Israel called off airstrikes on the homes of two militants today after hundreds of Palestinians crowded around the buildings forming human shields, a new tactic that forced the Israelis to re-evaluate their aerial campaign in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians began to gather around the homes shortly after the Israeli army ordered occupants out of them. 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 Mohammed Baroud, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. Baroud oversees rocket attacks on Israel. About two hours later, Mohammed Nawajeh, a Hamas leader in northern Gaza, got a similar call.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas arrived at Baroud’s home early today to support the protest.
“We are so proud of this national stand. It’s the first step toward protecting our homes, the homes of our children,” Haniyeh said as he made his way to the roof of the house, decorated during the night with black and green flags symbolising the Popular Resistance Committees and Hamas groups.
“This strategy was decided by our people. This strategy was decided by our leaders who were here from all the factions … and so long as this strategy is in the interest of our people we support this strategy,” Haniyeh said.
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.
The army said it called off the 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 crowds continued to protect the targeted homes.
Also today, Hamas militants in Gaza fired two rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, moderately wounding one person. Last week, a Sderot woman was killed in a rocket attack.
Hamas and Fatah, the two largest Palestinian factions, have been at loggerheads since the Islamic Hamas group ousted the long-ruling Fatah from power in January parliamentary elections. The tensions have periodically spilled over into violence, killing nearly 30 Palestinians.
But in recent weeks, the sides have been trying to put aside their differences and form a unity government. President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, a moderate who was elected separately last year, hopes the deal will get international sanctions imposed on the current Hamas-led government lifted.
The sanctions have made it largely impossible for Hamas to pay its 165,000 state employees, causing widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Haniyeh acknowledged that despite progress in the talks, there still are no guarantees the new government would persuade the international community to lift the sanctions.
“There are letters, there are messages, there are talks from here and from there but … we want to document these letters, we want to feel more secure, to be more comfortable that they are going to be committed to these guaantees and lift the siege,” Haniyeh told reporters after visiting the Baroud home.
Israel and Western donor nations have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognise Israel's right to exist or accept past peace deals. Hamas rejects the conditions. The emerging coalition government is expected to take a vague position toward Israel in hopes that the West will lift the sanctions.
Negotiators have agreed on a new prime minister – US-educated Mohammed Shabir, the former president of the Islamic University in Gaza City – but negotiators say differences remain over the distribution of Cabinet portfolios. The treasury and the Interior Ministry, with its control over the security forces, are likely to be hotly contested.
In a sign of progress, Abbas held his first meeting with Shabir yesterday. The current prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, also joined the talks.
Aides said the talks were informal and no decisions were made. Haniyeh would have to resign to clear the way for Shabir to take office if the sides reach an agreement.