Middle East

Gaza conflict: New exchanges amid Israeli soldier hunt

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Media captionFootage reveals the scale of the latest strikes, as Martin Patience reports

Israel has carried out fresh attacks on Gaza and militants have launched more rockets into Israel as a hunt continues for a missing Israeli soldier.

Palestinian officials said 55 people had died in Israeli strikes on Saturday, most in Rafah, where the soldier, Hadar Goldin, went missing.

A series of rocket attacks into Israel was reported on Saturday morning.

Later Israel sent messages to Palestinians in northern Gaza saying that they could return home.

"We have told Beit Lahia residents that they may return to their homes. We advised them to avoid explosives placed by Hamas across the area", the Israel Defence Forces tweeted.

Some 1,655 Palestinians, mostly civilians according to the UN, and 65 Israelis, all but two soldiers, have died in the conflict.

A Thai worker was also killed in Israel. Some 8,900 Palestinians have also been injured, the health ministry in Gaza says.

A 72-hour ceasefire had been agreed, starting from Friday morning, but collapsed hours later.

Hamas accused Israel of breaking the ceasefire but the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it had been forced to respond to militant rocket fire.

On Saturday, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi insisted an Egyptian ceasefire plan offered a "real chance" to end the bloodshed.

'Time is decisive'

Palestinian officials said that there had been a series of Israeli air strikes around Rafah since midnight, killing at least 35 people.

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Media captionThe BBC's Bethany Bell in Israel says there is an "enormous sense of solidarity" with soldiers on the front line as the hunt for Lt Goldin continues

Analysis: Mark Lowen, BBC News, Cairo

Even if the peace talks do finally get going in Cairo, they will be complicated by a host of conflicting sympathies and regional tensions. Egypt, the traditional mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians, is no longer on an equal footing with the warring parties.

Since the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown and Mohammed Morsi deposed last year, the government of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi sees Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, as a terrorist organisation. Turkey and Qatar, the two regional negotiators, now have poor relations with Egypt due to their support for the Brotherhood.

The Turkish prime minister recently called President Sisi an "illegitimate tyrant" and three journalists from the Qatari-based TV channel Al-Jazeera remain in prison for what Cairo calls "aiding" the Islamists.

And of course the US and Israel refuse to talk directly to Hamas. Amidst this complex atmosphere full of animosity, it's unsurprising that there's little optimism here about a genuine breakthrough.

They said that across Gaza overnight, 40 homes, three mosques and the Islamic University were hit.

The IDF said the university housed a "weapons development centre" and that five mosques containing Hamas command and training facilities had been targeted.

Israeli media said that after a relatively quiet night, a number of rockets had been fired on Saturday morning, including at Tel Aviv.

The Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, which controls Gaza, said it had fired three rockets at Tel Aviv.

At least two were reportedly shot down by the Iron Dome missile defence system.

Egypt's state-run news agency Mena reported on Saturday that Egypt's Rafah border crossing with Gaza had been reopened for humanitarian reasons, to help the casualties.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A Palestinian man inspects damage from an Israeli air strike in Jabalia, northern Gaza

Mr Sisi, in a news conference, said: "The Egyptian proposal is the real chance to find a solution to the crisis in Gaza and to end the bloodshed.

"Time is decisive, we have to take advantage of it quickly to douse the fire... and to stop the bloodshed of Palestinians."

Qassam Brigades' statement

The Qassam Brigades meanwhile said it had no information about the fate of 2nd Lt Hadar Goldin, 23.

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Image caption Barack Obama urged the unconditional release of Hadar Goldin

Israel said he may have been captured during an ambush in which two other soldiers were killed.

In a statement early on Saturday, the Qassam Brigades said it lost contact with a group of fighters in the area where the soldier went missing, saying: "We believe they were all killed in the [Israeli] bombardment.

"Assuming that they managed to seize the soldier during combat, we assess that he was also killed in the incident."

US President Barack Obama on Friday called for the release of Lt Goldin.

Mr Obama said: "If [Hamas] are serious about trying to trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released, as soon as possible."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption An Israeli soldier inspects a tank during a break in the Gaza operation
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Damaged copies of the Koran are removed from a destroyed mosque in Gaza City

The capture of soldiers is a particular concern for Israeli authorities. Conscript Gilad Shalit was held for five years before being exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Mr Obama also urged the protection of civilians.

He said: "We have 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 Congress on Friday passed a $225m (£134m) bill to help restock Israel's Iron Dome defence system.

Israel began an aerial campaign on 8 July with the intention of halting rocket attacks from Gaza, and later launched ground operations to target rocket launching sites and tunnels use by militants to infiltrate Israel.

There have been numerous attempts to hold ceasefires but none have lasted, with both sides accusing each other of breaking the truces.

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