Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Friday, November 3, 2006
Palestinians reported at least one women killed and a second was in critical condition after they were shot during the fray. The Israeli Army said its soldiers had fired only at armed gunmen, who were firing at them from within the crowd.
The standoff began on Thursday evening when some three dozen Palestinian gunmen - fleeing Israeli forces - took refuge in a mosque in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun. Gunmen and Israeli troops exchanged fire during the night and part of the mosque's roof collapsed.
On Friday morning, Hamas radio put out a call for women and children to come to the mosque - to form a human shield around the gunmen so they could escape. The Israeli Army said Hamas knows that Israeli troops would not shoot at women and children.
About 3,000 protestors, most of them women, turned out to protect the gunmen -- and the ploy worked. When soldiers searched the mosque later, it was empty, the army said.
This is not the first time that Palestinian gunmen have taken cover in religious buildings to escape Israeli forces. In 2002, 200 armed Palestinians spent more than a month holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
In related news, the army confirmed that it launched an aerial attack on a car carrying Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip on Friday. Four militants were killed on their way to carry out rocket attacks on Israel, Israel said.
Since Israel launched its military operation in the Gaza Strip two days ago, it has "hit" 34 armed Palestinians, the army said.
The operation in the northern Gaza Strip is intended to stop the continuing rocket fire on Israeli communities in southern Israel - an almost daily occurrence. Despite the military action, at least 15 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have landed inside Israel over the last two days, including one that struck a children's playground.
Further north, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli troops shot two Palestinians, killing one of them, as they prepared a car bomb.
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