VIOLENCE broke out two hours into a three-day ceasefire in Gaza yesterday, with at least 40 Palestinians killed in shelling, two Israeli soldiers dead and an officer captured by militants.
Israel and Hamas accused each other of breaking the ceasefire, which was announced by the United States and United Nations and came into effect at 8am yesterday.
The capture of Israeli Defence Force (IDF) Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, set the stage for a major escalation of the 25-day conflict, which has devastated large swathes of the impoverished coastal area and killed at least 1,500 Palestinians.
Lt Goldin – who has lived in the Cambridge area – was reportedly last seen being “dragged” into a tunnel used by Hamas fighters to cross the border into Israel.
Cambridge Rabbi Reuven Leigh said he was “shaken” to hear Lt Goldin had been captured, saying on Twitter: “He spent a few years living in Cambridge with his family. Please pray for his safe return.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Palestinian militants had “unilaterally and grossly” violated the ceasefire and attacked Israeli soldiers after 9am.
“Israel will take all necessary steps against those who call for our destruction and perpetrate terrorism against our citizens,” Mr Netanyahu said.
Mark Regev, Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman, said Hamas had “yet again thrown away a chance for a humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, by deliberately violating this ceasefire”.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas deputy leader, told the Al-Arabiya news channel that no military operations were carried out after the truce went into effect.
The capture of Lt Goldin could dramatically change the complexion of the conflict.
Any ceasefire efforts would likely be put on hold and Israel might instead expand its ground operations to rescue him.
In 2011, it traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for a single Israeli soldier, tank gunner Gilad Shalit, 25, who had been captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006. The released prisoners were responsible for the deaths of more than 550 Israeli civilians.
IDF spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said that an hour after the ceasefire started gunmen emerged from one or more tunnel openings and began firing, with at least one of them detonating an explosives vest.
He said Lt Goldin, who is from the town of Kfar Saba, Sharon, central Israel, was captured during the ensuing mayhem and taken into Gaza, while another two soldiers were killed.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum would neither confirm nor deny the capture, saying it was being used as a cover for a “massacre” that ensued.
A close friend of Lt Goldin, who asked not to be named, said he is engaged to be married and that he studied at a seminary in the West Bank settlement of Eli.
He has a twin brother who is also in the IDF and on the Gaza frontlines. Their father, Simcha, is a Tel Aviv University professor specialising in Ashkenazi Jewry, the friend said.
Meanwhile, the Israeli shelling of Rafah sent Palestinian families fleeing from apartment blocks as pillars of smoke rose.
Ambulances ferried the wounded to Rafah’s al-Najar hospital, where bloodied bodies on stretchers were carried inside and family members frantically searched for loved ones.
Many of the wounded were children.
In one hospital room, four children were treated on a single bed. Others were being examined on the floor.
The shelling killed at least 35 people and wounded 250 in Rafah, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.
On 8 July, Israel launched an aerial campaign against Gaza aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire and later sent in ground troops to target launch sites and tunnels used by Hamas to carry out attacks inside Israel.
Israel says 63 of its soldiers and three civilians in Israel have been killed since then.
The military said Gaza militants had fired at least 23 rockets and mortars at Israel after the start of yesterday’s ceasefire, one of which was intercepted.
In the southern town of Khan Younis, residents searched for bodies in the rubble of their homes as rescuers and volunteers carried away corpses, some charred, on makeshift stretchers.
Nidal Abu Rjeila found the body of his disabled sister on the side of the road, her wheelchair flipped upside down.
“I tried to reach human rights groups and the Red Cross, but no-one was answering me,” he said as he lay down by his sister’s body, overcome by grief.
Hamas has vowed to keep fighting until Israel and Egypt lift an economic blockade of Gaza imposed after the Islamic group took power there in 2007.