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Hamas retaliates, Israel escalates

At least three mortars were fired from Gaza into Israel on Thursday, less than three hours into a five-hour “humanitarian pause” in the nine-day battle between Israel and Hamas.

The suspension of hostilities, brokered by the UN and starting at 10am on Thursday, came after four Palestinian children died in an Israeli strike on a Gaza beach and follows an earlier Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that was observed only by Israel.

The Israeli military said in a statement that the attack consisted of three mortar shells. It was not immediately clear whether the Israeli military would respond.

The brief truce was called to allow restocking with food, water and other essentials by the many Palestinians who have been trapped in their houses for days. The death toll in Israel’s assault on Gaza has passed 216, including the four boys killed while playing on a beach on Wednesday.

One Israeli civilian has been killed by mortar fire close to the Gaza border.

Ahead of the ceasefire the intermittent sound of explosions continued to echo across the coastal enclave early on Thursday. Israel said it would hold its fire as agreed from 10am but vowed to retaliate “firmly and decisively” if Hamas or other militant groups continued their attacks.

Later the Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that following consultations between various factions the Gaza militants had decided to respect the pause as well and would refrain from firing rockets.

Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, had asked Israel to agree to a “unilateral humanitarian pause” so that supplies could be delivered to Gaza, said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. Serry would “urge the parties in Gaza to respect that pause”, Haq said.

Israel halted its bombardment for six hours on Tuesday after Egypt put forward a ceasefire proposal that unravelled. Abu Zuhri said on Wednesday that his group had formally rejected the plan, bemoaning what he called little support from the Arab world.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, met on Wednesday in Cairo with a senior official from Hamas to try to salvage the Egyptian proposal.

In Washington 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 on Wednesday. It did not provide more specifics but the Gaza interior ministry website said 30 houses were targeted including those of senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar, Jamila Shanti, Fathi Hamas and Ismail Ashkar.

Zahar was a key figure in Hamas’s 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 8 July in response to rocket attacks.

The four boys killed on Wednesday were cousins aged nine to 11. They were hit when the Israeli military fired on a beach beside a coastal road west of Gaza City.

Seven other adults and children were wounded in the strike, which the 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 had been scavenging for scrap metal when the first shell hit a nearby shipping container used in the past by Hamas security forces. He said the boys fled but a second projectile “hit all of them”.

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. Then he saw the boys running.

“We started shouting at them: ‘Run, run here.’ Then a shell from the sea landed behind them,” Abadallah 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.

Despite the temporary truce and efforts to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire, Israeli officials quoted anonymously by the New York Times said the likelihood of a long-threatened ground invasion remained very high.

“Every day that passes makes the possibility more evident,” an official said.

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