JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli soldier is missing following a deadly battle in the Gaza Strip, a defense official said Tuesday, as Israeli airstrikes pummeled a wide range of locations along the coastal area and diplomatic efforts intensified to end the two week war that has killed more than 600 Palestinians and 29 Israelis.
It was not immediately known if the missing soldier was alive or dead, the Israeli defense official told The Associated Press. The disappearance raised the possibility that he had been captured by Hamas — a nightmare scenario for Israel. In the past, Israel has paid a heavy price in lopsided prisoner swaps to retrieve captured soldiers or remains held by its enemies.
Military officials said the soldier, identified as Sgt. Oron Shaul, was among seven soldiers in a vehicle that was hit by an anti-tank missile in a battle in Gaza over the weekend. The other six have been confirmed as dead, but no remains have been identified as Shaul, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident with media.
Hamas’ claimed earlier this week that it had captured an Israeli soldier. Israel’s U.N. ambassador initially denied the claim but the military neither confirmed nor denied it.
A representative of Shaul’s family, Racheli Gazit, said that “so long as the verification has not been completed … as far as the family is concerned Oron is not a fallen soldier.”
In Cairo, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Egyptian officials Tuesday in the highest-level push yet to end the deadly conflict. Ban then traveled to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, urged the international community to hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting.
“What we’re seeing here with Hamas is another instance of Islamist extremism, violent extremism that has no resolvable grievance,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Ban in Tel Aviv. He compared Hamas with al-Qaida and extremist Islamic militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Africa.
“Hamas is like ISIS, Hamas is like al Qaida, Hamas is like Hezbollah, Hamas is like Boko Haram,” he said.
Netanyahu was responding to a call by Ban that the sides address the root causes of the fighting and work toward bringing about a two-state solution.
“My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year,” Ban said. Netanyahu responded that Hamas, a group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, does not want a two-state solution.
Hamas, with some support from Qatar and Turkey, wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting fire. The Islamic militant group has no faith in mediation by Egypt’s rulers, who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago and tightened restrictions on Gaza — to the point of driving Hamas into its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987.
The border blockade has set Gaza back years, wiping out tens of thousands of jobs through bans on most exports and on imports of vital construction materials Israel says could be diverted by Hamas for military use. Israel allows many consumer goods into Gaza, but experts say Gaza’s economy cannot recover without a resumption of exports.
Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel. It expanded it on July 17 to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis. The military says Hamas has launched 2,000 rockets since the war began.
The Gaza Health Ministry says at least 609 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. The U.N. office of humanitarian affairs estimates that at least 75 percent of them were civilians, including dozens of children.
An Israeli soldier was killed Tuesday in fighting in southern Gaza, raising the number of Israeli troops confirmed dead to 27. Two Israeli civilians also have been killed.
Overnight, the Israeli military said it bombed more than 180 militant targets in Gaza, including concealed rocket launchers, a weapon manufacturing facility and surface-to-surface missile launchers. Gaza police spokesman Ayman Batniji said mosques, a sports complex and the home of a former Hamas military chief also were hit.
Since the war began Israel has struck almost 3,000 sites in Gaza, killed more than 180 armed Palestinians and uncovered 66 access shafts of 23 tunnels, the military said.
Airstrikes in Gaza set off huge explosions that turned the night sky over Gaza City orange early Tuesday. The sound of the blasts mixed with the thud of shelling, often just seconds apart, and the pre-dawn call to prayer from mosque loudspeakers.
Tank shells damaged several houses along the eastern border of the territory, Batniji said. At least 19 fishing boats were burned by Israeli navy shells fired from the Mediterranean Sea, he added.
Officials also said that six Palestinians with German citizenship were among the people killed when an airstrike caused a Gaza high-rise apartment building to partially collapse on Monday.
Saleh Kelani, 49, said his brother Ibrahim Kelani, 53, his wife Taghreed and their five children ages 4 to 12, were killed. Saleh Kelani said his brother and the five children had German citizenship while the wife did not.
He said his brother lived in Germany for 20 years. Standing outside the morgue of Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, Saleh Kelani said he was waiting for condemnation of Israel’s actions by the international community, particularly Germany.
“Where is Germany?” he asked, fighting back tears. “When one Israeli is killed all the world talks about it. But six with German nationality? Nothing is happening.”
In Israel, thousands attended the funeral on Monday night of Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, an Israeli-American soldier from Texas who was killed in the fighting.
“He’s a hero to us and he’s a hero to everyone,” said Seth Greenberg, a friend who tattooed Carmeli’s initials on his neck in the form of a Star of David. “Even though we know he is looking down on us from heaven and he is with us the whole time we felt that we actually want him a part of us, so we all decided to get a tattoo.”
Beyond the grief over the fallen soldiers, concerns were growing in Israel over what many consider to be an even more ominous result: that of an abducted soldier
Abductions of Israeli soldiers have turned in the past into drawn-out mediation with opponents leading to prisoner releases. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese militants in exchange for the remains of two soldiers killed in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Also in 2006, Hamas-allied militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid and held him captive in Gaza until Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for his return in 2011.
Hamas had threatened in the past to kidnap more Israelis and Israel says the militant group’s attacks through tunnels that stretch into Israel are for this purpose.
Egypt, Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional cease-fire, to be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.