JERUSALEM -- An Israeli soldier who the military feared had been abducted by Palestinian gunmen in a firefight that shattered a temporary cease-fire in Gaza has been declared dead, hours after Israel signaled Saturday that it plans to scale back its military operation in the Gaza conflict.
The country also said it will not participate for now in any cease-fire negotiations in Cairo with the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Hamas suggested that it won't hold its fire in the case of a unilateral Israeli pullout, raising the prospect of renewed hostilities in the future.
The military announced early today that 23-year-old Hadar Goldin of the Givati infantry brigade had been killed in battle Friday. Israel's defense minister, along with the chief military rabbi, met with the soldier's family at its home in the town of Kfar Saba.
Hundreds of people from across the country had gathered outside the home, praying and showing their support for the family. There was an outpouring of grief when the military's announcement was made public.
"Prior to the decision, all medical considerations, religious observances, as well as additional relevant issues were taken into consideration," the military said.
The Israeli military had previously said it believed the soldier was grabbed in a Hamas ambush about an hour after an internationally brokered cease-fire took effect Friday morning. Hamas on Saturday distanced itself from the soldier's alleged capture, which had prompted widespread international condemnation.
President Barack Obama, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and others had called for his immediate and unconditional release.
For Israel, the capture of a soldier or civilian by Palestinian militants is a nightmare scenario with far-reaching implications.
Israel has gone to great lengths in the past to get back its captured soldiers. In 2011, it traded more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, many involved in deadly attacks on civilians, for a single Israeli soldier who had been captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006. The capture of two soldiers in a cross-border operation by Lebanon's Hezbollah gunmen in 2006 sparked 34 days of fighting between the Iranian-backed militant Shiite group and Israel.
Soon after Goldin was believed abducted Friday, Israel conducted extensive searches in the territory and deployed heavy fire that killed scores of Palestinians.
On Saturday, Israel continued to pound Gaza with airstrikes, killing at least 72 Palestinians, many in the southern border town of Rafah where Israeli troops searched for Goldin before news of his death.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that the Israeli military will reassess its Gaza operation once troops complete the demolition of Hamas tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border. Once the tunnels are demolished, "the military will prepare for continuing action in according to our security needs," he said, stressing all options remain on the table.
"We promised to return the quiet to Israel and that is what we will do. We will continue to act until that goal is reached, however long it will take and with as much force needed," Netanyahu said. "Hamas needs to understand that it will pay an intolerable price as far as it is concerned for continuing to fire."
Since the conflict began July 8, at least 1,712 Palestinians -- most of them civilians -- have been killed, and more than 9,000 have been wounded, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians, its highest death toll since its 2006 fight with Lebanon's Hezbollah. Hundreds of soldiers have been wounded.
Large swaths of Gaza have been destroyed, and some 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes. In Israel, much of the country has been exposed to Hamas rocket fire.
Earlier Saturday, Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz said Israel won't send a delegation to proposed truce talks in Cairo for now. Speaking to Israel's Channel 10 television station, he alleged that Hamas repeatedly violated previous cease-fire deals.
"That leads us to the conclusion that with this organization, there is no point in speaking about an agreement or a cease-fire because we have tried it too many times," Steinitz said.
Already, there were signs of troop redeployments in Gaza.
The Israeli military told residents of the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya that it would be safe for them to return to their homes. The area, from which Gaza militants had fired rockets at Israel in the past, came under heavy tank fire during Israel's ground operation, forcing thousands to flee.
Israeli troops and tanks also started a gradual pullback from the area east of the Gaza town of Khan Younis to the border with Israel, residents and police officials there said.
Israel ended a previous major military operation in Gaza more than five years ago with a unilateral pullback.
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. Hamas has said it will halt fire only if Israel and Egypt lift their 7-year-old border blockade of the territory.
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.
"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."
Meanwhile, the extent of destruction around Rafah became clear after intense Israeli shelling in response to Goldin's suspected capture killed 70 and wounded around 450.
Entire apartment buildings in Rafah 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 the shelves of a cold storage room at a flower farm.
The farm's owner, Ghazi Hijazi, said the Health Ministry asked him to keep the bodies.
Rafah's main hospital was evacuated amid the violence, leaving injured people scrambling to find treatment at small clinics on the other side of the city, according to Gaza-based journalists.
There was no electricity in the area, and Israeli news outlets reported that troops had sealed all the roads out of Rafah to the north. Israeli tanks were seen along the Philadelphi Road, which runs along Gaza's southern border with Egypt and has long been riddled with smuggling tunnels, though Egypt has shut many of them down over the past year. Firefights and heavy airstrikes were reported in the area.
Imad Baroud, his wife and three children fled on foot from their home near the Gaza-Egypt border to his parents' home in the center of Rafah to escape the shelling. He said his home was hit by artillery shells immediately after they left.
"The situation could not be described in words. The kids were yelling, they were scared, my wife was scared. I felt death was close," Baroud said.
Palestinian officials reported more than 150 Israeli airstrikes Saturday across Gaza. Heavy shelling also continued along the border areas.
A military statement said Israeli forces had struck more than 200 targets across Gaza in the 24 hours since the Rafah confrontation, including what it described as a "research and development" lab for weapons manufacturing at the Islamic University.
Five mosques that the military said concealed weapons or Hamas outposts were also hit, according to the statement, along with a launcher used to fire rockets toward Tel Aviv on Saturday.
Gaza militants, meanwhile, fired about 90 rockets at Israel since midnight, according to the Israeli military. Seven were intercepted by Israel's rocket defense system, it said, while a mortar attack seriously injured a 70-year-old Israeli civilian.
Information for this article was contributed by Hamza Hendawi, Karin Laub, Ian Deitch and Yousur Alhelou of The Associated Press; and by Fares Akram and Jodi Rudoren of The New York Times.
A Section on 08/03/2014
Print Headline: Israel: Soldier dead, Hamas talks a no-go