WASHINGTON/GAZA CITY: U.S. President Barack Obama urged Hamas to show they were serious about wanting a cease-fire Friday and urged the group to release an Israeli soldier reported captured earlier in the day, as Israeli shelling killed at least 62 Palestinians.
“I think it’s going to be very hard to put a cease-fire back together again if Israelis and the international community can’t feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a cease-fire commitment,” he said at a news conference.
“A cease-fire was one way in which we could stop the killing, to step back and try to resolve some of the underlying issues,” Obama said. “Trying to put that back together is going to be challenging, but we will continue to make those efforts.”
A humanitarian truce collapsed only hours after it began Friday amid a deadly new wave of violence.
Intensive shelling killed dozens of people in southern Gaza hours into the truce, which began at 8 a.m. and was due to last 72 hours.
But the cease-fire was short-lived, with Hamas accusing Israel of breaking it and the Jewish state saying it was responding to militant rocket fire.
The chances of a durable truce seemed as remote as ever after the probable capture of Israeli Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23.
The military also announced that two soldiers had been killed in the same incident near the southern city of Rafah.
“Our initial indications suggest a soldier has been abducted by terrorists in an incident where terrorists breached the cease-fire,” according to army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner.
He said a suicide bomber blew himself up, adding that first reports “indicate that a soldier was seized.”
Obama urged the immediate and unconditional release of the soldier, as did U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
Obama also said more must be done to protect Palestinian civilians.
Friday’s short truce gave brief respite to people in the battered Strip from fighting that has killed more than 1,500 on the Palestinian side, mostly civilians, and 63 Israeli soldiers and three civilians on the other.
Within hours, air raid sirens were heard on the Israeli side, and heavy shelling resumed in Rafah, killing at least 62 people and wounding more than 350, medics said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office accused Hamas and other Gaza militants of “flagrantly violating” the ceasefire.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum riposted that “it is the [Israeli] occupation which violated the cease-fire. The Palestinian resistance acted based on ... the right to self-defense.”
Netanyahu’s office said the premier spoke to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry by phone and said the Palestinians “unilaterally and grossly violated the humanitarian cease-fire and attacked our soldiers after [9 a.m.]”
It said Netanyahu warned that Hamas and “the other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip will bear the consequences of their actions.”
The army warned people in the Gaza Strip to remain at home, saying in voice messages to mobile phones that it was “pursuing terrorist elements in Rafah.”
Kerry had said that once the cease-fire was underway, 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 Israeli soldier’s capture, 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, will travel to Cairo 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.
Only minutes before the truce began, Palestinians had continued to fire rockets into southern Israel, with five brought down by missile defencss, army radio said.
While the truce had been accepted in the name of all militant groups by Hamas, the main political and military power in Gaza, the Islamist movement stressed it was dependent on Israel reciprocating.