JERUSALEM — An Israeli airstrike that killed four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach Wednesday gave added urgency to diplomatic efforts to end more than a week of fighting between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas.
Israel agreed to a United Nations request for a five-hour pause in its attacks Thursday to allow Gaza residents to stock up on food and medicine. But contacts to arrange a more permanent cease-fire were hampered by disagreements over who would be acceptable as an intermediary. Israel and Hamas do not speak directly to one another.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Cairo and met with Moussa Abu Marzouk, the second-ranking leader in Hamas, after the group formally rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that failed to take hold on Tuesday.
Hamas has been cool to mediation by Egypt because that countrys president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is hostile to the Islamist group, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas prefers either Qatar or Turkey as a go-between, both of which are less acceptable to Israel.
Secretary of State John Kerry has talked to the foreign ministers of all three prospective mediators, prodding them to press Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. The United States, which considers Hamas a terrorist organization, also refuses to speak directly to the organization.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the situation in Gaza very urgent and expressed concern about reports of deaths on both sides. He said that senior administration officials were in touch with high-level officials in the region and that ending the fighting continued to be a top priority.
More than 200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed and more than 1,500 injured, according to Gaza health officials, in nine days of Israeli bombardments, which have struck nearly 2,000 targets in the crowded coastal enclave. Islamist militants in Gaza have fired volleys of rockets into Israel, killing one person and wounding several more.
An airstrike Wednesday on a Gaza City seafront killed four children as they played on the beach, witnesses said. The boys, ages 9 to 11, were said to be from a family of fishermen who work at the nearby port.
When the first shell landed, they ran away but another shell hit them all, Ahmed Abu Hassera, a witness, told the Reuters news agency. It looked as if the shells were chasing them.
The boys had been playing near a shipping container, according to local reports.
The Israeli army said a preliminary investigation showed that the attack was directed at a target where terror operatives were located, and from which terror activities were carried out. An army spokeswoman said she could not say whether the strike had missed its target or had been based on mistaken intelligence.
In another deadly incident, a taxi van was struck in the city of Khan Yunis, killing a 65-year-old woman, her 10-year-old grandson and his 25-year-old brother as they traveled to visit hospitalized relatives, Palestinians reported. An army spokeswoman said the target of the strike was a group of five militants who had come out of a house.
Earlier, the Israeli army warned about 100,000 Palestinians living in the neighborhoods Shujaiya and Zeitun east of Gaza City and in the town of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip to vacate their homes in advance of stepped-up airstrikes. Leaflets dropped over the areas warned that people ignoring the warning would endanger their lives.
Hamas urged residents to stay put, accusing Israel of using scare tactics and spreading chaos and confusion. Some residents left the area while other stayed, telling reporters that nowhere in the Gaza Strip was safe from Israeli attacks.
The al-Wafaa rehabilitation center in Shujaiya, which cares for 17 disabled patients, received a recorded message ordering residents to evacuate, according to hospital director Basman al Ashi, who said he had no intention of complying. A similar rehabilitation center was struck last week in Beit Lahiya, and two disabled women were killed.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides assistance to Palestinian refugees, said that 22,600 people who had left their homes were sheltering in 24 of the agencys schools.
According to U.N. figures, 1,660 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged by the Israeli bombardments, displacing another 9,900 people. Scores of family homes of suspected militant operatives and leaders have been hit, in some cases killing their relatives.
On Wednesday, the homes of Hamas political figures were struck, including houses of Parliament members and the residence of Mahmoud Zahar, a top leader of the group in Gaza.
The U.N. said that 900,000 people in Gaza were without running water following damage to water and electric power networks caused by the Israeli bombardments.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com.