Israeli troops kill Palestinian woman who went to shield militants

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The Independent Online

Israeli forces opened fire today on a group of women who streamed to a Gaza mosque to serve as human shields for gunmen holed up there, killing one and wounding 10, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.

The dead woman was one of several hundreds who heeded a call by Hamas militants to ring the mosque in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Their presence there allowed the gunmen inside to escape, ending their 19-hour standoff with soldiers parked outside in tanks and armored personnel carriers, the army and militants said.

Troops seized Beit Hanoun on Wednesday in their fiercest bid in months to halt Palestinian rocket fire on nearby Israeli communities. More than 20 Palestinians, most of them gunmen, have been killed since the offensive began, including an unidentified 22-year-old man killed today.

The mosque became the focus of the fighting in the town after gunmen — estimates ranged from one dozen to several dozen — sought refuge from troops there yesterday. Most were thought to belong to the military wing of the ruling Hamas party.

Armored vehicles quickly surrounded the building, and the two sides began exchanging fire that lasted throughout the night, the military and Palestinian security officials said.

Israeli soldiers trying to pressure the gunmen to surrender also threw stun and smoke grenades, and knocked down an outer wall of the mosque with a bulldozer, causing the ceiling to collapse.

With sporadic shooting persisting this morning, Hamas radio broadcast a call to women to go to Beit Hanoun to shield the militants. Dozens of women left their homes to hurry to the mosque, and en route, came under Israeli fire, witnesses and officials said.

One woman, about 40, was shot dead, and 10 others were wounded, they said.

The army said troops spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire, hitting the two.

By mid-morning Friday, a large group of veiled women protesters gathered outside the mosque, where troops were positioned in tanks and armored personnel carriers. The army said the gunmen inside the mosque were able to take advantage of the demonstration to escape because there weren't enough infantrymen to block the protesters from approaching the building, and troops didn't want to shoot into the crowd.

But live ammunition was fired in the course of the demonstration, wounding a Palestinian cameraman and an unidentified woman.

"The criminal enemy campaign against our people will collapse and fail, like previous campaigns," vowed Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman.

Loudspeakers across Gaza called on people to come to demonstrations after Friday prayers to express solidarity with Beit Hanoun. By late morning, two rallies were already in progress in Beit Hanoun, and militants in the crowds were firing at soldiers, the army said.

Elsewhere in Beit Hanoun, Israeli troops lowered their visibility, after two days of fierce fighting.

No airstrikes were reported, and residents said infantrymen had stopped patrolling the streets. Tanks and armored personnel vehicles were in sight, however, and snipers were positioned on about two dozen rooftops.

The army said it targeted Beit Hanoun because it was a major staging ground for rocket attacks. But Israeli officials have said the takeover of the town did not signal the start of a wider-scale military offensive in Gaza.

Militants have been undeterred by the offensive, however, and have continued firing rockets, including two that landed in southern Israel on Friday, slightly wounding two people.

The incursion into Beit Hanoun was launched as Abbas, a moderate, tried to form a new government with Hamas. A top Abbas aide said Thursday that the Palestinian president would seek new elections if talks do not produce results in about two weeks.

Abbas has been trying to end a punishing aid cutoff by setting up a government acceptable to the West, either in a power-sharing arrangement between Hamas and his Fatah movement, or by appointing independent professionals agreeable to the ruling party. Hamas has balked at demands that it recognize Israel, however, and no solution to the deadlock has emerged.

Independent legislator Mustafa Barghouti, who has been shuttling between the two sides, said Thursday that an agreement on a new government is close, but he would not disclose details. "We have made good progress. We are almost there," Barghouti said after meeting with Haniyeh.

In other news:

* A 65-year-old Palestinian woman was wounded in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, caught in crossfire between militants holed up in a house and Israeli soldiers on an arrest raid, hospital officials said. Witnesses had reported earlier that she was killed.

The army said forces were operating in Bethlehem, but had no other details.

* Israeli troops opened fire at two Palestinians preparing a car bomb in the West Bank city of Nablus on Friday morning, killing one and wounding another, the military said.

Palestinian officials identified the wounded man as a senior militant from a violent faction affiliated with the military wing of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party and the dead man as his teenage brother.

* Israeli troops arrested a Palestinian Cabinet minister in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Friday, Palestinian security officials said.

The officials identified him as Public Works and Housing Minister Abdel Rahman Zidan of the Palestinians' ruling Hamas party. Dozens of other Hamas ministers and lawmakers have been arrested in previous Israeli sweeps after Hamas-linked militants killed two Israeli soldiers and captured a third in a cross-border raid on June 25.

The Israeli army said only that it arrested a Hamas activist.