JERUSALEM — In what may prove a dramatic juncture, Israeli officials are wavering about the fate of a soldier who may have been taken prisoner by Hamas extremists in Gaza.
Late Saturday night, a masked spokesman for the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, brandished the dog tags and ID of an Israeli soldier and declared that he was captive.
On Monday, Israel's ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor categorically denied the claim, telling reporters, "There's no kidnapped Israeli soldier and those rumors are untrue."
But in a briefing on Tuesday, a senior Israeli military official refused to rule out that the 21-year-old soldier, identified as Sgt. Oron Shaul, was being held alive by Hamas.
"We don't know where he is. We don't know if he is alive or dead. Until we are presented with hard evidence we are treating him as an officer missing in action," the official said in a briefing.
"We really don't know if he's alive or dead or in the hands of Hamas."
The official described a chaotic situation early Sunday morning that led to Shaul's disappearance, in which an armored personnel carrier became "stuck" while taking part in a convoy entering Gaza and was hit by one or two anti-tank missiles that caused the tank to blow up immediately.
The tank was forced to stop either due to a technical malfunction or an obstacle, and took the first fire in the ground operation.
Among other details that remain unclear, one or more of the servicemen within the armored vehicle may have left the vehicle before the blast in an attempt to repair it.
"He could have got out to fix something because the APC [armored personnel carrier] was stuck. Some of the guys just went off to try to fix it or tie it to another APC and we don't know if he was in or out of the vehicle when it was hit."
Seven men, he said, were in the tank when it went in. Six cadavers have been identified.
The briefing officer said it was thought "the munitions inside the APC or its fuel tank blew up."
The Israeli army says it has "no hard evidence" about Shaul's fate.
"I hope he is alive," the official said.
For Israelis, the possibility of a POW in Hamas hands is déjà vu, reminding the country of the five-year captivity of Gilad Shalit, 19, an IDF soldier kidnapped on the Gaza border in 2006. Shalit was released in 2011 in exchange for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners after intense negotiations.
The tank carrying Shaul and six others in Gaza ignited and blew up on impact, and remained, touched or untouched, as a burning, charred hulk for up to ten hours.
It was part of a convoy including numerous armored vehicles interspersed with infantry soldiers.
It was an M1-13 APC, one of the most common military carriers in the world, and about fifty years old.
The IDF estimates the tank was hit at about 1 a.m. on Sunday, and was hauled back into Israel at about 9 a.m.
"It was a real battle," the official said. "We were targeted by fire from all the houses. It was burning very hard. There was a lot of fire."
Asked if the ferocity of the fighting caught Israeli forces by surprise, he said, "We knew we are going to have difficult battles there. We know that in battle there are dead, wounded and soldiers captured by the enemy."
Diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to an end were ratcheted up a notch on Tuesday, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meeting with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry landing in Cairo, where the most intensive negotiations toward a ceasefire are taking place. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was also in Jerusalem to support the international efforts, though he appeared frustrated that his push for a ceasefire "that responds to Israel's security needs and Palestinian economic needs" had failed.
Asked whether the possible kidnap of an Israeli soldier could prove to be a game-changer in this campaign, the military official said: "I hope that Israel is not going to do what I think is wrong," meaning that he hoped Israel would not decide to end the military engagement based on a single, if traumatic, incident.
But the senior official nonetheless foresees a relatively quick end to this contest, which is fast resembling a full-blown war.
On Sunday, Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon estimated that Israel's stated goal — of entirely disabling Hamas's vast system of underground tunnels, used variously to store explosives and infiltrate into Israeli territory — would be completed within two to three days.
The official, speaking with journalists on background, said the time frame was realistic. "I don't think there is a point at which we can say, 'OK, we have achieved 100 percent.' You have to weigh getting to the last 5 percent of your goal against the losses,' he said.