Gaza conflict escalates as Israeli soldier is seized by Hamas

Obama calls for release of Hadar Goldin but Islamist group says it believes he was killed

Captured soldier Hadar Goldin: his father said he was sure the Israeli army “will turn over every stone in Gaza to bring back Hadar safe and sound”. Photograph: EPA/HO

Captured soldier Hadar Goldin: his father said he was sure the Israeli army “will turn over every stone in Gaza to bring back Hadar safe and sound”. Photograph: EPA/HO

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

The conflict in Gaza intensified yesterday after the capture of an Israeli soldier drew a furious response from Israel and caused the collapse of a planned three-day ceasefire just hours after it had begun.

US president Barack Obama last night called for the unconditional release of the soldier, who was taken by Hamas militants in a confrontation in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed.

The incident provoked fierce Israeli attacks on the southern city of Rafah, near where the soldier was seized. Palestinian sources reported that at least 70 people were killed and some 200 injured, bringing to at least 1,555 the number of Palestinians – mostly civilians – who have been killed in the 26-day-old conflict.

The Israeli death toll stood last night at 63 soldiers and three civilians.

Israel named the abducted soldier as Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin (23), an officer in the Givati infantry unit and the son of British immigrants to Israel. His father, Dr Simha Goldin, said he was “sure the army will not let up for a moment and will turn over every stone in Gaza to bring back Hadar safe and sound”.

Militants have tried on numerous occasions to seize soldiers. In 2006, Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and held him for five years, before freeing him in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Rare meeting

The Israeli security cabinet convened last night, in a rare meeting on the Jewish sabbath, to consider its response, amid speculation that the incident may prompt a significant Israeli escalation.

Israel began its offensive in Gaza on July 8th, unleashing air and naval bombardments in response to a surge of cross-border rocket attacks by Hamas. Ceasefire talks which had been due to commence in Cairo this weekend have been put on hold as a result of the upsurge in violence.

The capture of the soldier took place when militants emerged from a tunnel close to Rafah at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. One of them detonated an explosive belt and in the ensuing clash other militants seized the soldier and dragged him into the tunnel.

Hamas said it had no clear indication on the soldier’s whereabouts, adding he may have been killed during an ambush, Reuters reported last night.

A statement by the group said it had no contact with militants who were operating in the area in the southern Gaza Strip where Israel said Second Lieutenant Goldin went missing on Friday, and it feared all had been killed.

“We have lost contact with the group of fighters that took part in the ambush and we believe they were all killed in the [Israeli] bombardment. Assuming that they managed to seize the soldier during combat, we assess that he was also killed in the incident,” the statement said.

Blamed each other

Both sides in the conflict blamed the other yesterday for breaching the ceasefire.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu told US secretary of state John Kerry in a telephone call that Hamas and other Palestinian militant factions would “bear the consequences of their actions”.

At a press conference at the White House last night, Mr Obama said if Hamas was serious about resolving the situation, “that soldier needs to be released unconditionally as soon as possible”.

He said it would be “very difficult” to put a ceasefire back together if Israel and the international community believed that Hamas would not abide by its terms.

Mr Obama said what was happening in Gaza was “heartbreaking” but he again defended Israel’s right to defend itself.

United Nations secretary- general Ban Ki-moon condemned “in the strongest terms the reported violation” by Hamas of the ceasefire. Hamas said the capture of the officer had taken place before the truce came into effect, a claim denied by Israel.