JERUSALEM — An Israeli soldier the military feared had been abducted by Palestinian gunmen in a firefight that shattered a temporary ceasefire in Gaza has been declared dead, ending what could have been a nightmare scenario for Israel hours after it signaled its plans to scale back its operation against Hamas militants.
The military announced early Sunday that Hadar Goldin, 23, of the Givati infantry brigade had been killed in battle on Friday. Israel's defense minister, along with the chief military rabbi, met with the soldier's family at their home in the town of Kfar Saba.
Hundreds of people from around the country had gathered outside their home, praying and showing their support. 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 distanced itself Saturday from the soldier's alleged capture, which had prompted widespread international condemnation. U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and others had called for his immediate and unconditional release.
On Saturday, Israel signaled it plans to scale back its military operation in Gaza and said it will not participate for now in any cease-fire negotiations in Cairo with Hamas. But the Islamic militant group suggested it won't hold fire in response to a unilateral Israeli pullout.
Israel continued airstrikes Saturday, killing at least 72 Palestinians, many in the southern border town of Rafah where Israeli troops searched for the soldier.
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 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 Gaza war began July 8, at least 1,712 Palestinians, including many civilians, have been killed and more than 9,000 have been wounded, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Israel has now lost 64 soldiers and three civilians, its highest death toll since its 2006 war with Lebanon's Hezbollah. Hundreds of soldiers have been wounded.
Large swaths of Gaza have been destroyed and some 250,000 people, one resident in seven, forced to flee their homes. In Israel, much of the country has been exposed to Hamas rocket attacks that have damaged homes and infrastructure, and mortar attacks in the south have caused several deaths and many injuries.
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.
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 seven-year-old border blockade of the territory.
Palestinian militants trying to sneak into Israel through the tunnels have been found with sedatives and handcuffs, as if they were planning abductions, a tactic Hamas has used in the past.
Several soldiers have been killed recently by Palestinian gunmen who popped out of underground tunnels near the Gaza border.
Many residents of communities near tunnel openings in Israel have said they feel terrified.
The farm's owner, Ghazi Hijazi, said the Health Ministry asked him to keep the bodies.
The Israeli military said it attacked five mosques that concealed weapons and that the Islamic University was being used as a research and weapons manufacturing site for Hamas. The claim could not be independently verified.
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.