Fresh bloodshed in Gaza as Hamas denies holding soldier

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories - A fresh wave of violence killed dozens in Gaza after the collapse of a UN and US backed ceasefire, officials said Saturday, as Hamas denied it kidnapped an Israeli soldier.

A Palestinian delegation was due to arrive in Cairo for talks on the terms of a durable truce, however, even after the 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire fell apart within hours starting on Friday.

But the chances of a new truce seemed remote after Israel said it believed militants captured Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, in an attack near the southern Gaza city of Rafah that killed two other soldiers.

In the violence that ensued, at least 107 Palestinians were killed in Israel air strikes on the Gaza Strip, including 35 since midnight, officials said.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a member of Israel's security cabinet which met till the early hours of Saturday, accused Hamas of being behind the soldier's disappearance and said the group would pay a high price.

US President Barack Obama called for the soldier to be "unconditionally" released, but also said more must be done to protect Gaza civilians.

But Hamas' armed wing denied any knowledge about the fate of the missing soldier.

"The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades has no information on this soldier. We have lost contact with one of our combatant groups, which was fighting in the sector where the soldier went missing and it is possible that our fighters and this soldier were killed," it said.

On Saturday, AFP correspondents said Israeli aerial strikes targeted a mosque at Jebaliya, in northern Gaza, and flattened houses in a beachside neighbourhood.

In Israel, the Iron Dome air defence system intercepted two rockets fired from Gaza over the Tel Aviv area and another over the southern city of Beersheba, the army said.

The Qassam Brigades said they had fired three rockets at Tel Aviv.

Congress approves Israel funds

The US Congress had meanwhile on Friday approved an emergency $225 million (S$280 million) to restock the Iron Dome systems with interceptor missiles, in a measure that awaits Obama's signature.

Palestinian emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said at least 107 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza since the planned three-day ceasefire collapsed soon after it started at 0500 GMT on Friday.

Since the conflict broke out on July 8, a total of about 1,650 Palestinians have been killed in the violence, the vast majority of them civilians, Qudra said. On the Israeli side, 63 soldiers and three civilians have died.

The Israeli military said the two latest deaths among its forces occurred in the same incident in which the soldier went missing near Rafah.

"Our initial indications suggest a soldier has been abducted by terrorists in an incident where terrorists breached the ceasefire," said spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.

Israelis are highly sensitive about the kidnapping of their soldiers.

In 2006, Hamas militants from Gaza captured Israeli conscript Gilad Shalit and held him for five years before freeing him in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Obama said the United States "unequivocally condemned Hamas and the Palestinian factions that were responsible for killing two Israeli soldiers, and abducting a third almost minutes after a ceasefire had been announced".

"If they are serious about trying to trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released, as soon as possible.

"We have also been clear that innocent civilians in Gaza caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience and we have to do more to protect them," the US president added.

Cairo talks 'still on'

US Secretary of State John Kerry had said that once the ceasefire was under way, Israeli and Palestinian representatives, including from Hamas, would begin talks in Cairo on a more durable truce.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad later said Egypt was postponing the talks after news of the missing Israeli soldier, but Cairo said the invitation to talk was "still in place".

And Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said a joint delegation, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would travel to Cairo on Saturday for talks despite the renewed fighting.

Before the truce, Israeli tank fire and aerial bombardment killed 14 Palestinians in Gaza, and the army said five soldiers died in mortar fire near the shared border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office accused Hamas and other Gaza militants of "flagrantly violating" the ceasefire.

Hamas in turn said Israel "violated the ceasefire" and that "the Palestinian resistance acted based on... the right to self defence".

Israel launched "Operation Protective Edge" on July 8 to counter rocket fire from Gaza, and nine days later it sent ground troops into the Palestinian enclave to destroy tunnels used by militants to attack its territory.

It has vowed to press on with the offensive until the tunnels are demolished.