Ibrahim Barzak – Associated Press November 19, 2006
Israel called off airstrikes on the homes of two militants Sunday after hundreds of Palestinians crowded around the buildings forming human shields, a new tactic that forced the army to re-evaluate its aerial campaign in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians began to gather around the homes shortly after the Israeli army ordered occupants out of them. Israel routinely issues such warnings before attacking buildings that it says are used to store weapons, saying it wants to avoid casualties.
Instead of leaving the buildings, the homeowners remained inside and were quickly joined by crowds of supporters who gathered on balconies, rooftops and in the streets outside.
"Death to Israel. Death to America," the crowds chanted. Local mosques and Palestinian TV and radio stations also mobilized supporters. It was the first time Palestinians have formed human shields to prevent an airstrike.
The first incident occurred just before midnight at the home of Mohammed Baroud, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. Baroud oversees rocket attacks on Israel. About two hours later, Mohammed Nawajeh, a Hamas leader in northern Gaza, got a similar call.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas arrived at Baroud's home early Sunday to support the protest.
"We are so proud of this national stand. It's the first step toward protecting our homes, the homes of our children," Haniyeh said as he made his way to the roof.
People loyal to various Palestinian factions — Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Resistance Committees — which have often fought each other, answered calls for help.
Redwan Abu Daya, a 16-year-old Fatah supporter who lives near Baroud, said he was ignoring party lines because he felt a duty to protect his neighbor's homes from bombardment.
"I came here because everyone should be here," Abu Daya said, while the nearby mosque called on loudspeakers for people to gather at Baroud's home.
Dozens of Palestinian men milled about the dark street in front of the home throughout the chilly night. Some brandished M-16 rifles, occasionally firing into the night sky. Others clenched their fists or pointed defiantly into the air.
On Sunday afternoon, dozens more, many holding automatic rifles, remained on the rooftop of Baroud's home. Preparing for a long standoff, demonstrators said they had split into 12-hour shifts to guard the buildings around the clock.
The army said it called off the nighttime airstrikes because of the large crowds, but vowed to continue to fight the "terrorist infrastructure." It condemned "the cynical exploitation by the terrorists of uninvolved people as human shields."
Still, Israeli military officials acknowledged they had no solution for the standoff. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media.
In Gaza City, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying several senior members of the Hamas rocket-launching unit, the army said. Hospital officials said nine people were wounded including two Hamas militants inside the vehicle and a 13-year-old girl hurt by shrapnel.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meanwhile, criticized a U.N. resolution that calls on Israel to pull its troops from the Gaza Strip and requests a fact-finding mission into the death of 19 members of an extended family killed in a recent Israeli artillery attack.
The resolution, approved Friday by the U.N. General Assembly, received support from all members of the European Union after last minute changes softened the tone. Israel, Australia, and the United States voted against it.
"We have no doubt that the state of Israel is not the one that has to provide answers about hitting civilians," Olmert said at the weekly meeting of his Cabinet.
Instead, he criticized militants who have "the goal of hitting civilians" and members of the international community "who on their moral high-horse and eye-rolling ways view it as correct to initiate a U.N. resolution condemning us."
Hamas militants in Gaza fired two rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot on Sunday, wounding one person. Last week, a Sderot woman was killed in a rocket attack.
Hamas and the more moderate Fatah have been at loggerheads since the Islamic Hamas group ousted the long-ruling Fatah from power in January parliamentary elections.
But in recent weeks, the sides have been trying to put aside their differences and form a unity government in the hopes of ending international sanctions imposed on the current Hamas-led government.
Israel and Western donor nations have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist or accept past peace deals. Hamas rejects the conditions, and the emerging coalition government is expected to take a vague position toward Israel.
Haniyeh acknowledged that despite progress in the talks, there were no guarantees the new government would persuade the international community to lift sanctions.
"We want to feel more secure, to be more comfortable that they are going to be committed to these guarantees and lift the siege," Haniyeh told reporters after visiting the Baroud home.
Last updated 20/11/2006