GAZA CITY — Israel announced it would cease attacks on Palestinian militants in Gaza for five hours Thursday at the request of a United Nations official, but a ground operation against rocket-firing militants in the territory looks increasingly likely.
A five-hour lull is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Ynet reported. A U.N. official made the request after Hamas on Tuesday rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal to stop hostilities in which 215 Palestinians and one Israeli have died, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's top peace negotiator in U.S.-brokered peace talks that failed recently, told Israel's Channel 2 on Wednesday that a ground invasion of Gaza will be necessary if rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory continues.
Her comments came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet approved the call-up of 8,000 reservists, bringing to 56,000 the reservists on active duty, according to The Jerusalem Post.
The chances of a ground operation that could involve the occupation of Gaza and last several months are increasingly high, according to reports by The New York Times and Washington Post, citing an unnamed source in the Israeli military.
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli warplanes intensified attacks, bombing a coastal area in Gaza where four Palestinian boys were killed. Israel warned tens of thousands of Gaza residents near the border to leave their homes.
At least seven people were wounded in the attack west of Gaza City, where the four boys — cousins ages 9 to 11 — were playing on a beach, said Ashraf Al Kedra, a Palestinian doctor. The Israeli military said it was looking into the incident.
"It's a cold-blooded massacre," said the boys' uncle, Abdel Kareem Baker, 41. "It's a shame they didn't identify them as kids with all of the advanced technology they claim they're using."
The United Nations has said the majority of those killed in Gaza as a result of Israel's Operation Protective Edge, which started July 8, have been civilians. Israel blames Hamas for hiding and launching rockets in crowded public areas and using civilians as shields.
Israel accepted an Egyptian truce proposal Tuesday that called for a halt to hostilities, but Hamas rejected the deal, saying it did not believe Egypt's rulers — who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo last year — could be fair brokers.
In a news conference Wednesday, Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior Hamas official, said the group feels "alone in the field" with little support from the Arab world. Zuhri, who vowed the militant group will continue its attacks on Israel, called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to support Hamas' refusal of the cease-fire.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "The situation in Gaza is very urgent. We are concerned about reports of loss of life on both sides of the border."
The United States stands "firmly behind the Israelis and their right to defend themselves," he said. "And not just a right but a responsibility."
Earnest said there is still hope that the cease-fire proposal by Egypt could be accepted by both sides. He made clear which side the White House blames for the crisis. "We certainly would like to see Hamas accept the cease-fire," he said.
Israel told residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Zeitoun and Shijaiyah neighborhoods of Gaza City, all near the border with Israel, to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. Wednesday. The warnings were delivered in automated phone calls, text messages and leaflets dropped from planes.
The Israeli military said in its message that large numbers of rockets were launched from these areas and that Israel plans to bomb these locations.
"Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families," the message said.
A Hamas website said Wednesday that Israel fired missiles at the homes of four of its senior leaders. Hamas militants fired a barrage of rockets back, and some reached deep into Israeli territory.
During the past two weeks, Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets at Israeli border communities, and six of them landed in Kibbutz Nir Oz on Wednesday.
Judy Hagai, a resident of Kibbutz Nir Oz, a little more than a mile from the Gaza border, said the situation is an escalation of what she and Israelis in the area have experienced, on and off, for nearly 15 years.
"We had one (rocket) hit two days ago about 100 meters from our house that caused a huge crack in the wall of our house. Yesterday, another one hit our neighbor's garden 100 meters away in the opposite direction," Hagai said.
Hagai said Israel had no choice but to fire on Hamas targets.
"Unfortunately, our neighbors are placing their armaments near civilians and then telling them not to heed Israel's warnings to evacuate," she said.
Civilians in Gaza say they are caught between the back-and-forth of political and military decision-makers.
"We are the victims of politicians," said Ibrahim Badwan, 38, an accountant and father of five in Gaza. "We want to live a decent life, to bring up our children in a safe environment."
"People in Gaza have had enough," Badwan said.
Mohammad Nizar, 32, a shop owner in Gaza City, said any cease-fire must benefit Gazans.
"Let me tell you that I do not like Hamas, but I support the resistance in general," Nizar said.
Dumalaon reported from Berlin. Contributing: Oren Dorell from McLean, Va., Michele Chabin from Jerusalem; Gregory Korte in Washington; the Associated Press