GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel launched dozens of airstrikes early today in the southern Gaza Strip as part of a large-scale search for a soldier Israel suspects was captured by Hamas fighters.
At least 35 Palestinians were killed in the bombardment and shelling in and around the city of Rafah early today, a Palestinian health official said, adding that the area’s main hospital was evacuated because of the strikes.
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 distanced itself today from the soldier’s purported capture, which has prompted widespread international condemnation. President Barack Obama and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon have called for his immediate release.
The Hamas military wing later 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 cease-fire.
Hamas said it has lost contact with those fighters and that “we believe all members of this group have died in an (Israeli) strike, including the Zionist soldier the enemy says disappeared.”
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.
The breakdown meant there would be no reprieve for the 1.7 million residents of Gaza, where large parts have been devastated by airstrikes and shelling. More than 1,650 Palestinians – mostly civilians – have been killed and more than 8,000 wounded, according to health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians.
The fighting in Rafah intensified after the disappearance of the soldier and continued this morning, with residents reporting airstrikes along the Egypt-Gaza frontier as well as heavy tank and artillery shelling. The Israeli military said it was searching for the missing soldier and had sent automated calls or text messages to Rafah residents to stay indoors.
“We are under fire, every minute or so tanks fire shells at us,” said Rafah resident Ayman Al-Arja. “I have been thinking of leaving since 2 p.m., but tank fire can reach anywhere, and I was scared they will hit my pickup truck. Now we are sitting in the stairwell, 11 members of my family, my brother, his nine children and wife. We just have water to drink and the radio to hear the news.”
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