JERUSALEM — The Israeli military said early today that an officer thought to have been captured by Palestinian militants during a deadly clash Friday, which shattered a planned 72-hour cease-fire, was now considered to have been killed in battle.
The announcement came just hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip as long as necessary to stop Hamas attacks, while suggesting a de-escalation of the ground war in Gaza may be near.
The case of the missing soldier, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, became the latest flash point in the conflict, prompting a fierce Israeli bombardment and calls from leaders around the world for his release.
As the death toll mounted Saturday to more than 1,650 Palestinians, many of them women and children, and pictures of homes, mosques and schools smashed into rubble fill the media, Netanyahu was under considerable international pressure, from Washington and Europe, to end the conflict. The United Nations warned starkly of "an unfolding health disaster" in Gaza, with little electricity, bad water and a shortage of medical supplies.
At the same time, Netanyahu was under political pressure at home to deliver on his promises to crush Hamas, particularly with 64 Israeli soldiers dead. He insisted Saturday that Hamas had been severely hurt and he warned that it would pay "an intolerable price" if it continues to fire rockets at Israel.
His former deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, who was fired by Netanyahu for public criticism of the government, said in a statement Saturday that "the Cabinet is gravely mistaken in its decision to withdraw forces from Gaza. This is a step in the wrong direction."
But Netanyahu, in a nationally televised speech with his defense minister beside him, 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," Netanyahu said. "We will take as much time as necessary, and will exert as much force as needed."
Israel was not ending its operation unilaterally, he said, adding: "We will deploy in the places most convenient to us to reduce friction on IDF soldiers, because we care about them," referring to the Israel Defense Forces.
There were Israeli television reports Saturday that some forces were pulling out of Gaza, and Israel informed Palestinians in Beit Lahiya and al-Atatra, in northern Gaza, that it was now safe to return to their homes. Israeli officials have said that the army's effort to destroy the elaborate tunnel system from Gaza into Israel would be finished in the next day or two.
Israeli officials suggested that the army would leave built-up areas and some forces would redeploy inside Gaza, closer to the border fence, in order to respond to attacks if necessary. Other units will return to southern Israel.
Hamas, for its part, vowed to continue fighting. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, told the news agency Maan that "a unilateral withdrawal or redeployment by Israel in the Strip will be answered by a fitting response by the Hamas military arm."
Netanyahu thanked the United States, which along with the United Nations appeared to support Israel's position that Hamas' actions violated the cease-fire, and he asked for international help to rebuild Gaza on the condition of its "demilitarization."
Israel appears to be hoping that with the support of Egypt and the international community, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can control Gaza through a unity government agreed upon with Hamas and take responsibility for security there and for the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
Netanyahu repeated that his goal was to restore "peace and calm" to Israel and that he intended to do so by whatever means — diplomatically or militarily. "All options are on the table," he said.
But he indicated that Israel would not discuss a negotiated cease-fire with Hamas. Israel has decided not to send a delegation to cease-fire talks hosted by Egypt, at least not now, officials said.