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Israeli soldier missing as Gaza fighting rages on

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 22 2014 1:44 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 22 2014 1:44 p.m. MDT

Israeli soldiers march during a drill near Israel and Gaza border, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Israeli airstrikes pummeled a wide range of targets in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday as the U.N. chief and the U.S. secretary of state began an intensive effort to end more than two weeks of fighting that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis.

Tsafrir Abayov, Associated Press

JERUSALEM — An Israeli soldier is missing following a deadly battle in the Gaza Strip, a defense official said Tuesday, as Israeli airstrikes pummeled a wide range of locations along the coastal area and diplomatic efforts intensified to end the two week war that has killed more than 600 Palestinians and 29 Israelis.

It was not immediately known if the missing soldier was alive or dead, the Israeli defense official told The Associated Press. The disappearance raised the possibility that he had been captured by Hamas — a nightmare scenario for Israel. In the past, Israel has paid a heavy price in lopsided prisoner swaps to retrieve captured soldiers or remains held by its enemies.

Military officials said the soldier, identified as Sgt. Oron Shaul, was among seven soldiers in a vehicle that was hit by an anti-tank missile in a battle in Gaza over the weekend. The other six have been confirmed as dead, but no remains have been identified as Shaul, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident with media.

Hamas' claimed earlier this week that it had captured an Israeli soldier. Israel's U.N. ambassador initially denied the claim but the military neither confirmed nor denied it.

A representative of Shaul's family, Racheli Gazit, said that "so long as the verification has not been completed ... as far as the family is concerned Oron is not a fallen soldier."

In Cairo, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Egyptian officials Tuesday in the highest-level push yet to end the deadly conflict. Ban then traveled to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, urged the international community to hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting.

"What we're seeing here with Hamas is another instance of Islamist extremism, violent extremism that has no resolvable grievance," Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Ban in Tel Aviv. He compared Hamas with al-Qaida and extremist Islamic militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Africa.

"Hamas is like ISIS, Hamas is like al Qaida, Hamas is like Hezbollah, Hamas is like Boko Haram," he said.

Netanyahu was responding to a call by Ban that the sides address the root causes of the fighting and work toward bringing about a two-state solution.

"My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year," Ban said. Netanyahu responded that Hamas, a group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, does not want a two-state solution.

Hamas, with some support from Qatar and Turkey, wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting fire. The Islamic militant group has no faith in mediation by Egypt's rulers, who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago and tightened restrictions on Gaza — to the point of driving Hamas into its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987.

The border blockade has set Gaza back years, wiping out tens of thousands of jobs through bans on most exports and on imports of vital construction materials Israel says could be diverted by Hamas for military use. Israel allows many consumer goods into Gaza, but experts say Gaza's economy cannot recover without a resumption of exports.

Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel. It expanded it on July 17 to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis. The military says Hamas has launched 2,000 rockets since the war began.

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