Hamas and Israel disagree on timeline of ceasefire-breach
The cease-fire in Gaza collapsed Friday as conflicting timelines emerge about an incident in which two Israeli soldiers were purportedly killed and one captured.
According to the Israeli military, their forces in the southern Gaza Strip are searching for a missing soldier they fear may have been captured by militants at the start of the cease-fire.
The United Nations said two soldiers had been reported killed, apparently during the same firefight that led to the abduction.
"Initial indications suggest that a soldier has been abducted by terrorists in an incident where terrorists breached the cease-fire," spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told journalists.
Asked if that meant the truce was over he replied: "Yes. We are continuing our activities on the ground. Lerner said the soldier went missing during a fight with militants who emerged from a concealed tunnel, one of whom blew himself up with an explosives belt.
He said the clash took place in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where an AFP correspondent earlier reported fierce fighting as the army warned residents by telephone to stay in their houses as it "pursued terrorist elements."
A separate military statement said the incident took place at around 0630 GMT, 90 minutes after a 72-hour cease-fire was to have gone into effect.
Hamas however rejected the Israeli timeline, saying that the incident took place before the start of the cease-fire at 8 a.m.
"There is no justification for Israel to violate the truce as the officer was captured and the two soldiers were killed ahead of the truce," Abu Marzouq, a senior Hamas leader told the Anadolu Agency.
He said that Palestinian factions were abiding by the truce and were only responding to Israeli "aggression".
The United Nations said it was informed by Israel of "a serious incident this morning after the start of the humanitarian cease-fire at 8:00 a.m., involving a tunnel behind IDF (army) lines in the Rafah area."
"If corroborated, this would constitute a serious violation of the humanitarian cease-fire ... by Gazan militant factions, which should be condemned in the strongest terms," said a statement from the U.N. special coordinator for Middle East peace, Robert Serry.
The 72-hour break announced in a joint statement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was the most ambitious attempt so far to end more than three weeks of fighting, and followed mounting international alarm over a rising Palestinian civilian death toll.
The cease-fire was to be followed by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo on a longer-term solution, but a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad said that Egypt had delayed the talks following the kidnap of the Israeli soldier.
Israel launched its offensive in Hamas Islamist-dominated Gaza on July 8, unleashing air and naval bombardments in response to a surge of cross-border rocket attacks. Tanks and infantry pushed into the territory on July 17.
Gaza officials say at least 1,459 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed and 7,000 wounded. Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed and more than 400 wounded. Three civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets in Israel.
Amid strong public support in Israel for the Gaza campaign, Netanyahu had faced intense pressure from abroad to stand his forces down.
International calls for an end to the bloodshed intensified after shelling Wednesday that killed 15 people sheltering in a U.N.-run school in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp.
Fighting intensified just before the 8 a.m. start of the aborted cease-fire. Militants fired 11 rockets into Israel, one of which was intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system over the center of the country, a military spokeswoman said. Israeli strikes killed 14 people in Gaza, including eight from one family, hospital officials said. Earlier, Hamas rockets set off sirens in the Tel Aviv area and one was intercepted.
Israel's military said five of its soldiers were killed late Thursday by a mortar bomb.