it will not participate for now in any cease-fire negotiations in Cairo with Hamas. But the Islamic terror group suggested it won't hold its fire in the case of a unilateral Israeli pullout, raising the prospect of renewed hostilities in the future.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the Israeli military will reassess its Gaza operation once troops complete the demolition of Hamas tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border. Once the tunnels are demolished, "the military will prepare for continuing action in according to our security needs," he said, stressing all options remain on the table.

In the speech that appeared in part directed at Israelis beleaguered by the fighting’s destruction and death toll, Netanyahu gave no indication of moving toward a cease-fire, promising to “bring back the quiet” and use “as much power as needed.” He said the timeframe is only “as long as it will take.”

"We promised to return the quiet to Israel and that is what we will do. We will continue to act until that goal is reached, however long it will take and with as much force needed," Netanyahu said. "Hamas needs to understand that it will pay an intolerable price as far as it is concerned for continuing to fire."

Earlier in the day, Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel won't send a delegation to proposed truce talks in Cairo for now. Speaking to Israel's Channel 10 television station, he said that Hamas repeatedly violated previous cease-fire deals.

"That leads us to the conclusion that with this organization there is no point in speaking about an agreement or a cease-fire because we have tried it too many times," Steinitz said.

"We will continue to resist until we achieve our goals," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said after Netanyahu's speech, dismissing the Israeli leader's remarks as "confused."

Israel has said a main purpose of its Gaza operation is to seek and destroy tunnels dug by Hamas that stretch into the Jewish state. Israel views the tunnel network as a strategic threat intended to facilitate mass killing sprees on its civilians and soldiers.

Palestinian militants trying to sneak into Israel through the tunnels have been found with sedatives and handcuffs, an indication they were planning abductions, a tactic Hamas has used in the past.

Several soldiers have been killed in the current round of fighting by Palestinian gunmen who appeared out of underground tunnels near Israeli communities along the Gaza border.

Many residents of the communities near the tunnel openings inside Israel have said they feel terrified.

Dealing with the tunnel threat is a serious challenge facing Israel after the current round of violence ends.

Palestinian officials reported more than 150 Israeli airstrikes Saturday across Gaza, including several against mosques and one against the Hamas-linked Islamic University in Gaza City. Heavy shelling also continued along the border areas.

The Israeli military said it struck 200 targets over the previous 24 hours. It said it attacked five mosques that concealed weapons and that the Islamic University was being used as a research and weapons manufacturing site for Hamas. The claim could not be independently verified.

Gaza militants, meanwhile, fired about 90 rockets at Israel since midnight, according to the Israeli military. Seven were intercepted by Israel's rocket defense system, it said, while a mortar attack seriously injured a 70-year-old Israeli civilian.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.