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Israel declares missing soldier dead as Gaza toll rises

The Israeli army on Sunday (August 3) announced the death of Hadar Goldin, the Israeli soldier who went missing in action during fighting in the Gaza Strip two days ago.

JERUSALEM: The Israeli army on Sunday (August 3) announced the death of Hadar Goldin, the Israeli soldier who went missing in action during fighting in the Gaza Strip two days ago.

"A special committee, led by the IDF (army) chief rabbi, announced the death of the IDF infantry officer of the Givati Brigade, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, who was killed in battle in the Gaza Strip on Friday," the army said in a statement. An army spokesman refused to confirm or deny that the soldier's remains had been found. The soldier's family has been notified and will receive support, the statement added.

The Israeli side had previously suggested that 23-year-old Goldin had been captured by Hamas fighters in Rafah, southern Gaza. Immediately afterwards, Israel bombarded the Rafah area in shelling that is still ongoing, with medics saying it killed 114 people in 24 hours. Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, had acknowledged its militants staged an ambush early Friday in which soldiers were killed, but denied holding Goldin.

"We have lost contact with the mujahedeen unit that was in that ambush, and we think that all the fighters in this unit were killed by Zionist shelling along with the soldier, who the enemy says is missing," it said on Saturday.

Israel considers the capture of its soldiers a casus belli. It launched a 34-day war on Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006 after it seized two soldiers. Late Saturday, Israeli media had watched as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon and the army Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz visited the home of Goldin's parents.

Hundreds of people, including the parents of three young Israelis kidnapped and killed in the Palestinian West Bank in June, also assembled at the Goldin family home in central Kfar Saba. Goldin's mother on Saturday urged Israel army not to pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip, where the conflict has raged for almost four weeks, until her son was brought back.

Both Israel and Hamas vowed Saturday to continue their bloody 26-day confrontation in Gaza, shunning efforts to broker an end to the bloodshed which has claimed more than 1,700 lives. With no resolution in sight, a senior Palestinian delegation landed in Cairo for talks Sunday on an Egyptian ceasefire initiative, but Israel said it was not sending a negotiating team.

"Hamas has proven that it breaches any agreement reached right away, as happened five times in previous truces," deputy foreign minister Tzahi HaNegbi said. "It is therefore unclear at this stage what benefit Israel might see for participating in an attempt to reach agreements, based on the Egyptian initiative."

US Middle East envoy Frank Lowenstein was also expected to arrive for talks, along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Gaza violence has claimed 1,712 Palestinian lives and displaced up to a quarter of the territory's population. Goldin's death brings the Israeli army death toll to 64 since the start of hostilities on July 8, its heaviest since the 2006 war against the Lebanese Hezbollah.

AS MUCH FORCE AS NEEDED

Earlier Saturday, Israel pulled back troops from two areas in Gaza in what was initially interpreted as a sign it was winding down its biggest military operation there in in decades. But there appeared to be little further indication Israel was planning to wrap up its operations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising that Hamas would pay "an insufferable price" for continued cross-border rocket fire.

"We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed," he said at a news conference, adding that troops had also dealt a "significant blow" to Hamas's infrastructure. Troops would complete their mission to destroy a complex network of tunnels used by militants to infiltrate southern Israel before the next security objectives would be decided, he said, warning that "all options" were on the table.

A spokesman for the Islamist movement mocked Netanyahu's statements as "confused", and as testimony of the "real crisis" he was facing. "We will continue our resistance till we achieve our goals," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said. Meanwhile, air strikes and tank fire continued pounding huge areas of southern Gaza into rubble, killing scores more people on Saturday, as militants kept up their cross-border fire, with 56 rockets hitting Israel and another six downed, including two over greater Tel Aviv.