GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel bombarded the southern Gaza town of Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war.
The Israeli military has said it believes the soldier was grabbed in a Hamas ambush about an hour after an internationally brokered cease-fire took effect Friday morning. The Hamas military wing on Saturday distanced itself from the soldier’s alleged capture, which has prompted widespread international condemnation. President Barack Obama, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and others have called for his immediate and unconditional release.
At least 35 Palestinians were killed in the bombardment and shelling in and around the city of Rafah early Saturday, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra, adding that the area’s main hospital was evacuated because of the strikes.
Elsewhere in Gaza, Palestinian officials reported more than 150 airstrikes including one against the Islamic University in Gaza City. Heavy shelling continued along the border areas. The fiercest battles took place near the site of Friday’s attack and purported abduction, near Rafah, about 3 kilometers inside the strip and close to the borders with Israel and Egypt.
The Hamas military wing said in a statement on its website that it is “not aware until this moment of a missing soldier or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.”
The group said it believes the soldier might have been killed in a clash with Hamas fighters about an hour before the start of the 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) cease-fire.
Hamas said it has lost contact with those fighters. “We believe all members of this group have died in an (Israeli) strike, including the Zionist soldier the enemy says disappeared,” it said.
The Israeli military declined comment on the statement.
The disappearance of the soldier, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, and the heavy clashes that followed it shattered an internationally brokered cease-fire that was to have been in place for three days and open the way for talks in Cairo on a more sustainable truce.
Israel and Hamas have accused each other of violating the humanitarian pause.
Israel launched its aerial offensive on July 8 to stop unrelenting Gaza rocket fire toward its cities and communities and later expanded it to a ground offensive mostly aimed at destroying an elaborate Hamas cross-border tunnel network used for attacks inside Israel.
Since fighting began, Gaza militants have fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel, reaching most major cities and forcing millions to seek cover. Hamas has also infiltrated Israel several times and killed Israeli soldiers. Israeli communities along the border have mostly emptied for fear of the repeated rocket fire and infiltrations.
Sirens wailed across central Israel once again Saturday morning warning of incoming rockets.
Since fighting began on July 8, more than 1,650 Palestinians — mostly civilians — have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded, according al-Kidra. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians.
The prospect of an abducted soldier, however, looked to further escalate the fighting.
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 and other militants five years earlier. The capture of two soldiers in a cross-border operation by Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006 sparked a 34-day war between the Iran-backed Shiite group and Israel.
The Israeli military accused Hamas of flagrantly violating Friday’s cease-fire. Goldin disappeared in an ambush about an hour after the cease-fire began, when 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 city 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.
Outside the family home, the officer’s father, Simha Goldin, said he expects Israel to “not stop before it turns over every stone in Gaza and returns Hadar home safe and sound.”