Both Israel and Hamas have vowed to continue their bloody 26-day confrontation in Gaza, shunning efforts to broker an end to violence which has claimed more than 1,700 lives.
With no end to the bloodshed in sight, a senior Palestinian delegation landed in Cairo for talks on an Egyptian ceasefire initiative, although Israel said it was not sending a negotiating team.
Earlier, Israel had pulled back troops from two areas in Gaza in what was initially interpreted as a sign it was winding down its biggest military operation in Gaza in decades.
But there appeared to be little indication Israel was planning to wrap up its operations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising that Hamas would pay “an insufferable price” for continued cross-border 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 to destroy a complex network of tunnels used by militants to infiltrate southern Israel before the next security objectives would be decided, he said, warning that “all options” were on the table.
“I don’t plan on saying when we’ll finish (the operation), we have no obligations apart from our security interests,” he said. “We will deploy in the places convenient to us.”
But a spokesman for the Islamist movement mocked Netanyahu’s statements as “confused” and testimony of the “real crisis” he was facing.
“We will continue our resistance till we achieve our goals,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP.
Meanwhile, Palestinian officials arrived in Cairo ahead of truce talks with Egypt on Sunday which will also be attended by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
US Middle East envoy Frank Lowenstein was also expected to arrive for talks on ending the Gaza bloodshed, which has claimed 1,712 lives and displaced up to a quarter of the territory’s population.
Earlier, the Israeli army gave a first indication it was ending operations in parts of Gaza, informing residents of Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra in the north that it was “safe” to return home.
Witnesses in the north confirmed seeing troops leaving the area as others were seen pulling out of villages east of Khan Yunis in the south.
It was the first time troops had been seen pulling back since the start of the Israeli operation which began on July 8.
The move came after an army spokesman told AFP Israel was “quite close to completing” the destruction of tunnels used for infiltrating southern Israel – the main objective of the ground operation.
Despite the partial withdrawal, Israel’s security cabinet decided against sending a delegation to ceasefire talks in Cairo.
“Hamas has proven that it breaches any agreement reached right away, as happened five times in previous truces,” deputy foreign minister Tzahi HaNegbi said.
“It is therefore unclear at this stage what benefit Israel might see for participating in an attempt to reach agreements, based on the Egyptian initiative,” he said after some commentators suggested the troop pullback could signal the start of a unilateral withdrawal.
Chances of achieving a more permanent ceasefire nosedived on Friday after Israel said it believed Hamas militants had captured a 23-year-old soldier in a Friday morning ambush near the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
Immediately afterwards, Israel bombarded the Rafah area in shelling that is still ongoing, with medics saying it killed 114 people in 24 hours.
Israel considers the capture of its soldiers a casus belli, launching a 34-day war on the Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006 after it seized two soldiers.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged its militants had staged an ambush early on Friday in which soldiers were killed, but denied holding the soldier, saying the attackers were missing and presumed dead.