Israeli military and political leaders were increasingly leaning toward a ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to rid the Palestinian enclave of rockets and tunnels used by militants for attacks, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said Wednesday.
An operation to move Israeli troops into the densely populated coastal enclave had been resisted by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sources said earlier, because of the likelihood of wider casualties on both sides.
The deaths of at least 222 Palestinians, most of them civilians, in the latest fighting has exposed the Israeli government to widespread criticism that escalated Wednesday with the deaths of four children playing on a Gaza beach when an artillery shell landed. One Israeli has been killed.
But after nine days of airstrikes and artillery exchanges that have failed to persuade Hamas military leaders to accept a cease-fire and negotiations, the reluctance to send forces into Gaza has reportedly eroded.
"With every day that goes by, this could get closer, and there is a higher likelihood of mobilizing ground forces for a ground operation," IDF spokesman Peter Lerner told The Times.
The Israeli government had agreed to the terms of a cease-fire proposed Monday by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, which would have called for a halt to all hostilities Tuesday.
But Hamas, the militant movement that has controlled Gaza since 2007, refused to honor the proposed halt in this third outbreak of major Israeli-Gaza violence in five years. Hamas said the cease-fire conditions failed to ease the Israeli government's seven-year blockade of Gaza and its 1.7 million residents.
The military also announced Wednesday that the government had called for a five-hour "humanitarian window" Thursday to allow the resupply of food and other civilian needs to Gaza. Israeli forces will cease offensive operations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., after which Gaza residents should not return to their homes in the designated areas, the government said. Israeli news reports said Hamas agreed to observe the brief pause, which was proposed by Robert Serry, the United Nations special Middle East envoy.
"Should the humanitarian window be exploited by Hamas or other terror organizations for the purpose of launching attacks against Israeli civilian or military targets, the IDF will respond firmly and decisively," the military statement said.
It was not clear whether the break in fighting was a prelude to the deployment of a ground force, nor have Israeli leaders given any indication of the scope of a ground operation, should one be ordered.
Earlier Wednesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged the Israeli government to go forward with a ground offensive, saying "terrorists are using civilians in Gaza as human shields to protect their rockets and weapons." He said the rocket threat from Hamas "cannot be addressed thoroughly from the air only."
Referring to Israel's disengagement from Gaza nine years ago, Lieberman said the international community repeatedly demands that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders of the country and remove Israeli settlements from the West Bank.
"Israel did just that in Gaza and withdrew to the last millimeter and evicted 21 communities," Lieberman said. "The result of that move was rockets on all Israeli cities."
Now, he said, "we expect the international community to back Israel diplomatically as we act to ensure our citizens will live in peace."
The Palestinian death toll since the Israeli offensive began July 8 reached 222 on Wednesday, according to a Gaza Health Ministry spokesman. The Israeli fatality was a 37-year-old man struck by a mortar shell Tuesday while taking food to soldiers at a Gaza checkpoint.
Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders accepted the Egyptian-proposed cease-fire and called for an internationally monitored operation to clean out Gaza's rocket arsenals and smuggling tunnels along the lines of the U.N.-supervised mission that has rid Syria of its declared chemical weapons.
For now, Israel continues to strike from the air at Gaza's arsenal, believed to still hold about 4,500 rockets, down from the 10,000 projectiles present before the latest outbreak of fighting.
"The weapons of the resistance are not subject to any negotiation whatsoever," Hamas' military branch said in a tweet.
There were also unconfirmed reports Wednesday that the Israeli government was sending a delegation to Cairo in an effort to rescue the cease-fire plan. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was also en route to the Egyptian capital, although the West Bank-based leader's ability to make commitments on behalf of Gaza may be limited.
Reports emerged, however, that Abbas would propose that Egypt open its border to Gaza under the supervision of his security forces. Other reports surfaced of a plan drafted by Hamas and Islamic Jihad for a 10-year cease-fire and removal of all blockades on Gaza.
The Israelis' peacemaking efforts were undermined by the deaths of the four boys, cousins ages 9 to 11, playing on a beach near Gaza City.
The tragedy was witnessed by foreign journalists staying at a nearby hotel and broad news coverage seemed likely to ratchet up outrage over the disproportionate casualties of the latest Israeli-Gaza flare-up.
Some Israeli media showed graphic images of the children's mangled bodies. Israeli television blurred the images but conveyed a clear message: "The pictures that could change the battle," read a caption on Channel 10.
An Israel Defense Forces statement deemed the boys' deaths "a tragic outcome," but said it was a result of the conflict provoked by Hamas.
"The IDF has no intention of harming civilians dragged by Hamas into the reality of urban combat," the army statement said. "We are carefully investigating the incident in question. Based on preliminary results, the target of this strike was Hamas terrorist operatives."
President Obama reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself from the rocket attacks, but said that over the last two weeks "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 cross-fire."
Obama said neither Israelis nor Palestinians "want to live like this," and pledged to "use all of our diplomatic resources and relationships to support efforts of closing a deal on a cease-fire."
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Williams from Los Angeles. Special correspondents Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City and Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.