Hundreds of Palestinians crowded around the homes of two militant leaders last night, a new tactic that forced Israel to call off airstrikes on the buildings and re-evaluate its aerial campaign in the Gaza Strip.
The protests erupted shortly after the Israeli army ordered occupants out of the homes. 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 mobilised 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 Mohammedweil Baroud, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees. Baroud, who oversees rocket attacks on Israel, in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. About two hours later, Mohammed Nawajeh, a Hamas leader in northern Gaza, got a similar call.
People loyal to various Palestinian factions — Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Resistance Committees — which have often fought against each other, answered calls for help, crossing party and ideological lines to fend off the Israeli airstrikes. It was not clear whether the protests were spontaneous or planned ahead of time.
"These Palestinian masses have come to defeat the Zionist swords which are targeting our heads and the heads of our fighters. This is the beginning of the popular activities to protect the fighters and their homes," said Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader in northern Gaza.
"Look we are defeating them," Rayan said, pointing to the Israeli warplanes overhead in the night sky.
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 neighbour'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.
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." At midday today, crowds continued to protect the targeted homes.