JERUSALEM — Faced with a deepening humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Israeli government on Wednesday declared a three-hour halt to fighting meant to allow besieged Palestinians to stock up on dwindling food supplies.
Announcement of the lull came as Israel's security Cabinet met in Tel Aviv to consider expanding the operation by sending soldiers deeper into Gaza's biggest cities.
Israel's decision to declare a short lull in the fighting each day came amid increasing warnings from the United Nations and humanitarian groups that the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were facing desperate conditions.
According to United Nations reports, three-quarters of the residents have been without electricity for days, virtually all water and sewage pumps have stopped working and aid workers in Gaza are unable to distribute food because of the intense fighting.
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At 1 p.m. local time, Israeli announced the first "humanitarian pause."
"Everyone is stopping completely," Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said of the Israeli soldiers, who do have permission to return fire and repel potential threats if Gaza militants attack.
It remained unclear whether Palestinians would feel safe enough to venture from their homes to try to find supplies.
The Israeli ground offensive has been taking an increasing toll on Palestinian women and children.
Gaza medical officials say that Israeli strikes have killed more than 600 Palestinians, including at least 111 children.
The deadliest strike on civilians so far came Tuesday, when Israeli mortar rounds hit a United Nations school in which scores of Palestinians had sought refuge from the fighting. The United Nations is demanding an investigation into the strike, which killed as many as 40 people.
"These attacks by Israeli military forces, which endanger U.N. facilities acting as places of refuge, are totally unacceptable and must not be repeated," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that its forces had opened fire only after they'd been targeted by Hamas militants, who'd fired mortars from an area near the U.N. school. Two eyewitnesses told the Associated Press on Tuesday that they'd seen Palestinian militants firing mortars on a street near the school.
John Ging, the head of the U.N. refugee program in Gaza, said there was no evidence that militants had fired mortars from inside the school and called for an independent investigation of the incident.
Even as Israel halted its military campaign temporarily, the nation's security Cabinet was weighing its next steps. Some officials want to press forward and send troops deeper into Gaza's densely populated cities and refugee camps. Others want to hold off to see whether the various diplomatic initiatives produce a breakthrough.
Israeli leaders have said that they have three primary goals: crippling Hamas' ability to routinely fire rockets at southern Israeli cities, sending Hamas a clear message that it will face a devastating response if it continues to fire the rockets and ensuring that the network of smuggler tunnels between Gaza and Egypt is shut down to prevent Hamas from bringing in more weapons.
International diplomats are exploring the idea of establishing a new force on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border that would be charged with cracking down on the smuggling.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is at the United Nations in New York to help work on the details. Diplomats said it could be several days before any deal would be secured.
Meanwhile, Gaza militants continued Wednesday to fire small numbers of rockets at Israeli cities.
Rocket strikes have killed four Israeli civilians in the last 11 days, along with seven soldiers. Four of the Israeli soldiers were killed when an Israeli tank accidentally opened fire on their position in Gaza.
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