Israeli shells pound Gaza as fate of missing soldier remains unknown
GAZA CITY — The bloodshed in Gaza showed no sign of letting up Saturday, with 50 Palestinians reported killed amid renewed Israeli shelling following accusations that Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier.
The fate of the soldier, identified by the Israel Defense Forces as 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, remains unclear.
And each side blames the other for the collapse of an attempted cease-fire in Friday, which disintegrated before it ever really took hold.
Pointing the finger at Hamas and its militant allies for the attack, in which Goldin went missing and two other soldiers were killed, Israel resumed shelling on what it has described as militant strongholds in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to deliver a statement on Israeli operations in Gaza at 9 p.m. Saturday (2 p.m. ET) from Tel Aviv, according to his office.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told CNN’s Nic Robertson Saturday that Israel’s presence and destruction of tunnels in Gaza during an agreed-upon cease-fire had been rejected, saying that “a truce is a truce, but the presence of the Israeli forces inside Gaza and destroying the tunnels means it’s an aggression.”
“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,” Meshaal said in an exclusive interview from Doha, Qatar. He added that Hamas expressed its position to U.S. Secretary of State John 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.”
As of Saturday, the overall Palestinian death toll has risen to 1,650, with more than 8,900 wounded, said Dr. Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, on his Facebook page.
The IDF said Saturday morning that it had hit 200 “terror targets” in Gaza in the past 24 hours, including “tunnels, weapon manufacturing and storage facilities, and command and control centers.”
A huge predawn blast rocked Gaza as the Islamic University was apparently hit by Israeli shelling. According to the IDF, it was targeting “a Hamas military wing facility” involved in weapons development within the building.
In addition, Israeli aircraft targeted a missile launcher used to fire at Tel Aviv early Saturday, the IDF said.
The missing soldier
By late Friday, there was no claim of responsibility for the capture of the missing soldier.
But speculation about his fate took a turn after the armed wing of Hamas, the al Qassam Brigades, announced it had lost contact with a group of its fighters in the Rafah area — the same area where Goldin, age 23, was reportedly taken.
In a statement posted on its website, the militant group says it assumes that all of the fighters were killed in an Israeli airstrike, including possibly a soldier that Israel claims was captured. The statement stopped short of definitively saying the soldier was captured, using the phrasing “assuming he was captured by the fighters.”
The group “has no information till this moment about the missing soldier, his place, or the circumstances of his disappearance,” it added.
Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan denied any capture happened.
“It’s clear that the capture of the soldier is an Israeli story; there’s nothing from the resistance saying there was a capture,” he told CNN.
As the conflict continued Saturday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said that an Egyptian cease-fire initiative — involving negotiators from the Israeli and Palestinian sides — was a “real chance” to stop the bloodshed and the best way to get help into Gaza and launch talks.
An Egyptian proposal put forward last month was accepted by Israel but rejected by Hamas.
An official Palestinian delegation is en route to Cairo to attend the negotiations, Hanan Ashrawi, executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank, told CNN’s “New Day.” It’s made up of five PLO members, five from Hamas and two from Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza.
“We’re hoping that they will be able to negotiate not just an end to this latest tragic bloodshed and to save lives and end this carnage, but also to try to dismantle all the causes that have brought about such a horrific situation,” she said.
According to Israeli media reports, Israel will not send a delegation to Cairo.
‘Bombing is constant’
Israel’s shelling appeared focused Saturday on southern Gaza, where the hunt for the missing soldier is on.
“The bombing is constant in Khan Yunis, it does not stop,” said Ata Abu Rezq, a father of eight in the city, around 10 miles from Rafah in southern Gaza.
“I hear explosions in Rafah, I see smoke and fire from the places being bombed by Israel,” he said.
The family has had no electricity for at least 36 hours and is relying on a generator for power, he said. “When it runs out … we will have to see what happens,” he said. “We use gas to cook. When we run out of gas we will really be in trouble.”
Meanwhile, the IDF sent text messages to residents Saturday saying they may now return to the Beit Lahiya area, near Gaza’s northern border with Israel. Residents are “advised to beware of explosive devices Hamas has spread across the area,” it said.
It’s unclear how many residents would have received the message given ongoing power outages and the poor state of telecoms inside Gaza.
But it could mean that Israel’s operations in northern Gaza are winding down.
CNN teams in Gaza City said there appeared to be a lull in military activities there too and reported signs that Israeli tanks were repositioning. However, Hamas rocket fire was still continuing.
The planned 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire appeared to erode after about 90 minutes Friday in Rafah, with the attack on Israeli soldiers.
The soldiers were working to destroy a tunnel when a militant emerged and detonated a suicide bomb, Israeli military Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Before the cease-fire plan was announced, Netanyahu had said Israeli troops would continue destroying Hamas’ network of tunnels that run under the border into Israel with or without a truce.
Hamdan, the Hamas spokesman, said that this part of the truce was not communicated to his group — that Hamas’ understanding was that there would be no military activity at all.
A U.N. spokesman said it was very clear Israeli would continue destroying the tunnels.
“Perhaps some will deny that now,” said Jeffery Feltman, undersecretary-general for public affairs. “But, yes, it was very clear in the diplomacy being done yesterday. … The Israelis never ceased saying that.”
Around the time of the suicide bombing, Palestinian sources told CNN they could hear shelling in the area. The Gaza Health Ministry said an Israeli attack on Rafah killed at least 62 people and wounded 350.
A Gaza staff member for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was killed Friday in an air strike in Rafah, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said via Twitter Saturday.
The staff member, who was not named, was also a school attendant, according to Gunness. Nine U.N. staff members in Gaza have been killed since the conflict began last month.
A Hamas spokesman said Israel broke the cease-fire before and after the hiatus by advancing its forces near civilian areas in Rafah and by occupying civilian homes to use as sniper positions.
The al Qassam Brigades said the clash with Israeli soldiers in which Goldin disappeared occurred before the cease-fire took effect.
The Israel Defense Forces countered that its troops in Rafah were attacked in a “brutal incident” that required them to defend themselves. At the same time, rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel, Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Prime Minister, told CNN.