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Israel signals scaling down Gaza war operation

  • A Palestinians looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

    A Palestinians looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

  • Palestinian mourners take the last look at the body of slain Udai Nafez, 19 at the family house ahead of his funeral procession in the village of Kharbatha, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Udai Nafez was killed during clashes with the Israeli military Friday, following a protest in solidarity with people in Gaza. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

    Palestinian mourners take the last look at the body of slain Udai Nafez, 19 at the family house ahead of his funeral procession in the village of Kharbatha, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Udai Nafez was killed during clashes with the Israeli military Friday, following a protest in solidarity with people in Gaza. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • Smoke billows from the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

    Smoke billows from the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

  • An Israeli soldier standing on top of a tank in a staging area near the Israel Gaza border, Saturday, August 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

    An Israeli soldier standing on top of a tank in a staging area near the Israel Gaza border, Saturday, August 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

  • The moon can be seen as an Israeli fighter jet drops flares as it flies over Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

    The moon can be seen as an Israeli fighter jet drops flares as it flies over Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

  • Smoke rises after an Israeli strike, in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

    Smoke rises after an Israeli strike, in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

  • A medic kneels by bodies of victims of the war in Gaza that are wrapped in blankets in a hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

    A medic kneels by bodies of victims of the war in Gaza that are wrapped in blankets in a hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

  • An Israeli soldier kisses his girlfriend before he returns to his unit in a staging area near the Israel Gaza border, Saturday, August 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

    An Israeli soldier kisses his girlfriend before he returns to his unit in a staging area near the Israel Gaza border, Saturday, August 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

  • A Palestinian girl cries while mourners carry the body of slain Udai Nafez, 19, into the family house ahead of his funeral procession in the village of Kharbatha, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Udai Nafez was killed during clashes with the Israeli military Friday, following a protest in solidarity with people in Gaza. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

    A Palestinian girl cries while mourners carry the body of slain Udai Nafez, 19, into the family house ahead of his funeral procession in the village of Kharbatha, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Udai Nafez was killed during clashes with the Israeli military Friday, following a protest in solidarity with people in Gaza. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

  • A Palestinian throws into the fire pages of damaged copies of the Holy Quran, Islam's holy book, found on the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, that was destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip,  Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. In accordance with the Islamic tradition, damaged copies of the Quran can not been thrown away but have to be burned instead. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

    A Palestinian throws into the fire pages of damaged copies of the Holy Quran, Islam's holy book, found on the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, that was destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. In accordance with the Islamic tradition, damaged copies of the Quran can not been thrown away but have to be burned instead. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

  • A Palestinians looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

    A Palestinians looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

  • Smoke billows from the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

    Smoke billows from the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

  • A Palestinians looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
  • Palestinian mourners take the last look at the body of slain Udai Nafez, 19 at the family house ahead of his funeral procession in the village of Kharbatha, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Udai Nafez was killed during clashes with the Israeli military Friday, following a protest in solidarity with people in Gaza. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
  • Smoke billows from the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
  • An Israeli soldier standing on top of a tank in a staging area near the Israel Gaza border, Saturday, August 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
  • The moon can be seen as an Israeli fighter jet drops flares as it flies over Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
  • Smoke rises after an Israeli strike, in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
  • A medic kneels by bodies of victims of the war in Gaza that are wrapped in blankets in a hospital in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
  • An Israeli soldier kisses his girlfriend before he returns to his unit in a staging area near the Israel Gaza border, Saturday, August 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
  • A Palestinian girl cries while mourners carry the body of slain Udai Nafez, 19, into the family house ahead of his funeral procession in the village of Kharbatha, north of the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Udai Nafez was killed during clashes with the Israeli military Friday, following a protest in solidarity with people in Gaza. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
  • A Palestinian throws into the fire pages of damaged copies of the Holy Quran, Islam's holy book, found on the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, that was destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip,  Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. In accordance with the Islamic tradition, damaged copies of the Quran can not been thrown away but have to be burned instead. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
  • A Palestinians looks for his belongings after a house was destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Israel bombarded Rafah on Saturday as troops searched for an officer they believe was captured by Hamas in an ambush that shattered a humanitarian cease-fire and set the stage for a major escalation of the 26-day-old war. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
  • Smoke billows from the rubble of the Imam Al Shafaey mosque, destroyed in an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned last night that Hamas will pay “an intolerable price” for its attacks on Israel and vowed to continue military operations in Gaza as hopes evaporated for a diplomatic solution to the 26-day-old conflict.

“We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed,” Netanyahu said.

Earlier, Israeli officials said they would not send representatives to negotiations planned for today in Cairo, and reports circulated in the Israeli news media that Netanyahu was preparing to pull his country’s ground forces from Gaza.

