By TAGHREED EL-KHODARY and ISABEL KERSHNER
GAZA — Israel pressed on with its 12-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday , but it allowed a brief suspension to permit humanitarian aid to reach the beleaguered population and agreed to future brief halts, while the Israeli security cabinet postponed a vote authorizing a further stage of the ground operation.
The day after Israeli mortar shells killed as many as 40 Palestinians, among them women and children, outside a United Nations school in Gaza, diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting to a halt intensified. France and Egypt and Turkey were working on a plan that would work to halt rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, open up crossings into Gaza from both Israel and Egypt, and end weapons smuggling from Egypt. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said the cease-fire plan had been agreed on, but Israel and Hamas both said that there were many details to be worked out. Israel was due to send officials to Cairo for further discussions.
The death toll in Gaza reached around 660 on Wednesday, according to Palestinian health officials. The United Nations has estimated that about one-fourth of those dying in Gaza are civilians, but there is little certainty about the current figures.
Israel has said repeatedly that it will not end the operation in Gaza until it is assured that Hamas will stop firing rockets into Israel and that arms smuggling will halt. The Israeli military reported on Wednesday that a rocket fired from Gaza landed in a yard in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon and nine people were treated for shock. Three other rockets landed elsewhere.
The Israeli military contended that it fired on the school on Tuesday because Hamas fighters had fired mortars from the school compound. United Nations officials have called for an independent inquiry into the episode.
While the guns fell silent for several hours on Wednesday, news reports from the Israel-Gaza border area said a string of explosions was soon heard after the three-hour lull ended. Israel said the three-hour lull would be repeated every other day between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to allow Gaza’s population to seek medical help, buy food and receive humanitarian supplies.
In Paris, Mr. Sarkozy, who toured the region earlier this week in a diplomatic drive for a cease-fire, issued a statement welcoming what he called “the acceptance by Israel and the Palestinian Authority” of a cease-fire plan put forward Tuesday evening by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Mr. Sarkozy said he was urging the implementation of the plan “as soon as possible for the suffering of the population to stop.”
But the status of the proposal was far from clear and some Palestinians remained skeptical. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, told the BBC that the plan fell short of a cease-fire. “Israel is still buying time to create facts on the ground,” she said.
According to Reuters, Mark Regev, the spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said: “We welcome the French-Egyptian initiative. We want to see it succeed.
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