JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said Sunday that an Israeli soldier it previously believed had been captured by Hamas fighters in a Gaza ambush had in fact been killed in battle that day.
The soldier's purported capture Friday had helped shatter an internationally brokered cease-fire, drawn global condemnation and triggered a military assault on the area of his disappearance in southern Gaza that left dozens of Palestinians dead and scores of homes destroyed.
The military did not explain how it reached the conclusion that Hadar Goldin, a 23-year-old infantry lieutenant, was killed in battle Friday.
The announcement of his death came amid signs that Israel is scaling back its 27-day-old ground operation in Gaza.
In a televised address late Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested troops would reassess the operation after completing the demolition of Hamas military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border. Security officials said the tunnel mission was winding down.
At the same time, Netanyahu warned that Hamas would pay an "intolerable price" if it continued to fire rockets at Israel and that all options remain on the table.
Hamas said it would not halt its fire if Israel withdraws unilaterally.
"We will continue to resist until we achieve our goals," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said after Netanyahu's speech, dismissing the Israeli leader's remarks as "confused."
Hamas has said it will not halt hostilities until Israel and Egypt lift their blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas overran the territory in 2007.
Egypt was to have hosted indirect talks between Israel and Hamas on a sustainable cease-fire, including new border arrangements for Gaza. The talks were to begin as an internationally brokered three-day truce took hold, starting Friday.
Instead, the arrangement broke down over Goldin's purported capture and the ensuing violence, and Israel said it won't attend such talks, at least for the time being.
Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said Saturday that Israel won't send a delegation to Cairo for now, alleging Hamas has repeatedly broken cease-fire arrangements and that there was "no point" negotiating with the Islamic militant group.
From an Israeli perspective, the advantage of a unilateral pullout or troop redeployment to the strip's fringes is that it can do so on its own terms, rather than becoming entangled in negotiations with Hamas.
However, a unilateral pullback does not address the underlying causes of cross-border tensions and carries the risk of a new flare-up of violence in the future, a prospect underlined by defiant Hamas messages Saturday.
Israel ended a previous major military operation in Gaza more than five years ago with a unilateral pullback.
At least 1,721 Palestinians have been killed and more than 9,100 wounded — the majority civilians— since the Gaza war began July 8, said health official Ashraf al-Kidra. Israel has lost 67 people, most of them soldiers.
Large swaths of Gaza have been destroyed and some 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
In the area around the southern town of Rafah, where Goldin purportedly had gone missing, the extent of destruction became apparent after two days of intense Israeli shelling that left dozens dead and more than 450 wounded.
Entire apartment buildings were flattened. Rescue teams sprayed water on charred rubble as families searched the wreckage for any salvageable belongings.
Nearly two dozen bodies wrapped in bloodstained white cloth lay piled on the ground and on the shelves of a cold storage room in a flower farm. The farm's owner, Ghazi Hijazi, said the Health Ministry asked him to keep the bodies.
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