About 200 Palestinian women broke through an Israeli troop and tank cordon around a mosque Friday to serve as human shields, allowing dozens of armed militants to flee an Israeli siege, but only after two of the women were killed.
Answering a call from the Hamas radio station, the women took to the streets in a mass public intervention of a kind rarely seen in this conservative Muslim society. They carried extra robes and veils with them to disguise some of the militants holed up in the mosque.
The two women killed by Israeli fire brought the daily death toll to at least 14 Palestinians, making Friday one of the deadliest days of fighting in the Gaza Strip this year. Nearly 300 Palestinians have died in fighting that has flared episodically here since June.
The most recent episode began Wednesday when Israeli forces stormed the town of Beit Hanoun to root out stockpiles of Kassam rockets that Hamas and other militant groups fire at Israeli towns.
As many as 73 militants took refuge in the Nasir Mosque on Thursday and exchanged fire with the Israelis, who tried to force them to surrender by hurling stun and smoke grenades at the mosque and knocking down one of its outer walls with a bulldozer, residents of the town said.
The idea to call on the women emerged from a 2 a.m. meeting of the Hamas leadership, according to Jamela Shanti, 45, one of two Gazan women in the parliamentary delegation of Hamas, which leads the Palestinian government. Two hours later, as organizers coordinated by cellphone with the gunmen in the mosque, Shanti began recruiting other women.
As dawn broke Friday, the Hamas radio station issued its call for women to gather for a midmorning march to Beit Hanoun from the neighboring town of Beit Lahiya. Mosque loudspeakers in several towns repeated the call.
The lead group of women approached the besieged mosque on foot on a wide street, shouting at the Israelis to leave Gaza. Soldiers turned from the mosque and opened fire.
An Israeli army spokesman said soldiers had spotted two male militants hiding among the women and fired at them. Footage filmed by Reuters and other news organizations showed no men in the crowd at the time.
One woman, Ibtesam Masoud, 42, died at the scene and another, who was not identified, died in a hospital several hours later, Palestinian medical officials said. Another 17 women were listed as wounded.
In the ensuing melee, the crowd retreated, regrouped and advanced again, pushing its way inside the Israeli cordon. The soldiers held their fire, witnesses said. The women then entered the mosque and guided the men out. Most of the gunmen belonged to the armed wing of Hamas, an Islamist movement that refuses to recognize Israel.
Abu Ubaida, a Hamas spokesman, said all the militants escaped unharmed, many by way of a hole connecting the mosque to an adjacent house. “It was a very complicated operation, but our fighters managed to survive and get out of town,” Ubaida said.
The Israeli spokesman said the militants escaped in plain sight, protected by a crowd of women too numerous for the soldiers to control.
Israeli officials acknowledged that the women’s intervention was a surprise. Action by large numbers of Palestinian women marks a new tactic in the ever-evolving battle between the two sides, one which the Israelis were quick to condemn.
“This is a clear example of use of innocent population for terror,” said Israeli army Maj. Avital Leibovich, denouncing the Palestinian use of civilian women as shields.
But Shanti, the Hamas legislator, said, “We risked our lives to save our sons.”
Television footage of the scene at the mosque was rebroadcast across the Middle East along with commentary in Arab media praising the women’s courage.
Several demonstrations against the Israeli assault were held in Gaza following Friday prayers.
“I salute the women of Palestine, who led the protest to break the siege of Beit Hanoun,” said Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior leader of Hamas.
Israeli officials have said they expect the operation in Beit Hanoun to last several more days. It is the first takeover of an entire town in Gaza since Israeli forces and settlers withdrew from the coastal strip 14 months ago after a 38-year occupation.
In addition to the two women, an unarmed 17-year-old boy and a Hamas fighter were killed in Beit Hanoun on Friday. Elsewhere in Gaza, a senior Hamas commander and five other militants were killed by Israeli airstrikes targeting four separate cars, Palestinian officials said. Four civilians were killed when an Israeli missile landed on a farm.
The Israeli army began periodic, limited raids into Gaza in late June following the capture of one of its soldiers, who is still missing. The army said it targeted Beit Hanoun because it is the prime staging ground for daily rocket attacks on communities in southern Israel. The attacks have caused panic, property damage and six deaths in the last three years.
Doubts about the Gaza operation pervade the Israeli government, which is sharply divided over whether the army should launch a full-scale reoccupation of the territory. The Kassam rockets are one element of an arms buildup by Hamas, which has been smuggling more sophisticated weaponry into Gaza through clandestine tunnels from Egypt.
Israeli officials have said there is no hope for peace talks as long as Hamas runs the Palestinian government.
But Israeli critics of the assault on Beit Hanoun said the Palestinian civilian casualties would only deepen the cycle of conflict without stopping the rockets, which have 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.
Peace groups said they planned to use tonight’s commemoration of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, slain 11 years ago, to protest the military operations in Gaza and call for renewed peace talks with the Palestinians.
Separately, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian teenager and critically wounded a wanted Palestinian militant in an operation near the city of Nablus in the West Bank.
Times staff writer Boudreaux reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Alouf from Gaza City.