Palestinian mothers and wives braved Israeli helicopter gunships on Friday to rescue 15 fighters besieged in a northern Gaza mosque, using their heavily veiled bodies as human shields.
“We risked our lives to free our sons,” said Um Mohammed, a woman in her 40s, after the daring rescue that followed protests against a bloody Israeli operation in the northern Gaza Strip that has killed 24 Palestinians.
Militants from various armed groups, including Hamas, had been besieged in the al-Nasr mosque since Thursday, seeking protection from Operation Autumn Clouds, one of the biggest Israeli incursions in Gaza for the past four months.
Braving gunfire and tanks, around 400 women and other demonstrators gathered to protest against the Israelis at one of the entrances to the town. Three of them, one a woman, were killed and another 25 people were wounded, medics said.
Around 200 women then left the main protest to march on and enter the mosque around 700 metres (yards) away to collect the gunmen, before walking out again, cloaking the fighters in the middle of their heavily veiled ranks.
None of the gunmen could be seen amid the dozens of women, who were dressed for the most part from head to toe in black in the religiously conservative Gaza Strip.
Throughout the rescue bid, Israeli helicopter gunships opened fire — not specifically at the women, but intending to scare them and separate their ranks, but without success. Two women were wounded, medics said.
A source in Hamas confirmed that its armed wing had orchestrated what he called a “complex security operation” to secure the release of the besieged fighters.
The women and fighters they were protecting ran as far as Izbat Beit Hanun, an area northwest of the town not being occupied by Israeli army.
“Hundreds of us entered the mosque and surrounded the resistance fighters to protect them,” said one of the women, 21-year-old Nidaa al-Radih.
One rescued fighter was triumphant. “We are free, we are free!” he shouted before running off to safety.
Elderly Palestinians and children are still holed up inside the mosque, where the compound wall and entrance gate have been partially destroyed by Israeli shellfire and bulldozers, witnesses said.
An army spokeswoman said that large demonstrations of around 3,000 people, mostly women, had been orchestrated by Hamas in order to provide cover for gunmen wanting to escape from the mosque.
“There are a number of incidents in which the forces identified armed gunmen and fired at armed gunmen. We are checking claims that women were hit in these demonstrations. At the moment we can’t confirm anything,” she said.