Israel and Hamas have agreed to a five-hour United Nations-brokered “humanitarian” pause to their nine-day battle, offering the most encouraging sign yet that the fierce fighting could come to an end.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 200 Palestinians, including four boys struck on a beach by shells fired from a navy ship.
Israel said it would hold its fire today from 10am (8am BST) under a plan to allow Palestinians to restock food, water and other necessities. But it vowed to retaliate “firmly and decisively” if Hamas or other militant groups launched attacks during that time.
Later Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that following consultations with various factions the Gaza militants had decided to respect the pause and would refrain from firing rockets during those hours.
Robert Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, asked Israel to agree to a “unilateral humanitarian pause” so supplies could be delivered to Gaza, said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. Mr Serry will “urge the parties in Gaza to respect that pause”, Mr Haq said.
Israel previously had halted its fire for six hours on Tuesday after Egypt put forward a ceasefire proposal that unravelled. Mr Abu Zuhri said yesterday his group had formally rejected the plan, bemoaning what he called little support from the Arab world.
But Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas met a senior Hamas official in Cairo to try to salvage the Egyptian proposal.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said the US supported Egypt’s continued efforts to restore the 2012 ceasefire and would use all of its diplomatic resources and relationships to secure a deal to end the violence.
Israel’s military said its forces bombed at least 150 targets in Gaza yesterday. It did not give more details, but the Gaza Interior Ministry’s website said 30 houses, including those of senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar, Jamila Shanti, Fathi Hamas and Ismail Ashkar, were targeted.
Mr Zahar was a key figure in Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, while the other three were members of the Palestinian parliament elected in 2006. Many Hamas leaders have gone into hiding since Israel began its bombardment on July 8 in response to rocket attacks from Gaza.
Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said the Palestinian death toll had risen to 222, with 1,670 wounded. Only one Israeli has so far died in the conflict – a civilian distributing food to soldiers in the south on Tuesday evening – largely because of the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system in downing incoming rockets.
The four boys, cousins aged nine to 11, were killed on the beach beside a coastal road west of Gaza City. Seven others – adults and children – were wounded in the strike, which Palestinian human rights activist Khalil Abu Shamalla and Palestinian health officials said came from an Israeli naval vessel.
Hussam Abadallah, a waiter at the beachside al-Deera hotel, said the strike happened at about 4pm.
A witness who identified himself only as Abu Ahmed said the boys were scavenging for scrap metal when a first shell hit a nearby shipping container used in the past by Hamas security forces. He said the boys fled but a second rocket “hit all of them”.
Mr Abadallah said he saw “white smoke coming from a small room, like a shack, belonging to one of the fishermen not far from the fishing port”. He said he then saw the boys running.
“We started shouting at them, ‘Run, run here’, then a shell from the sea landed behind them,” he said.
He said some journalists dining at the hotel jumped from the terrace and helped five children bleeding from shrapnel get to safety in the hotel. “I will never forget these horrible images,” he said.
The Israeli army said it was “carefully investigating” the matter. It said the target of the naval attack was “Hamas terrorist operatives” and civilian casualties were “a tragic outcome”.
It said the army “has no intention of harming civilians dragged by Hamas into the reality of urban combat”.
The boys’ uncle, Abdel Kareem Baker, 41, said: “It’s a cold-blooded massacre.”
Meanwhile Israel’s security cabinet has approved a call-up of 8,000 additional reservists. The army said 45,000 reservists had already been summoned – a sign that Israel was ramping up its threat to carry out a ground invasion, although experts say such an action is highly unlikely.