GAZA: The United States Friday strongly condemned the killing of two Israeli soldiers and kidnapping of another by Palestinian militants, blaming Hamas for violating the 72-hour cease-fire in Gaza.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Hamas to immediately and unconditionally release the missing Israeli soldier. He urged the international community to step up efforts to end the attacks against Israel.
"I have been in close touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with U.N. Special Coordinator Robert Serry and with other regional partners," Kerry said in a statement. "The international community must now redouble its efforts to end the tunnel and rocket attacks by Hamas terrorists on Israel and the suffering and loss of civilian life."
Israel declared the Gaza cease-fire over earlier Friday, saying Hamas militants breached the truce soon after it came in effect and captured an Israeli officer while killing two other soldiers.
Renewed Israeli shelling in the Rafah area, in which the incident was said to take place, has killed more than 50 Palestinians and wounded some 220, hospital officials said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his security cabinet into special session and publicly warned Hamas and other militant groups they would "bear the consequences of their actions."
The cease-fire, which began at 8 a.m., had prompted Palestinian families to trek back to battle-devastated neighborhoods where rows of homes have been reduced to rubble. It was to be followed by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo on a longer-term solution.
Egyptian officials said the invitation to negotiators still stood, but some Palestinian representatives had asked for a postponement until Saturday or Sunday to allow a new truce to be reached.
The Israeli military said that 90 minutes into the truce, militants attacked soldiers searching for tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip used to infiltrate fighters into Israel.
"Out of a tunnel access point or several, terrorists came out of the ground. At least one was a suicide terrorist who detonated himself. There was an exchange of fire," said Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
Asked if the cease-fire was over, Lerner replied: "Yes. We are continuing our activities on the ground." He said Israeli forces were mounting an "extensive effort" to locate the soldier.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest called on Hamas to release the soldier, identified by Israel as Second-Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23. Britain's Foreign Office said it was urgently looking into reports that he also held British nationality.
"We would encourage those who have influence with Hamas to get them back on the terms of the cease-fire and get them to abide by the agreements that they struck just yesterday," Earnest said on CNN.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the dominant Hamas movement in Gaza, said Israel was trying to mislead the world and "cover up its Rafah massacre."
Earlier Friday Hamas had rejected the Israeli timeline, saying that the incident took place before the start of the cease-fire at 8 a.m.
"There is no justification for Israel to violate the truce as the officer was captured and the two soldiers were killed ahead of the truce," Abu Marzouq, a senior Hamas leader told the Anadolu Agency.
He said that Palestinian factions were abiding by the truce and were only responding to Israeli "aggression."
"Israel ended the truce unilaterally," Abu Marzouq said. "We are committed to the truce and only respond to aggression."
A statement issued by Netanyahu's office said he spoke by telephone with Kerry and told him "the Palestinians had blatantly breached the humanitarian cease-fire" and attacked Israeli soldiers.
"Israel will take all necessary steps against those who call for its annihilation and terrorize its citizens," the statement quoted Netanyahu as saying.
The truce had left Israeli ground forces in place in the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip and a military spokeswoman had said operations would continue to destroy a warren of tunnels through which the Islamist group has menaced Israel's southern towns and army bases.
Israel launched its offensive in Gaza on July 8, unleashing air and naval bombardments in response to a surge of cross-border rocket attacks. Tanks and infantry pushed into the territory on July 17.
Gaza officials say at least 1,509 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed and 7,000 wounded. Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed and more than 400 hurt. Three civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets in Israel.