Shelling kills four boys on Gaza beach; Israel, Hamas set five-hour truce
Palestinian militants fired more than 130 rockets into Israel on the ninth day of a war in which Israeli attacks have killed 216 Palestinians, including six in two air strikes today. Most of the casualties were civilians, health officials in Gaza said.
In Israel, a civilian has been killed by one of more than 1,000 Palestinian rockets fired and more than half a dozen people have been wounded.
With no end to the fighting in sight, Israel is poised to expand its war on Hamas militants, from shelling and aerial and naval assaults thus far into possible ground action, with around 30,000 reservists called up since the offensive began.
"The direction now is to continue air strikes and, if need be, enter with ground forces in a tactical, measured manner," an Israeli official said today after an overnight session of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet.
Netanyahu told mayors of rocket-struck towns: "We will continue to conduct this campaign until its goal is achieved. We will use as much force as necessary to restore quiet to Israel's residents."
But Israel agreed to a televised appeal from the UN Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry for a "humanitarian pause" to give Palestinians in Gaza a chance to buy food and get medical attention.
The United Nations' emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, said in a statement she was "extremely concerned about the escalation of hostilities in Gaza and its impact on civilians."
She said in addition to the casualties, public services in Gaza had been suspended and its water supply was at risk.
The Israeli military said it would "cease operational activity" for five hours beginning at 10.00 am (07.00 GMT) on Thursday to permit Gazans to attend to humanitarian needs, but would respond "firmly and decisively" if Islamist Hamas militants launched attacks against Israel during that time.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the "militant factions accepted the offer by the United Nations for calm in the field for five hours between 10.00 am and 15.00 on Thursday, for humanitarian needs."
In one of the worst single incidents of the conflict, an Israeli gunboat off Gaza's Mediterranean coast shelled a beach, killing four boys - two aged 10 and the others 9 and 11 - from one family and critically wounding another youngster, witnesses and Ashraf al-Qidra of the Gaza Health Ministry said.
The Israeli military said the reported civilian casualties were unintended and "tragic" and it was investigating what happened. "Based on preliminary results, the target of this strike was Hamas terrorist operatives," it said in a statement.
Netanyahu says Israel's armed forces try to avoid civilian casualties but that militant rocket crews put noncombatants at risk by operating in crowded residential areas.
President Barack Obama said the United States supported Egyptian efforts to bring about a ceasefire. US officials would use their diplomatic resources over the next 24 hours to pursue closing a deal, he told reporters at the White House.
"We've all been heartbroken by the violence, especially the death and injury of so many innocent civilians in Gaza - men, women and children who were caught in the crossfire," Obama said. "The Israeli people and the Palestinian people don't want to live like this. They deserve to live in peace and security, free from fear."