JERUSALEM — An agreed three-day cease-fire collapsed Friday only 90 minutes after it went into effect when Hamas militants attacked Israeli soldiers working to demolish tunnels in the Gaza Strip, killing two and apparently kidnapping a third, the Israeli army said.
The renewal of hostilities, and especially the presumed capture of the missing army officer, dimmed hopes for an early halt to the Hamas-Israel conflict, now it is fourth week.
Israeli forces, backed by tank-shelling and air-strikes, pushed deeper into the southern Gaza Strip in a search for the soldier near the town Rafah, raising the prospect of a further expansion of the Israeli offensive against Hamas.
At least 70 Palestinians were reported killed in the Rafah area, and at least 140 throughout the Gaza Strip.
President Barack Obama and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the immediate release of the soldier, reflecting concerns that his disappearance could trigger a further escalation of fighting and an even higher toll of civilian casualties.
More than 1,600 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since Israel launched its offensive against Hamas on July 8, according to Gaza health officials. Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have died, along with three civilians killed by rocket strikes in Israel. An estimated 400,000 Palestinians in Gaza have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.
“I want to make sure that they are listening,” Obama said, referring to Hamas. “If they are serious about trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released, as soon as possible.”
Obama said Washington would continue working for a cease-fire, but it would “very hard” to reach one “if Israelis and the international community can’t feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a cease-fire commitment.”
Ban said the apparent abduction was a “grave violation” of the cease-fire and called for the “immediate and unconditional release of the captured soldier.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Secretary of State John Kerry, who had worked to arrange the halt in fighting announced Thursday, that Hamas had “brazenly violated the humanitarian cease-fire” and “will bear the consequences of their actions.”
Israel’s security cabinet met to discuss Israel’s next moves, but no decisions were announced.
The suspected capture of the officer, which the army said came during an attack on troops working to uncover a Hamas tunnel near Rafah, raised questions about whether Hamas had agreed to continued Israeli operations against the tunnels during the cease-fire.
An army statement said that “initial indications suggest” that the officer had been “abducted by terrorists” when militants attacked troops working to find and destroy a Hamas tunnel at 9:30 a.m. local time, an hour and a half after the cease-fire went into force.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman, said a militant suicide bomber who emerged from a tunnel shaft detonated his explosives as gunmen opened fire, and two soldiers were killed.
Findings at the scene indicated that the officer, identified as 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, of the Givati infantry brigade, was taken by the militants, Lerner said. He said he had no information on whether the officer had been wounded.
The army statement said the military was “conducting intelligence efforts and extensive searches in order to locate the missing soldier.” Israel Radio said that special forces, along with armor, infantry and engineering units, were joining the search.
Israeli witnesses in the border area reported heavy artillery barrages and firing from Israeli helicopter gunships in the area of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
Palestinians reported more than 40 people killed and 200 injured in the Israeli shelling and airstrikes, including at least one members of an ambulance crew who died when their vehicle was struck. Clashes between Israeli forces and militants were reported east of Rafah, and Israeli troop movements were reported in other locations. Militants fired fresh volleys of rockets into Israel, but no casualties were reported.
The armed wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, did not immediately claim it was holding the soldier, though Musa Abu Marzouk, the second-ranking political leader of Hamas, told the Turkish Anadolu news agency that the officer had been captured and two soldiers killed before the cease-fire went into effect.
A Qassam Brigades statement said that early on Friday Israeli forces moved into the Rafah area for the first time since the start of the conflict, triggering a clash an hour before the cease-fire went into force, in which soldiers were killed and wounded.
The statement said Israel’s “indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes at people in eastern Rafah” had violated the cease-fire. “It is the occupation which violated the cease-fire,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman. “The Palestinian resistance acted in self-defense.”
Thursday’s cease-fire announcement by Kerry and Ban called on both sides to “act with restraint” until it went into effect, and stipulated that forces on the ground would “remain in place” once it took force.
Kerry later said that the Israel “will be able to continue its defensive operations for those tunnels that are behind its lines.”
Israeli forces in Gaza have been blowing up networks of tactical tunnels dug by Hamas, some leading under the border to Israel. At least 32 tunnels have been uncovered, the army said.
Although a Hamas spokesman announced the group’s agreement to the cease-fire, it was unclear whether it had accepted continued Israeli operations against its tunnels in the Gaza Strip.
Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said in an interview this week that the tunnels were “weapons of the resistance” and “were not up for discussion” in a proposed cease-fire deal.
Robert Serry, the U.N.’s Middle East envoy who helped broker the cease-fire, said that if the Israeli reports of the militant attack were “corroborated, this would constitute a serious violation of the humanitarian cease-fire in place since 8 a.m. this morning by Gazan militant factions, which should be condemned in the strongest terms.”
Serry urged “the Palestinian parties to last night’s understanding to urgently reaffirm their commitment to the humanitarian cease-fire,” adding that he was “deeply concerned regarding the serious consequences on the ground that could arise as a result of this incident.”
In an interview with CNN, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the reported attack “a rather barbaric violation of the cease-fire agreement.” Asked whether the terms of the cease-fire were clarified to all sides, Earnest said that “we were transparent, and everybody, all sides were transparent about what the agreement was.”
The 72-hour cease-fire was supposed to have been immediately followed by talks in Cairo on a durable truce, addressing demands by Hamas to lift border closures imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, and Israeli demands to rid Gaza of Hamas’ rockets and tunnels. But with the collapse of the cease-fire, those talks seemed in jeopardy.
Still, the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced in Ramallah that a joint Palestinian delegation, including the Hamas and Islamic Jihad factions, would travel to Cairo on Saturday “whatever the circumstances.” There was no word from Israel on whether an Israeli delegation would attend.
Capturing an Israeli soldier would enable Hamas to bargain for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Gilad Shalit, a soldier seized in Israel and held captive by Hamas in Gaza for more than five years, was freed in 2011 in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
On July 20, the armed wing of Hamas said it had captured another Israeli soldier, Oron Shaul, giving his name and army identification number. The Israeli army said later that Shaul had been killed in action but that his body had not been recovered, suggesting that Hamas had seized the soldier’s remains.
The continued fighting in Gaza set off protests in several areas of the West Bank on Friday, and two Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli troops.
The largest protest was in the city of Tulkarm, where the army said more than 1,000 protestors confronted Israeli forces who resorted to live ammunition after riot-control weapons failed to repel the crowd. A 22-year-old was shot in the chest and killed, Palestinians said. A 19-year-old was killed by live fire in a street clash with Israeli forces at the village of Safa, near Ramallah, according to local reports.
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem on Wednesday accused Israeli security forces in the West Bank of "excessive" use of live ammunition when confronting protests set off by the conflict in Gaza, leading to the deaths of more than a dozen Palestinians since the start of the Israeli offensive. The rights group said soldiers had used live fire unlawfully when they were not in mortal danger.
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com