The Israeli army said early Sunday morning local time that an Israeli soldier believed to have been kidnapped by Hamas militants in fighting in the Gaza Strip was in fact killed in action, reversing its earlier reports that he had apparently been seized
An army statement said that a special military committee had concluded that Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin died in an attack Friday that led to the collapse of a ceasefire announced by Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary of State Ban ki-Moon..
Based on initial Israeli reports that the officer had apparently been captured, President Barack Obama and Ban both called for the immediate and unconditional release of the soldier.
Hamas never claimed that it held the soldier. A statement Saturday by its military wing said it had no information on his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance, and that he might have been killed in Israeli shelling that followed his reported capture.
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An army spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said that militants had possibly seized the soldier's remains, but that some were recovered in a tunnel to which he was taken. The soldier's blood-soaked uniform and ammunition vest were also found.
Military officials said that Goldin was standing near two other soldiers who were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives and other militants opened fire on the troops as they worked to uncover a Hamas tunnel. When the officer went missing, a squad of soldiers went looking for him in another tunnel where they suspected he was taken, recovering his equipment.
Under cover of shelling and airstrikes that killed dozens of Palestinians in the southern town of Rafah, Israeli forces pushed into the area in a search for the missing soldier. On Saturday night the soldier's family publicly appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip until the officer was found.
"I demand that the State of Israel not leave Gaza until it brings my boy home," his mother said in a televised statement.
Hours later, the family was informed that he was dead.
Lerner said the family was notified as soon as the military concluded, on the basis of its findings and DNA tests, that the officer had died in the attack. A funeral was planned Sunday.
Netanyahu said Saturday that Israeli forces would pull back to new positions in Gaza, but remain poised to hit back hard at further rocket attacks by Islamist militants.
His announcement, amid Israeli media reports that some troops were leaving Gaza while others were redeploying near the border, came after the army said it was close to completing the destruction of networks of Hamas tunnels, some dug across the border to Israel.
The Israeli government did not send a delegation to planned ceasefire talks in Cairo Saturday, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a member of the security cabinet, said Israel would now act "uniltaterally" without seeking a broader truce accord with Hamas.
Israel said Hamas violated a 72-hour ceasefire shortly after it began on Friday in a deadly attack on soldiers.
A redeployment of Israeli forces in Gaza without a truce agreement was likely to leave open the possibility of continued hostilities. A Hamas spokesman said a unilateral Israeli pullback wound not "commit" the group to anything, and that the situation on the ground would dictate its response.
The prospect of no truce accord and inconclusive results of the military campaign, now in its fourth week, could expose Netanyahu to criticism at home for failing to end the threat of rocket fire at Israel from the Gaza Strip.
While the Israeli army says it has destroyed rocket stocks and extensive networks of Hamas tunnels, militants have continued to fire rockets at Israel and infiltrate through tunnels throughout the fighting.
More than 1600 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in Israeli bombardments and shelling since Israel launched its offensive on July 8. Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have died, along with three civilians killed in Israel by rocket strikes.
“After completing the operation against the tunnels, the Israel Defense Forces will deploy for the continuation of our operation according to security needs,” Netanyahu told a news conference on Saturday. “We will deploy in places that are convenient for us in order to reduce friction for IDF soldiers, but we will continue the operation until achieving its goal.”
Netanyahu said that Israel would “not accept continuation of firing,” a reference to rocket strikes at Israel, and warned that Hamas would “pay an intolerable pricefor continued fire. All options are on the table.”
The Israeli military notified Palestinians living in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya that it had completed operations there and that they could return to their homes, although may houses in the town were destroyed or damaged by Israeli strikes.
Livni said that after the collapse of the ceasefire deal announced by Kerry and Ban “we've decided to act unilaterally.” The goal, she said, is “to move from an arrangement with Hamas to deterrence.”
A Palestinian delegation with members of the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Cairo for proposed truce talks, and was expected to be joined by Hamas representatives from abroad. Hamas leaders in Gaza were blocked from traveling by the continued fighting.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sisi said that an Egyptian ceasefire initiative was a “real chance” to stop the bloodshed, but Israel's boycott of the discussions appeared to dim prospects for a negotiated truce.
Israeli bombardments and shelling continued throughout the day on Saturday, with reports of multiple members of Palestinian families killed in Israeli strikes on their homes. The army said it had attacked houses of suspected militants, along with five mosques it said had been used as militant command centers and for weapons storage. A building described by the army as a weapons “research and development” facility at the Islamic University in Gaza City was also bombed.
Palestinians reported that at least 35 people were killed in heavy shelling of the southern town of Rafah, where Israeli troops intensified searches for an Israeli army officer thought to have been kidnapped in the area on Friday.
Netanyahu said that in attacking the Israeli forces, Hamas violated a commitment given by its ally, Qatar, that it would abide by the ceasefire terms.
But Khaled Mashal, the Qatar-based political leader of Hamas, said that the group had never agreed to continued Israeli operations against its tunnels during the ceasefire, contradicting Secretary of State Kerry, who said that work against the tunnels could proceed under the terms of the temporary truce.
“A truce is a truce, but the presence of the Israeli forces inside Gaza and destroying the tunnels means it’s an aggression,” Mashal told CNN in an interview.
“The Palestinian resistance has the right to self-defense and the right to deal with the invading Israeli forces who are inside our Gaza territories,” he said. He added that Hamas had made its position known to Kerry via Qatar’s Foreign Minister.
“We did not deceive Mr. John Kerry, and we did not deceive the Israelis, we fight honorably,” he said. “We told everyone that this is our position. Therefore they are the ones who should be responsible for this.”