Monday, November 20, 2006

Palestinians Form Human Shield To Protect Hamas Leaders

Yahoo! News
Palestinian shields foil Israeli strikes
By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press Writer

Hundreds of Palestinians serving as human shields guarded the homes of two top militants Sunday, a new tactic that forced Israel to call off missile strikes on the buildings and re-evaluate a mainstay of its aerial campaign in Gaza.

In recent months, the Israeli air force has repeatedly struck the homes of militants after warning residents by phone to clear out. Israeli security officials said they did not know how to respond to the human shield tactic, but pressed ahead with other airstrikes Sunday.

In Gaza City, an aircraft fired a missile at a car, killing one man and wounding nine, including two Hamas militants. Four of the wounded were children, ages 5 to 16, who suffered shrapnel injuries, hospital officials said.

The military said the target of the strike was a vehicle carrying senior members of the Hamas rocket launching operation.

The standoff over the homes of the militants began late Saturday when Mohammed Baroud, local leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, was informed by the army that his house would be hit. The three-story building is home to 17 people from Baroud's family. Another militant from Hamas also received a warning.

Instead of fleeing, though, the two decided to stay in their homes and called in reinforcements. They were quickly joined by crowds of supporters, including dozens of armed men, 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.

Baroud, involved in rocket attacks on Israel, said he and his fellow militants had planned the response a few days earlier when another house was destroyed in a missile strike.

The army said it called off the nighttime airstrikes because of the crowds. It condemned what it said was a cynical exploitation "by the terrorists of uninvolved people as human shields."

Israeli military officials acknowledged they had no solution for the standoff. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

By Sunday afternoon, about two dozen women were milling around on Baroud's roof, shielded from the sun by green tarp. One story below them, about a dozen men were resting on mattresses.

Baroud's mother, Umm Wael, said shifts had been organized in preparation for a long standoff. "Where should we go?" she said. "We will stay here or die in the house. Let them bring it down on our heads."

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas stopped by to show support. "We are so proud of this national stand. It's the first step toward protecting our homes, the homes of our children," he said.

Also Sunday, Hamas militants in Gaza fired eight rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, seriously wounding one person. Last week, a Sderot woman was killed in a rocket attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and demanded he invoke his authority to put an end to the rocket fire, the Defense Ministry said. Peretz told Abbas that Israel would not tolerate continued barrages.

Abbas responded by telling Peretz to stop Israel's military escalation in the Palestinian territories, according to the Palestinian news agency, WAFA.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticized a U.N. resolution that calls on Israel to pull its troops from Gaza and requests a fact-finding mission into the death of 19 members of an extended family killed in an Israeli artillery attack earlier this month.

The resolution — which passed the General Assembly on Friday — received support from all members of the European Union after last-minute changes were made to soften the tone. Israel, Australia and the United States voted against it.

Olmert said Israel will not halt its five-month offensive in Gaza, which he said is a response to rocket fire from Palestinian militants, even though civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire.

He lashed out at 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 and Abbas' more moderate Fatah have been at loggerheads since the Islamic group came to power after winning January parliamentary elections. 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 government.

Israel and Western donor nations have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and 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.


Associated Press Writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report.