JERUSALEM — For three hours Wednesday afternoon, a surreal calm settled over the Gaza Strip as the 12-day-old Israeli military campaign to destabilize the militant Islamist group Hamas came to a temporary halt.
Palestinians who'd been huddling for days in their chilly, powerless homes rushed out in search of scarce food, clean water, cooking gas, warm blankets and supplies to get them through the deepening crisis.
Then, as abruptly as the firing stopped, the Israeli attacks resumed with renewed force. Gaza militants fired more than two dozen rockets into southern Israel on Wednesday. Four Israelis were killed by rockets in the past 12 days, but on Wednesday no one was seriously injured.
Nearly 700 Palestinians have died in the Israeli attacks, including a rapidly rising number of women and children.
Never miss a local story.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said late Wednesday that its teams, which the Israeli military allowed into the Zaytun neighborhood of Gaza City for the first time, found at least 15 corpses in several houses.
In one, workers found four small children next to their dead mothers, the ICRC said. In a statement, the Geneva-based organization called Israel's delay in permitting rescue services "unacceptable," and said Israel had "failed to meet its obligations" under international humanitarian law.
As diplomats struggled to craft a deal that would bring the fighting to a permanent halt, Israeli airstrikes targeted the Hamas-controlled smugglers' tunnels that have emerged as the focal point of a possible truce.
After dropping fliers warning Gaza residents living near the Egyptian border to flee, Israel again hit the barren area that Hamas had transformed into underground smuggling routes for weapons and supplies.
Egyptian officials said that Israeli and Palestinian delegations were due in Cairo Thursday for separate talks to see whether an Egyptian initiative could be the foundation for a cease-fire.
"We're open to hearing creative ideas on how to make sure that arms smuggling into Gaza no longer happens," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
At the United Nations, where diplomats were debating a formula for ending the crisis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she'd urged Israel to embrace the Egyptian proposal.
Rather than try to create a new international force to patrol the small but troublesome eight-mile section of the border from inside Gaza, the proposal would transform the modest Egyptian force patrolling the area into a multinational unit charged with keeping smuggling in check.
In late 2007, the U.S. dedicated $23 million of Egypt's U.S. military aid to help it crack down on border smuggling into Gaza. Plans are afoot to expand the program.
U.S. officials said that an Army Corps of Engineers team, which undertook an initial mission to Egypt to provide training and technology for detecting tunnels, could return to launch a broader effort. "We definitely could consider expanding it," said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because no decision has been announced.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spearheaded the diplomatic move, expressed optimism Wednesday that the plan could gain momentum and bring the fighting to an end.
Sarkozy announced on Wednesday that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed in principle to the proposal. The Palestinian Authority, which lost control of Gaza to Hamas militants in a June 2007 military showdown, however, lacks any ability to enforce the plan's provisions in Gaza.
Israeli leaders, with strong U.S. backing, have made it clear that they're doing all they can to marginalize Hamas and regain a role for the secular Palestinian Authority.
"Hamas has no official status," Regev said of the group, which won control of the Palestinian government in free, democratic elections in 2006.
"Hamas is part of the problem," Regev said. "They are not part of the solution."
As the cease-fire talks unfold, Israel is moving ahead with its military campaign.
Israel's security cabinet met on Wednesday to weigh its next moves, including an expansion of the four-day-old ground offensive. Israeli leaders declined to discuss their next steps publicly, but Israeli media reported that the cabinet had decided to press ahead with the military operation.
The Israeli campaign, codenamed Operation Cast Lead, has killed nearly 700 Palestinians, including more than 100 children, according to Gaza medical officials. More than 3,000 Palestinians have been wounded in the fighting.
Seven Israeli soldiers have been killed since the ground operation began on Saturday. Four were killed by an Israeli tank that accidentally opened fire on an Israeli position.
The U.N. and human rights groups called Wednesday for an independent investigation into the Israeli mortar strike on a U.N. school filled with refugees. More than 40 Palestinians seeking refuge from the fighting were killed, making it one of the single-deadliest attacks of the offensive.
Israeli officials said the soldiers were targeting Hamas militants that had fired mortar rounds at the advancing army. U.N. officials again said they were certain that no mortars had been fired from the school compound, as Israeli leaders initially asserted.
During the short, three-hour "humanitarian pause," residents of Gaza could stock up on food, water and other dwindling supplies.
Residents rushed about grabbing cans of food from sparse shelves and stood in bread lines for hours.
Ali Nazli stood in line at one market and dismissed the short cease-fire as an attempt by Israel to divert attention from the attack Tuesday on a U.N. school.
"Israelis massacred civilians in Gaza yesterday," Nazli said. "So now Israelis want to make their ugly face look pretty. That's why they gave us the cease-fire."
To prevent Gaza from sliding deeper into crisis, the U.N. said on Wednesday that a humanitarian supply line needs to operate round the clock.
For now, Israel is only willing to commit to offering a three-hour lull every other day.
(Dion Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem. McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda reported from Gaza City. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY: