Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin is seen in this undated family handout. Israel on August 3, 2014 declared dead the soldier feared abducted by Hamas Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip and said it would continue to fight even after the army completes destroying cross-border tunnels used by Palestinian fighters to attack its territory. Image Credit: Reuters

Gaza City: The Israeli army on Sunday admitted the death of Hadar Goldin, a soldier who had been missing in the Gaza Strip, in the war backtracking on an earlier claim that Hamas had captured him. Hamas had denied the claim.

A special committee led by the army’s chief rabbi said Lieutenant Goldin had been “killed in battle in the Gaza Strip on Friday”, the regime’s armed forces said in a statement.

The admission confirms Hamas’ counter claim that the soldier had been killed. The Israeli side had previously claimed that 23-year-old Goldin had been captured by Hamas fighters in Gaza, sending chances of a more permanent ceasefire in the bloody offensive nosediving. Such captures are considered by the Israelis to be casus belli.

Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezz Al Deen Al Qassam Brigades, had acknowledged its fighters staged an ambush early on Friday in which two other Israeli soldiers were killed, but denied holding Goldin.

Israel’s military radio said that no body had been recovered, adding that this made the decision to announce Goldin’s death a “very delicate” one.

There was no government word on the whereabouts of the soldier’s remains.

Both the Israelis and Hamas vowed on Saturday to continue their bloody 26-day confrontation in Gaza, shunning efforts to broker an end to the bloodshed which has claimed more than 1,700 lives.

With no resolution in sight, a senior Palestinian delegation landed in Cairo for talks on Sunday on an Egyptian ceasefire initiative, but Israel said it was not sending a negotiating team.

US Middle East envoy Frank Lowenstein is expected to arrive for talks, along with representatives of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Exiled Hamas chief Khalid Meshaal insisted that the Palestinian side had not broken the short-lived ceasefire, putting the spotlight on Israel.

“A truce is a truce. But the presence of the Israeli forces inside Gaza and destroying the tunnels means it is an aggression,” he told CNN in an interview late on Saturday.

A spokesman for the Islamist movement mocked Netanyahu’s statements as “confused”, and as testimony of the “real crisis” he was facing.

“We will continue our resistance till we achieve our goals,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said.

The Gaza violence has claimed 1,720 Palestinian lives and displaced up to a quarter of the territory’s population.

Goldin’s death brings Israel’s declared army deaths to 64 since the start of hostilities on July 8, its heaviest toll since the 2006 war against the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Earlier on Saturday, Israel pulled back troops from two areas in Gaza in what was initially interpreted as a sign it was winding down its biggest military operation there in decades.

The regime’s army informed residents of Beit Lahiya and Al Atatra in the north that it was “safe” to return home.

Troops were also seen pulling out of villages east of Khan Younus in the south, in the first such moves since the Israeli operation began last month.

But there appeared to be little further indication Israel was planning to wrap up its operations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising that Hamas would pay “an insufferable price” for continued rocket fire.

“We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed,” he said at a news conference, adding that troops had also dealt a “significant blow” to Hamas’s infrastructure.

Troops would complete their mission ostensibly to destroy a complex network of tunnels, used by Palestinians in the blockaded territory to access southern Israel, before the next security objectives would be decided, he said, warning that “all options” were on the table.

Israel had said on Friday it believed the soldier Goldin had been captured near the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Immediately afterwards, Israel bombarded the Rafah area with shells that is still ongoing, with medics saying at least 110 people were killed in 24 hours.

Meanwhile, air strikes and tank fire continued pounding huge areas of southern Gaza into rubble, killing scores more people on Saturday, as fighters kept up their cross-border fire, with 56 rockets hitting Israel and another six downed, including two over greater Tel Aviv.

Thousands of protesters, many wrapped in Palestinian flags, rallied outside the White House in Washington on Saturday to call for peace and an end to the fighting in Gaza.

— with inputs from AFP