JERUSALEM - Israeli officials said on Tuesday that it was still not clear whether an Israeli soldier missing in Gaza had been captured or had died in combat.
The Israeli military said it had recovered the remains of six other soldiers who were killed in the same incident, but had not found or identified those of Sgt. Oron Shaul, 21, a soldier with the Golani brigade who is from Poria, in northern Israel.
The military wing of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, said Sunday that it had captured Shaul.
A senior Israeli military official said Tuesday that Shaul was definitely among the seven soldiers in an armored personnel carrier that entered Gaza around 1 a.m. Sunday. The vehicle, an M-113 that the official said was 40 or 50 years old, encountered some problem - possibly a mechanical breakdown, or a roadblock or an ambush - and some of the soldiers got out to resolve it, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under military rules. The vehicle was then hit by an anti-tank missile and caught fire, he said, and it was not yet known whether Shaul was inside the carrier when it was hit.
The official said it took the Israeli military between 7 and 10 hours to get the vehicle and the remains of six of the soldiers out of Gaza.
“I’ll be very frank: Currently, we don’t know where he is,” the official said of Shaul. “We don’t know if he is alive or dead; we simply don’t know.” He added, “Unless we see hard evidence that he’s alive, or hard evidence that he’s dead, or hard evidence that he is in the hands of Hamas, we simply say that he is missing.”
The destruction of the vehicle, during a battle between Israeli ground forces and Hamas militants in Shejaiya, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City, was one of the deadliest encounters for Israeli forces since they advanced into Gaza late Thursday.
The military said in a statement Tuesday that the families of the seven soldiers “who were involved in the incident were briefed on the circumstances of the attack.” Motti Almoz, the military’s chief spokesman, told Israel Radio that the military was “clarifying the circumstances surrounding this incident.”
The stated purposes of the Israeli incursion into Gaza include finding and destroying tunnels used by militants to cross secretly into and out of Israel. The military said Tuesday that it had uncovered 23 tunnels so far, with 66 access points, many of them in Shejaiya, which lies close to the border with Israel. Fighting continued in Shejaiya overnight, where the Israeli military said it had struck weapons stores, command posts and other installations used by Hamas.
The Israeli military official said more tunnels had been uncovered in Shejaiya than expected, and added, “I think we are in the middle of the way somewhere” with the job of destroying the militant tunnels in Gaza. He said he doubted that every tunnel would be found, but “you don’t have to achieve 100 percent of the targets,” and added, “you have to decide whether to go for the last 5 percent of the tunnels based on what you can pay for it.”
There have been several deadly clashes between militants emerging from tunnels on the Israeli side of the border and Israeli soldiers. Israeli officials say the tunnels were also designed for attacks on Israeli civilian communities.
Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel continued Tuesday, with one rocket striking the town of Yehud, near Tel Aviv, causing damage to houses but no serious injury. After rockets were reported to have struck in and around the Tel Aviv airport, several U.S. airlines announced that they were suspending flights to Israel.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza also continued Tuesday from the air and sea, and artillery shelling could be heard into the night. The Palestinian Health Ministry said that at least four women were killed, including a pregnant woman, 25, whose home outside Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza was hit by an artillery shell. Another woman, 25, was killed in similar circumstances east of Rafah in southern Gaza and two more women, aged 70 and 50, died from Israeli fire, also in southern Gaza. More than 575 people have been killed, many of them civilians, since the fighting erupted.
Holding an Israeli soldier, dead or alive, would be a significant coup for Hamas, which has not succeeded in inflicting many casualties on the Israeli side. The militant group has long advocated capturing Israeli soldiers and holding them hostage to exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. A total of 27 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the latest fighting erupted two weeks ago, and two Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket or mortar fire.
The questions about the fate of Shaul could further complicate international efforts to broker a cease-fire. Israel is unlikely to agree to withdraw its forces until it recovers him or his remains or knows for certain what has happened to him. The Israeli military official said that the Hamas militants who claimed to be holding Shaul may have simply gotten his name from his equipment at the battle scene, or from social networks, which were busy with rumors naming soldiers involved in the incident within hours of the attack on the carrier.
Israel has gone to great lengths in the past to secure the return of missing soldiers or their remains, agreeing to release large numbers of prisoners in lopsided exchanges that critics say encourage the militants. Israeli public opinion has been souring on such exchanges.
Secretary of State John Kerry continued his efforts Tuesday to obtain a Gaza cease-fire, meeting in Cairo with Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry. Kerry planned to meet later in the evening with the head of Egypt’s intelligence service, and was also scheduled to meet with the head of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, and with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Sketching out a two-stage process, Shoukry said he was hopeful that Kerry’s visit would result in a cease-fire “that provides the necessary security for the Palestinian people” and that “medium- and long-term” issues on Gaza’s future could be addressed after it was in effect.
On Monday night, Kerry met with Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, and with Majid Faraj, the chief of intelligence for the Palestinian Authority.