Women aid escape of gunmen in Gaza

November 04, 2006|By Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi abu Alouf | Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi abu Alouf,Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Dozens of Palestinian gunmen holed up in a mosque ringed by Israeli troops and tanks escaped yesterday after the Israelis opened fire on a group of women who rushed toward the shrine to serve as human shields.

Two of the women were killed on the third day of fighting in the Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun; 17 others were listed as wounded.

The end to the 15-hour standoff was a setback for Israeli forces that had stormed the town Wednesday to find stockpiles of Kassam rockets and the militants who launch them into Israel.

With Israelis occupying most of Beit Hanoun, the militants took refuge Thursday in Nasir Mosque and exchanged fire with the soldiers through the day and night.

Many of the gunmen belong to the armed wing of Hamas, the movement that governs the Palestinian territories. Israeli soldiers trying to force their surrender hurled stun and smoke grenades at the mosque and knocked down an outer wall with a bulldozer Thursday, weakening the entire structure, residents said.

At that point, the militants devised an escape plan, said Abu Ubaida, a Hamas spokesman: The Hamas radio station appealed to women in the town of 37,000 to converge on the mosque to protect the fighters, who numbered 73.

As about 50 veiled women approached the shrine on foot, shouting at the Israelis to leave Gaza, the soldiers turned from the mosque and opened fire. One woman died at the scene and another in a hospital several hours later, Palestinian officials said.

An Israeli army spokesman said soldiers had seen two males hiding among the women and fired at them. Footage filmed by Reuters and other news organizations showed no men in the crowd.

In the ensuing melee, the crowd retreated, then swelled to 200 and advanced again, pushing inside the Israeli cordon. The soldiers held their fire, witnesses said, and the women entered the mosque and guided the men out.

Ubaida told reporters the besieged militants escaped unharmed, many by way of a hole connecting the mosque to an adjacent house. One of the women said they had brought in clothing to disguise the militants as females.

The Israeli spokesman said the militants escaped in plain sight, protected by a crowd of women too numerous for the soldiers to control.

Shortly afterward, the roof of the mosque collapsed.

Television footage of the scene was rebroadcast throughout the day across the Middle East along with commentary in Arab news media praising the women's courage. Several demonstrations against the Israeli assault were held in Gaza after Friday prayers.

"I salute the women of Palestine, who led the protest to break the siege of Beit Hanoun," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

An unarmed 17-year-old boy and a Hamas fighter were also killed yesterday, bringing the death toll in the three-day operation to 13 militants, seven civilian residents of Beit Hanoun and one Israeli soldier.

Israeli officials said they expect the operation in Beit Hanoun to last several more days. It is the first takeover of an entire town since Israeli forces and settlers unilaterally withdrew from the coastal strip 14 months ago after a 38-year occupation.

Israeli critics of the assault on Beit Hanoun said the civilian casualties would only deepen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without stopping the rockets, which continued to rain on Israel this week from elsewhere in Gaza.

"Our leaders felt obligated to make a show of force, but it is not being effective," said Mossi Raz, a leader of the Peace Now movement in Israel.

Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi abu Alouf write for the Los Angeles Times.

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