JERUSALEM - A missing Israeli soldier and the cancellation of international flights to and from Israel on Tuesday marked new turns in the Gaza Strip conflict, potentially shifting the dynamics of diplomatic efforts to bring about a cease-fire.
If Hamas is holding the 21-year-old soldier, whom Israel on Tuesday identified as Sgt. Oron Shaul, or his remains, it could give the Palestinian extremist group leverage for its political demands - or it could incite Israel to push deeper into the coastal enclave.
And the suspension of flights by all American and some major European carriers reflected Hamas' ability to affect Israel's economy with its rockets, one of which struck within a mile of the international airport near Tel Aviv on Tuesday, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration's 24-hour flight ban.
By Tuesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had phoned Secretary of State John Kerry to appeal for a resumption of U.S. flights to Israel, underscoring fears here that the country might be labeled a war zone and suffer damage to its tourism, high-tech, and investment sectors. A State Department statement said the ban was meant only to protect American citizens, in an apparent effort to prevent the measure from being seen as U.S. pressure on Israel to agree to Hamas demands.
By Tuesday night, the Palestinian death toll had risen to more than 630 since the conflict erupted July 8, according to officials with the Gaza health ministry, with more than half of the deaths occurring since Israel launched its ground incursion Thursday night. The United Nations says more than 70 percent of the casualties are civilians, including many children. Israel says it has killed as many as 180 extremists.
Overnight, Israel's military announced that two more Israeli soldiers had been killed Monday, bringing the Israeli armed forces' death toll to 27 since Thursday - the largest number of Israeli troop deaths since the 2006 war with Lebanon. Two Israeli civilians have also been killed by Hamas mortar and rocket attacks into Israel.
Throughout Tuesday, Israel continued to pound Hamas targets in Gaza with air strikes and from naval vessels off the coast, while Hamas sent a steady barrage of rockets into Israel. One projectile struck a house in Yehud, in central Israel near Ben Gurion International Airport.
The attack hurt one person, but it persuaded the FAA to ban U.S. flights to and from Ben Gurion for a 24-hour period starting Tuesday afternoon. Airlines including US Airways, Delta, United, and Air France suspended flights.
Also Tuesday, a senior Israeli military official, speaking to journalists in Tel Aviv, suggested that there was a possibility that Shaul, the missing soldier, could have been captured alive by Hamas or another extremist faction in Gaza.
Shaul was one of seven Israelis inside an aging armored personnel carrier pushing Sunday into the Shijaiyah enclave of East Gaza, a Hamas stronghold peppered with some of the tunnel networks that Israel says it entered Gaza to destroy. Their vehicle appeared to have a technical malfunction or was somehow prevented from moving forward, the military official said.
"It was stuck in the middle of the action, and it's possible that some of the guys got out to fix it or tie it up to another APC," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As the vehicle stood stuck on the road, he said, Hamas fighters struck it with an antitank missile, possibly causing the fuel tank to explode, blowing up and killing all of the soldiers who were inside. It was unclear, the official said, whether Shaul was inside or outside the vehicle when it was hit.
The bodies of the soldiers were burned beyond recognition, and tests had to be conducted to identify the remains. Six of the seven were identified, the military said.
"For the time being, no parts of his [Shaul's] body have been found among the ruins of the APC," the senior Israeli official said.
Senior Israeli politicians have vowed not leave Gaza until Israel has destroyed all the Hamas tunnels stretching from Gaza into Israel.