GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops and tanks pulled out of a central sector of the Gaza Strip and moved closer to the border Saturday, as its military invited Palestinians to return to one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the coastal strip.
Israeli media reports Saturday suggested that the military planned to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and declare victory in the weekslong war that Palestinian officials say has killed more than 1,650 people there.
Authorities in Israel, which has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians in the war, declined to immediately comment on the reports, but the move would mirror Israeli strategy in previous wars there.
The Israeli troop movements came as soldiers continued their search for infantry 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, who the military has said it believes its was grabbed in a Hamas ambush about an hour after an internationally brokered cease-fire took effect Friday morning. The soldier’s alleged capture has prompted widespread international condemnation, with U.S. President Barack Obama, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and others accusing Hamas of violating the cease-fire and calling for the soldier’s immediate release.
The Hamas military wing said on its website that it is “not aware until this moment of a missing soldier or his whereabouts or the circumstances of his disappearance.”
The group said the soldier might have been killed in a clash with Hamas fighters about an hour before the start of the 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) cease-fire, and that it had lost contact with the fighters.
“We believe all members of this group have died in an (Israeli) strike, including the Zionist soldier the enemy says disappeared,” it said.
The Israeli military declined comment on the statement.
The apparent capture of the soldier has made the prospect of a new cease-fire more distant. Israeli media reported Saturday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not send negotiators to Cairo for indirect talks with Hamas and other Palestinian factions. A government official declined comment on the media reports.
Palestinian delegates comprising representatives of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Hamas and other militant groups were expected in Cairo later on Saturday, according to Egyptian security and Cairo airport officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Hamas could be withholding information about the soldier in order to extract concessions from Israel, a strategy used in the past by the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which did not disclose whether two Israeli soldiers it seized in 2006 were alive or dead until their remains were handed over in a prisoner exchange. Another possibility would be that another militant group captured him.
Israel and Hamas have accused each other of violating the humanitarian pause.
At least 35 Palestinians were killed in the bombardment and shelling in and around the city of Rafah early Saturday, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra, adding that the area’s main hospital was evacuated because of the strikes, which killed dozens of people on Friday. At least 70 more were killed on Friday in the Rafah area.
Elsewhere in Gaza, Palestinian officials reported more than 150 airstrikes, including several against mosques and one against the Hamas-linked Islamic University in Gaza City. Heavy shelling continued along the border areas.
The Israeli military said it struck 200 targets over the previous 24 hours. It 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 Israeli military also informed Beit Lahiya residents Saturday they could return to their homes, but warned them against what it said were “explosives spread across the area by Hamas.”
The military did not say whether inviting Beit Lahiya’s residents back to their homes meant that hostilities there have ended. It would only say that there would be a “diminished” level of fighting and targeting in the area.
Israeli troops and tanks also started Saturday a gradual redeployment from Khoza’a village east of the town of Khan Younis to the area along the borders with Israel.
“We are afraid to go back, simply because we cannot trust them,” Beit Lahiya resident Assad Ghanam said of the Israeli army. “My uncle and his wife went back to the area to feed their chickens and animals after an earlier cease-fire. They both got killed.”
Israel launched an aerial offensive on July 8 to stop unrelenting Gaza rocket fire toward its cities and communities and later expanded it to a ground offensive mostly aimed at destroying an elaborate Hamas cross-border tunnel network used for attacks inside Israel.
Since fighting began, Gaza militants have fired more than 3,000 rockets into Israel, reaching most major cities and forcing millions to seek cover. Hamas has also infiltrated Israel several times and killed Israeli soldiers.
The prospect of an abducted soldier struck a particularly raw nerve in Israel and looked to worsen the fighting.
Israel has a history of striking back hard after the abduction of its soldiers and going to great lengths to bring them back. In 2011, it traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier who had been captured by Hamas and other militants five years earlier. Hezbollah’s capture of the two soldiers in a cross-border operation in 2006 sparked a 34-day war between the Iran-backed Shiite group and Israel. Israel later traded Lebanese prisoners for their bodies.
The Israeli military accused Hamas of flagrantly violating Friday’s cease-fire. Hamas insists it was Israel that broke the truce.