A Palestinian inspects a destroyed house in a heavily bombed Gaza City neighborhood close to the Israel border on Friday. At least 140 Palestinians were killed Friday in Gaza, with at least 70 killed in the Rafah area along with two Israeli soldiers. (Dusan Vranic / AP)
Gaza City, Gaza Strip — Backed by tank fire and airstrikes, Israeli forces pushed deep into southern Gaza on Friday, searching for an Israeli army officer believed to be captured by Hamas fighters during deadly clashes that shattered an internationally brokered cease-fire.
The apparent capture of the soldier and the collapse of the truce set the stage for a possible expansion of Israel’s 25-day-old military operation against Hamas.
President Barack Obama and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called for the immediate release of the soldier but also appealed for restraint. In Israel, senior Cabinet ministers convened late Friday in a rare emergency meeting after the start of the Jewish Sabbath.
The search for the missing soldier centered on the outskirts of the town of Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border.
At least 140 Palestinians were killed Friday in Gaza, with at least 70 killed in the Rafah area along with two Israeli soldiers.
Earlier Friday, Israel and Hamas accused each other of breaking the truce, which had been announced by the U.S. and U.N., and took effect at 8 a.m. The breakdown meant there would be no reprieve for the 1.7 million residents of Gaza, where large parts have been devastated by airstrikes and shelling, and at least 1,600 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians.
The fighting in the Rafah area continued into the night, with residents reporting airstrikes along the Egypt-Gaza frontier as well as heavy tank and artillery shelling. The Israeli military said it was searching for the missing soldier and had sent automated calls or text messages to Rafah residents to stay indoors.
“We are under fire, every minute or so tanks fire shells at us,” said Rafah resident Ayman Al-Arja. “I have been thinking of leaving since 2 p.m., but tank fire can reach anywhere, and I was scared they will hit my pickup truck. Now we are sitting in the stairwell, 11 members of my family, my brother, his nine children and wife. We just have water to drink and the radio to hear the news.”
The 45-year-old Al-Arja added: “We are just staying put waiting for God’s mercy.”
The heavy shelling in Rafah was part of operational and intelligence activity to locate the missing officer, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, the Israeli military said.
An hour after the cease-fire began, gunmen emerged from one or more Gaza tunnels and opened fire at Israeli soldiers, with at least one of the militants 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 in the ensuing mayhem, while another two Israeli soldiers were killed.
“We suspect that he has been kidnapped,” Lerner said.
Obama called for Goldin’s unconditional and immediate release and said it would be difficult to put the cease-fire back together. However, he said the U.S. will continue working toward a cease-fire.
Israel has gone to great lengths in the past to get back its 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 capture of two soldiers in a cross-border operation by Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas in 2006 sparked a 34-day war between the Iranian-backed Shiite group and Israel.
A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, would neither confirm nor deny the capture, saying the event was being used — along with the killing of two Israeli soldiers in the Rafah area — as a cover for what he called a “massacre” in Rafah.
The violence killed at least 70 Palestinians and wounded 440 in the Rafah area, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra.
Ban blamed Hamas for violating the cease-fire and demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Goldin.
The U.N. chief also urged both sides “to show maximum restraint and return to the agreed 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire that tragically lasted such a brief period of time,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone that Palestinian militants had “unilaterally and grossly” violated the cease-fire 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.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’ deputy leader, denied that Hamas violated the truce. He told Al-Arabiya news channel from Cairo that the movement’s military wing carried out no military operations after 8 a.m.
Hamas has vowed to keep fighting until Israel and Egypt lift a blockade of Gaza.