JERUSALEM — The Israeli military continued its substantial military attacks around Rafah in southern Gaza on Sunday while defending its decision to announce the death of a missing Israeli soldier at 2 a.m., only hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on national television to say that he had no new information about the case.
Army spokesmen said on Sunday that the declaration of the death of Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, was made as soon as possible and that DNA tests had been carried out on partial remains found after the lieutenant and two colleagues were attacked by a Hamas squad that emerged from a tunnel on Friday. One of the Hamas fighters had exploded a suicide belt.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, the army spokesman, said that tests were done “on items found on the field” and in the tunnel into which the Hamas squad retreated with the lieutenant, leading to fears that he had been captured alive. “We can’t determine if he was killed on the ground or from the blast,” Colonel Lerner said. “The indications on the ground are that he was killed in the initial attack.”
He said that the tests had been carried out during the Sabbath because it was an emergency situation. The relatives of Lieutenant Goldin had made emotional appeals earlier on Saturday, before Mr. Netanyahu spoke, that Israel and its army not leave the lieutenant behind, and they said that they believed he was still alive.
His funeral is expected later on Sunday. Lieutenant Goldin’s case is unlike others in which there were no remains, Colonel Lerner said, referring to an earlier Israeli soldier feared captured and later announced to be dead. The Goldin family will have some remains to bury.
“There were remains found also in the tunnel,” Colonel Lerner said. “That led us to think that there is the possibility that” the Hamas squad members “have body parts.”
For its part, Hamas’s military wing, while taking credit for the operation, said on Saturday that it had no information about the lieutenant and had lost contact with its squad, suggesting that all involved were dead. On Friday Israeli forces immediately used a protocol for captured soldiers known as “Operation Hannibal” to pursue the Hamas squad into the tunnel and try to cut off any possibility of escape.
Hannibal includes hot pursuit and an option to engage the enemy “even at risk of the soldier,” Colonel Lerner said.
Israel has said that the attack occurred during an agreed cease-fire with Hamas; Hamas has said variously that it took place before the cease-fire went into effect and that it had never agreed to a cease-fire that would allow Israel to continue destroying the tunnel system. But the incident put an end to a cease-fire effort pressed by Washington and the United Nations.
Two other Israelis were killed in the incident: a company commander, Maj. Benaya Sarel, and a radioman, Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni. The soldiers who entered the tunnel said that one shaft led to a mosque and the other to a Hamas bunker.
The Goldin family was notified of the decision to declare the lieutenant dead by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and two officers, including the chief military rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz. The family said that they accepted the military’s conclusion and thanked the people of Israel for their support. A group of people outside the family house in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, were singing the Israeli national anthem, and some burst into tears when informed of the death.
Israel’s military operation will continue, Colonel Lerner said. “There is no end in sight,” he said. “The reality on the ground can take us in either direction.” But he confirmed that once the operations to destroy the tunnels were completed, which he said could take 24 hours, some Israeli troops would redeploy away from populated areas and take up positions near the Israeli border with Gaza. “We are moving forces to different locations, but it will still let us carry out operational activities on the ground as required,” he said.
On Sunday, airstrikes killed at least 30 Palestinians, medics and witnesses said. The deadliest hit homes in Rafah and in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza Strip.
Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry, said that nine members of a family were killed in an air attack in Rafah. Earlier Sunday, six Palestinians were killed in separate airstrikes on houses in the Nuseirat refugee camp. At midnight Saturday, before the attacks on Sunday, the health ministry put the cumulative death toll in Gaza at 1,712.
On Saturday evening, Mr. Netanyahu insisted that Israel was achieving its goals and could alter its tactics. “We promised to return the quiet to Israel’s citizens, and we will continue to act until that aim is achieved,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed.”
Israel is not ending its operation unilaterally, he said, adding: “We will deploy in the places most convenient to us to reduce friction on I.D.F. soldiers, because we care about them.” Israeli television reports on Saturday said that some Israel Defense Forces troops were pulling out of Gaza, and that Israel had informed Palestinians in Beit Lahiya and al-Atatra, in northern Gaza, that it was now safe to return to their homes.
Steven Erlanger reported from Jerusalem, and Jodi Rudoren from Kfar Saba, Israel. Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza.
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(via NY Times)