The Israeli military agreed to a U.N.-brokered five-hour "humanitarian" pause starting Thursday in its strikes on the Gaza Strip to allow Palestinians to restock food, water and other necessities, hours after an attack by an Israeli naval vessel killed four Palestinian boys playing on the beach.
In response to a call by the U.N., the military said in a statement Wednesday that it would hold its fire for five hours starting at 10:00 a.m. (0900 GMT, 5 a.m. EDT.) but warned it will retaliate "firmly and decisively" if Hamas or other militant groups launch attacks on Israel during that time. It also said residents of three Gaza neighborhoods asked Wednesday to evacuate their homes should be out by the time the pause expires.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, made the appeal for a "unilateral humanitarian pause" after talks with Israel's Coordination Office for Government Affairs in the (Palestinian) Territories.
The announcement came after a day of Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian militant rocket attacks as Hamas formally rejected a cease-fire proposal that had been accepted by Israel to end the 9-day-old conflict that officials say has left at least 213 Palestinians and one Israeli dead.
The four boys, who were cousins and ages 9 to 11, were killed Wednesday while playing on a beach off a coastal road west of Gaza City, said Ashraf al-Kidra, a Palestinian health official. Seven others — adults and children — were wounded in the strike, which Palestinian human rights activist Khalil Abu Shamala said came from an Israeli naval vessel operating offshore.
On the beach, a witness, who identified himself only as Abu Ahmed, said the boys were scavenging for scrap metal when a first shell hit a shipping container used in the past by the Hamas security forces.
He said the boys fled. The second rocket "hit all of them," he said.
Mobile phone video circulated on Facebook showed the small bloodied bodies lying in the sand. One tiny corpse, lying face down, was twisted, with the legs at sharp angle to the torso.
The boys' uncle, Abdel Kareem Baker, 41, raged at Israel after the attack.
"It's a cold-blooded massacre," he said. "It's a shame who come they didn't identify them as kids with all of the advanced technology they claim they're using."
The Israeli military said it was looking into the incident.
Hamas fired dozens of rockets into Israel on Wednesday and vowed to reject a cease-fire until its demands are met, including the easing of border closures and the release of former Hamas prisoners released by Israel in a 2011 prisoner exchange and rearrested by Israel last month in the West Bank.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Wednesday in press conference that Hamas feels "alone in the field" with little support from the Arab world.
He called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah faction in the West Bank, to support Hamas' refusal of an Egyptian cease-fire deal.
The Gaza Interior Ministry's website said Israel warplanes carried out dozens of airstrikes Wednesday, targeting 30 houses, including those of senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar, Jamila Shanti, Fathi Hamas and Ismail Ashkar.
The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the strikes.