The Israeli prime minister defied those expectations but left the door open to a possible de-escalation, saying that forces could be redeployed once the military completes its mission to destroy all Hamas tunnels between Gaza and Israel.

The announcement suggested that Israel plans to finish its latest Gaza campaign on its own terms, without negotiating a deal with Hamas –much in the way Israel’s Operation Cast Lead ended in the winter of 2008-2009.

The last major battle between Israel and Hamas, in 2012, resulted in an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire. But this round has proved immune to diplomacy, with multiple efforts to stop the bloodshed collapsing in their first minutes or hours. The result is that this conflict has gone on far longer, and the death toll has been significantly higher, than in either of the previous two bouts.

A bombardment of Gaza yesterday, concentrated in the area where an Israeli soldier was abducted Friday, left at least 112 Palestinians dead, according to officials with the Gaza Health Ministry. The deaths raised the Palestinian toll over nearly a month of fighting to more than 1,700.

Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed and more than 400 wounded. Three civilians have been killed by mortar rounds or rockets fired by militants from Gaza into Israel.

By rejecting further talks, “Israel is telling Hamas that they’re not going to get anything,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence division. Hamas “will tell themselves a victory story. But this horrible situation in Gaza will be on their hands.”

Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza and that is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, has repeatedly demanded an end to the blockade of Gaza by land, air and sea that has effectively cut the territory off from the outside world.

The movement showed no sign of a flagging will to fight yesterday, firing dozens of rockets toward Israel, causing a half-dozen injuries. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement that the group would continue to battle, and that Netanyahu’s announcement “was an attempt to fake an illusion of victory for his government.”

Netanyahu’s comments came hours after Hamas’s military wing said that an Israeli officer reported to have been abducted Friday was probably dead. The abduction of the officer, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, brought to an end after just 90 minutes a promised 72-hour cease-fire, as Israel responded to what it said was a clear violation of the terms of the truce.

In a statement early yesterday morning, Hamas’s Qassam Brigade said it had no knowledge of Goldin’s whereabouts and suggested that he might have been killed by the Israeli airstrikes that followed the apparent abduction.

“We have lost contact with the group of fighters that took part in the ambush and we believe they were all killed in the (Israeli) bombardment,” the statement said. “Assuming that they managed to seize the soldier during combat, we assess that he was also killed in the incident.”

A senior Israeli official acknowledged it was possible that Goldin had been killed but said Israel had seen “nothing conclusive.”

“His kidnapping happened in the framework of a deadly attack in which two others were killed. We know that it’s possible he’s dead,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “Having said that, our operational assumption is that he’s alive, and we’re looking for him.”

As reports circulated in the Israeli media last night that Netanyahu was prepared to withdraw ground troops from Gaza, Goldin’s parents told reporters that the military should not pull out until their son is found.

“He was sent there to protect Israel. I demand from the state of Israel that it not leave Gaza until it brings my son home,” said Goldin’s mother, Hedva.

Goldin was abducted when his unit, which was preparing to destroy a tunnel between Gaza and Israel, was ambushed by Palestinian militants, including a suicide bomber. Two Israeli soldiers were killed, and Goldin was apparently pushed back through the tunnel.

Hamas insists the incident occurred before the cease-fire took hold and that it was Israel that broke the terms of the truce.

In a sign of how little hope exists for a diplomatic breakthrough to end the conflict, Israel said Saturday that it would not attend negotiations that had been planned for Sunday in Cairo as part of the original cease-fire deal. Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said Israel was open to a new framework for talks, but would not seek one out.

“When there’s a credible proposal, we’ll listen,” he said. “But there’s a certain skepticism about whether these guys have any interest in a cease-fire.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Palestinian factions, including Hamas, would attend the talks but that delegates from Gaza would not be among them because of security concerns.

Despite Israel’s absence, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi suggested the talks would go forward, saying that Egypt’s proposal represented “the real chance to find a solution to the crisis in Gaza and to end the bloodshed.”

There was little indication on the ground in Gaza on Saturday that a resolution to the conflict was near. Palestinian officials said that several mosques and the Islamic University in Gaza City were among the targets of overnight airstrikes. Israel said the buildings were being used to develop and store weapons.

But in a small sign that Israel may be reaching the end of its target list, residents of the town of Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, were told Saturday afternoon that they could return to their homes because Israel’s operations in those areas had ceased.

Netanyahu faces pressure from right-wing members of his cabinet to widen the scope of the operation and try to eliminate Hamas entirely from Gaza. But with Israeli casualties mounting, such a choice comes with substantial peril, and indications were growing Saturday that Israel would stop well short of that mark.

“If the Israelis push further into Gaza, it will be a big mess,” said Hamza Abu Shanab, a political analyst whose father was a top Hamas leader in Gaza before Israel assassinated him in 2003. “More Israelis will be killed. More Israelis will be kidnapped. Hamas will fight back severely.”

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