Palestinians leave their neighbourhood for a safer place as Israel continued to shell Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Friday. (AFP)
Jerusalem, Aug. 1: A newly agreed ceasefire in the Gaza conflict collapsed soon after it came into effect today with the Israeli military announcing that a soldier appeared to have been captured by Palestinian militants who emerged from a tunnel near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
Gaza health officials said that 35 Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded as Israeli forces bombarded the area. Palestinian witnesses said by telephone that Israeli tank shells hit eastern Rafah as residents returned to inspect homes they had evacuated.
Hamas blamed Israel for violating the truce, saying in a statement that the announcement about the capture of one of its soldiers was “to cover up the barbaric massacres, especially in Rafah”.
Lt Col Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said that government forces were moving to destroy a tunnel, as the terms of the ceasefire allowed for, when several militants came out of the ground.
Col Lerner said the militants included at least one suicide attacker, that there was an exchange of fire on the ground and that initial indications were that a soldier was apparently dragged back into the tunnel. He was unable to offer details about the soldier’s condition or whether anyone was killed in the attack. He said the episode began at around 9.30am, roughly 90 minutes after the 72-hour cease-fire came into effect.
“The ceasefire is over,” Col Lerner said, adding that the military was carrying out “extensive operations on the ground” to try to locate the missing soldier.
The Israeli military identified the missing soldier as Second Lt Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old officer in an infantry brigade.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior official in the political wing of Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates Gaza, told the Turkish news media that Hamas had taken a soldier captive but claimed the event took place before the ceasefire began.
The Israeli Prime Minister’s office said in a statement, “Once again, Hamas and the terrorist organisations in Gaza have blatantly violated the ceasefire to which they committed themselves, this time before the American secretary of state and the secretary general of the UN.”
The humanitarian cease-fire, negotiated by the US and the UN, came as a surprise and was announced in a statement by secretary of state John Kerry in the middle of the night in India, where he had met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and by secretary general Ban Ki-moon in New York.
Hostilities had continued overnight, with Israeli airstrikes and shelling that killed 14 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials. Militants fired rockets into Israel until minutes before the 8am deadline.
The announcement of the ceasefire came after several shorter humanitarian truces fell apart over the past week. The ceasefire announced overnight appeared to be more significant, with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators scheduled to head to Cairo this weekend for formal talks on the conflict, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians and 64 on the Israeli side.
Under the terms of the temporary truce, Israeli forces were permitted to remain in place inside Gaza to continue destroying the labyrinth of tunnels that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said were the prime target of the Israeli ground operation.