By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Allyn Fisher-Ilan
GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 20 (Reuters) - Hamas's armed wing said on Sunday it had captured an Israeli soldier, as fighting in Gaza led to the bloodiest losses in a nearly two-week military offensive, with some 100 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers killed.
The Israeli military said it was checking on the reported capture, which was announced in a Hamas television broadcast. Israeli television stations ignored the report in their extended evening programming about the offensive.
"Qassam Brigades captured a Zionist soldier," said Abu Ubaida, the masked spokesman of the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, who identified the soldier as Shaul Aron and recited what he said was Aron's identity tag number.
He provided no other evidence the soldier was in the custody of the Islamist militants.
Ubaida said the capture happened during the same battle in which 13 Israeli soldiers died earlier, near Shejaia, the embattled neighborhood east of the city of Gaza where most of the Palestinian casualties occurred on Sunday.
The one-day death toll was the highest for the Israeli military's since a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. It also represented the most Palestinians killed since fighting began on July 8.
Aron would be the first Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza since 2011, when Israel released about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to free Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was held for more than five years after his 2006 capture in a cross-border raid.
Cries of celebration and fireworks were heard around Gaza shortly after the Hamas broadcast on Sunday.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of carrying out a massacre in Shejaia and declared three days of mourning.
Israel's army said it had been targeting militants from Gaza's dominant Hamas group, whom it alleged had fired rockets from Shejaia and built tunnels and command centers there. The army said it had warned locals two days earlier to leave.
Army sources said seven of the 13 Israeli soldiers were in an armored personnel carrier hit by anti-tank fire. Others were killed setting up positions inside houses they had taken over, the sources added.
Residents fled Sunday's fighting along streets strewn with bodies and rubble, many of them taking shelter in Gaza's Shifa hospital.
Cries of "Did you see Ahmed?" "Did you see my wife?" echoed through the courtyard. Inside, dead and wounded lay on blood-stained floors.
HEAVY CIVILIAN CASUALTIES
The Shifa hospital director, Naser Tattar, said 17 children, 14 women and four elderly were among 62 Palestinians killed, and about 400 people were wounded in the Israeli assault.
Gaza's Health Ministry said 37 other Palestinians were also killed on Sunday, bringing the Gaza death toll since an Israeli air and naval bombardments began on July 8 to 434, many of them civilians. Some 2,600 Palestinians have been wounded, it said.
Eighteen Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians have been killed since the launch of the offensive, which expanded on Thursday into a ground push, following mounting cross-border rocket attacks by militants.
Palestinian fighters kept up their rocket fire on Israel on Sunday. Sirens sounded in southern Israeli towns and in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. There were no reports of casualties from those salvos.
In a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - their second in three days - U.S. President Barack Obama "raised serious concern about the growing number of casualties" on both sides of the conflict, the White House said.
Netanyahu, addressing a news conference in Tel Aviv after the military released news of the soldiers' deaths, pledged to press on with the campaign with the goals of "restoring quiet" while "significantly" damaging Hamas and other militant groups' infrastructure in Gaza.
"We are undeterred. We shall continue the operation as long as is required," Netanyahu said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cairo on Monday to meet with Egyptian officials about the crisis, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement, adding that the United States was deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation and was pushing for a ceasefire.
Earlier on Sunday, Kerry said he supported Israel's efforts to destroy tunnels it says Gaza militants use for infiltration attempts and to hide weaponry.
"We support Israel's right to defend itself against rockets that are continuing to come in," Kerry told Fox News.
Thousands streamed out of Shejaia, some by foot and others piling into the backs of trucks and sitting on the hoods of cars filled with families trying to get away. Several people rode out of the neighborhood in the shovel of a bulldozer.
Video given to Reuters by a local showed at least a dozen corpses, including three children, lying in streets, though the footage could not be verified independently.
As the tank shells began to land, Shejaia residents called radio stations pleading for evacuation. An air strike on the Shejaia home of Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, killed his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, hospital officials said.
Hamas's armed wing said it used landmines and roadside bombs against advancing Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers.
"As we moved into Shejaia we were met by anti-tank missiles, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), heavy, extensive weapons fire at the forces from the houses, from the surrounding buildings," said Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said some of the Israeli firepower was unleashed to try to extricate soldiers who had come under attack.
The Israeli military said it beefed up its presence on Sunday, with a focus on destroying missile stockpiles and the vast tunnel system Hamas built along the frontier with Israel.
"I estimate that within two or three days the major part of the tunnels will have been destroyed," Yaalon said at the news conference where Netanyahu also spoke.
Netanyahu has accused Hamas of using non-combatants as human shields, and he told CNN the army was concentrating on military targets.
"All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can ... it's gruesome," Netanyahu said. "They use telegenically-dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead the better."
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency said that 81,000 displaced people had now taken refuge in 61 UNRWA shelters in Gaza.
Egypt, Qatar, France and the United Nations, among others, have all been pushing, with little sign of progress, for a permanent ceasefire in the worst surge of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.
Qatar was due to host a meeting between Abbas and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday, a senior Qatari source told Reuters.
Speaking in Doha, Ban described the fighting in Gaza as an "open wound and we must stop the bleeding now." He was due to travel to Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan during the week, a U.N. statement said.
The Qatari source said Abbas would also meet Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
The Western-backed Abbas in April struck a reconciliation deal with Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from forces loyal to his Fatah movement. The agreement led to the formation of a Palestinian unity government and Israel's pullout from U.S.-brokered peace talks.
Hamas has already rejected one Egyptian-brokered truce, saying any deal must include an end to a blockade of the coastal area and a recommitment to a ceasefire reached after an eight-day war in Gaza in 2012.
Hostilities escalated following the killing last month of three Jewish students that Israel blames on Hamas. Hamas neither confirmed nor denied involvement.
The apparent revenge murder of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem, for which Israel has charged three Israelis, further fueled tension. (Additional reporting by Noah Browing in Gaza, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Peter Cooney in Washington; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Paul Simao)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.
"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.
The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.
"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."
Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.
The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.
Hamas had no immediate comment.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.
08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect
Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.
Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.
Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.
The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.
The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.
Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.
Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.