Human shields prevent Israeli air strikes in Gaza

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The Independent Online

Israel is reviewing its advance warnings policy after calling off two air strikes when civilians formed "human shields" around the homes of Palestinian militants in Gaza.

A similar incident occurred two weeks ago in Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza when hundreds of women took to the streets to shield Palestinian gunmen besieged in a mosque.

Speaking after the two incidents in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya at the weekend, an Israeli army spokesman said: "We warn people in advance because we don't want to harm innocent civilians, but after they took advantage of it we will have to think again."

The incidents did not deter the air force from firing a missile at a car driven by two Hamas militants in Gaza City. Israel said they were senior members of a unit producing Qassam rockets, which are used against Israeli border towns and villages.

Palestinian witnesses reported that the militants fled unharmed just before the missile struck, but nine wounded passers-by were treated in hospital. Dr Jomma al-Saqa said that an 80-year-old man who was driving a donkey cart was killed. Two others were in serious condition. Four teenagers were treated for shrapnel wounds.

Ishmail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister, joined the human shield which gathered early yesterday outside the home of Mohammed Baroud, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees. Standing on a flat roof decorated with black and green militia flags, Mr Haniyeh said: "We are so proud of this national stand. It is the first step towards protecting our homes, the homes of our children."

Answering calls from local mosques, dozens of supporters, some brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, were still guarding the roof last night. Working 12-hour shifts, they said they were prepared for a long vigil. A band of women, led by Jamila al-Shanti, a Hamas MP, joined the family inside Baroud's home.

Israel is increasingly frustrated at its failure to stop the Qassam assault, which killed a woman in the town of Sderot last week.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched seven of the home-made rockets into the western Negev yesterday, bringing the weekend tally to 20. Three civilians were wounded. About 1,000 Sderot residents have been given a week's holiday in the Red Sea resort of Eilat as the guests of Arcady Gaydamak, a Russian-Israeli millionaire.

The army has tried air strikes, shelling and ground incursions to stop the rockets. A missile-defence system is on the drawing board, but is not expected to be deployed for at least five years.