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Israel-Gaza cease-fire collapses within hours

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - A hard-won internationally brokered truce between Israel and Palestinian militants collapsed within hours Friday after the Israeli military said one of its soldiers was missing amid heavy fighting in the southern Gaza Strip and may have been captured by Hamas fighters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped short of declaring the cease-fire dead, but accused Hamas of “flagrantly violating” what was to have been a three-day truce. Hamas in turn insisted it was Israel that had broken the cease-fire terms agreed to only hours earlier.

Although Netanyahu distanced himself from personally announcing the breakdown of the truce - as he has done with previous cease-fires - a separate government statement said Israel had officially notified U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry that the truce was over, citing Hamas aggression.

“Israel announces that Hamas has thus ended the humanitarian cease-fire and prevented the residents of Gaza from benefiting from it,” the statement said, adding that Israel would take “strong action” against Hamas and other militants operating in Gaza.

If confirmed, the soldier’s capture could dramatically change the equation confronting mediators seeking to put a humanitarian truce in place in battered Gaza while opening broader negotiations to end the conflict, now in its fourth week.

Historically, Israelis regard troop abductions as akin to a family tragedy, and public opinion supports dramatic measures to win captives’ freedom, such as the massive prisoner swap that resulted in the release of Gilad Shalit, imprisoned in Gaza for five years by Hamas. Netanyahu’s government would be unlikely to make any significant concessions to the militant group while the soldier’s fate was being determined.

Hostilities between the two sides had continued almost until the last minute before the lull - announced in the dead of night by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon - took effect at 8 a.m. local time. Overnight, airstrikes had pounded eastern and northern Gaza, close to the fence surrounding the enclave, and rocket fire continued throughout the night.

But soon after daybreak, with word of the latest truce having spread even among those without electricity or television, Palestinians quickly seized upon the respite, trekking to devastated neighborhoods that had been deserted under heavy bombardment. Fishermen put out to sea in their small boats, slipping out of Gaza City’s small harbor for the first time in days.

Hamas policemen, out of sight for the last three weeks, took up traffic-cop duties, directing the cascade of cars and donkey carts that quickly formed into bottlenecks on major arteries in Gaza City. And as always, there were dead to be buried and injured to be tended to.

Wafi Jamal Sheikh ventured into a ruined neighborhood in eastern Gaza, hoping his house might still be standing. “There’s nothing left,” the 30-year-old handyman said. He was carrying a plastic-wrapped bundle containing a few cups and plates salvaged from what had been the kitchen.

The battle that erupted in midmorning between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants near Rafah, at the strip’s southern tip, left at least 38 people dead, according to Palestinian health officials.

Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said Israeli forces trying to destroy an infiltration tunnel were attacked by suspected Hamas militants whose ranks included a suicide bomber, and in the chaos a man went missing - dragged into the tunnel, Israel feared. Israeli troops then launched an intensive search of the area.

It was not clear whether the missing soldier was dead or alive. In the past, though, Islamist militants have used remains of Israeli soldiers as a macabre bargaining chip.

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired fresh barrages of rockets and mortars into Israel on Friday, with the military reporting at least one projectile intercepted and seven falling into open areas.

Israel announced overnight that five soldiers had been killed a day earlier in a mortar strike just outside Gaza, where thousands of Israeli troops gather in staging areas not far from the fence surrounding the coastal strip. That brought the Israeli military death toll to 61.

By its 25th day, the conflict had claimed nearly 1,500 Palestinian lives, with 17 people reported killed in overnight strikes, according to Palestinian health officials. Most of the dead are civilians, many women and children among them.

The rapidly mounting death toll, together with the smashing of Gaza’s already crumbling infrastructure and the displacement of nearly a quarter-million Palestinians, had spurred mediators led by the United States and the United Nations to finally push through a deal after nearly two weeks of fruitless efforts.

Under the latest accord, both sides received some of the incentives they had demanded: Israel was pushing ahead with the destruction of Palestinian “attack tunnels” that form an elaborate catacomb beneath Gaza and its borders; Hamas would be part of the Palestinian delegation traveling to talks in Cairo, which would also include the Palestinan Authority and the militant group Islamic Jihad.

But Friday’s events illustrated the fragility of even a brief hiatus in the fighting.

While Hamas and Islamic Jihad swiftly announced their willingness to abide by the truce as long as Israel did, Netanyahu’s government waited until just a few hours before the cease-fire took effect to formally confirm it. The Israeli leader had asserted repeatedly prior to the truce announcement that Israel would not accept terms that precluded continuing operations to destroy the tunnels.

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Batsheva Sobelman is a special correspondent. Los Angeles Times staff writer Laura King reported from Gaza City.

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©2014 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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