GAZA CITY — The bloodshed in Gaza showed no sign of letting up Saturday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to “continue to act in full scale” against Hamas until all militant tunnels are destroyed.
In the past day, 50 Palestinians were reported killed amid renewed Israeli shelling that followed 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.
Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv on Saturday that Israeli troops “managed to hurt severely” the capability of Hamas during the Gaza operation.
“Israel will do everything to bring our kidnapped soldier home,” he said, offering his condolences to the families of soldiers killed during the incursion.
Netanyahu said forces will “continue to act in full scale” against Hamas in order to restore “quiet, peace and calm” to Israel.
“In the beginning of the operation we promised to bring back calm and order and we will continue to operate until this goal is reached no matter how much time or force it takes,” he said.
Netanyahu said that after the tunnels are destroyed, Israeli forces will “regroup,” depending on their security needs.
Izzat Risheq a senior Hamas leader and a member of its political bureau, told CNN that Netanyahu’s statement was “an admission of failure, defeat and confusion.”
“The Palestinian resistance will continue to stand up to this Zionist aggression and defend our people until this aggression stops and the siege ends and the just goals of our people are achieved,” he said.
Barbs and accusations fly
In the end, each side continued to blame 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.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told CNN’s Nic Robertson that the group had rejected a proposed cease-fire outright because of Israel’s continued presence and destruction of tunnels in Gaza. “A truce is a truce, but the presence of the Israeli forces inside Gaza and destroying the tunnels means it’s an aggression,” he said.
“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 1,712, with more than 9,000 wounded, said Dr. Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, via Twitter. The dead included 398 children, 207 women and 74 elderly people.
In a statement, Palestinian officials warned of a public health disaster because of the lack of water, sanitation and primary health care.
The health ministry said 10,000 homes have been destroyed in the Israeli operation, displacing 450,000 people. Shelters were overcrowded and unsanitary. Cases of viral meningitis have jumped from five to 53 per day, the ministry says. And shelling and aerial attacks prevented authorities from retrieving decomposing bodies, which pose a significant health threat.
The IDF said 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
Before Netanyahu’s news conference, Goldin’s parents — Dr. Simcha Goldin and wife Hedva — pleaded that Israel bring their son back.
“Hadar is our smile and you can see it in all the photos,” Hedva Goldin said. “Hadar is the child who sees the good in everything. We raised four wonderful children for the glory of Israel.”
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, 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 arrived in Cairo on Saturday to attend the negotiations, the official news agency MENA reported.
The delegation included a representative of Fatah and Palestinian intelligence, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives set to arrive later, the report said.
“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,” Hanan Ashrawi, executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the West Bank, told CNN’s “New Day.
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.”
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.