gaza crying 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
In a first for Gaza, hundreds of Palestinian women in long robes and head scarves streamed into a combat zone Friday to serve as human shields for gunmen besieged by IDF soldiers in a local mosque.
The army said the gunmen inside the building were able to take advantage of the demonstration to escape because there weren't enough infantrymen to block the protesters and troops didn't want to shoot into the crowd.
Television footage shows at least two men disguised in women's clothes in the crowd. Jubilant bystanders embraced them, celebrating their escape.
The 19-hour standoff provided the most dramatic - and surreal - scenes in weekend clashes that seriously wounded an IDF noncommissioned officer and left at least 30 Palestinian dead, the vast majority of them combatants.
More than 42 Palestinians have been killed since Wednesday, and more than 200 were wounded in the operation so far, including 29 in critical condition, Palestinian health officials said.
On Saturday, air force commandos traded fire with gunmen in the Jabalya refugee camp outside Gaza City, the IDF said, evidence that the four-day-old operation Autumn Clouds had expanded beyond Beit Hanun.
The noncommissioned officer was seriously wounded when gunmen threw a bomb and opened fire on the special forces unit. Troops returned fire, killing a Hamas operative. The officer was evacuated by helicopter to the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba.
Military officials insisted that Autumn Clouds - whose official goal is to stop northern Gaza terror cells from firing Kassam rockets at communities in the western Negev and to strike at the terror infrastructure - was one in a series of "pinpoint operations," and did not represent a widening of the campaign in Gaza.
Despite the operation, five Kassam rockets fired from the northern Gaza Strip hit open areas in the western Negev, causing neither injuries nor damage. Saturday night, the IAF destroyed the launchers.
IAF gunships fired at terrorist cells in at least 12 separate incidents around Beit Hanun and in Rafah in the southern Strip over the weekend.
The army said the strikes targeted gunmen - most of them belonging to Hamas - on their way to or from rocket attacks, or as they tried to plant explosives or to attack IDF troops.
Early Saturday, aircraft-fired missiles hit a minivan carrying Hamas terrorists in Rafah. The strike killed Louay al-Borno, a top Hamas rocket maker, and severed the legs of two passengers, leaving them in critical condition, members of the group said.
Palestinian sources said that at least 10 people killed by IAF strikes, most of them gunmen. They also said one strike targeted a prayer group outside Beit Hanun, killing two civilians, a charge the IDF later denied.
On Friday morning, Al-Aksa Radio, the local Hamas station, broadcast appeals to women to come to the rescue of the gunmen trapped in the mosque. Hundreds responded.
The women marched toward the mosque, at times coming under IDF fire, and approached armored personnel carriers and bulldozers.
The IDF said troops spotted two militants hiding among the women; snipers opened fire, hitting both of them.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said he "saluted the women of Palestine... who led the protest to break the siege of Beit Hanun."
The Beit Hanun sweep was different from previous IDF incursions into Gaza, a senior Israeli military official said. Rather than staying on the outskirts of populated areas, the army deployed snipers in the town to cover troops going house to house, sometimes breaking through inner walls to reduce their vulnerability to gunmen. Troops rounded up hundreds of men between the ages of 16 and 40 for questioning, releasing most of them later. Dozens of terror suspects have been detained, the official said.
Searches in three adjacent homes in Beit Hanun uncovered weapons caches consisting of Kassam rocket launchers, four rocket propelled grenades, 32 Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition, 20 hand grenades, two pipe bombs, communications equipment, IDF uniforms and 14 combat vests, the army said.
Troops suspected the buildings were booby-trooped, so they blew them up, the IDF said.
Military sources said the army was on standby for a broader and extended offensive in Gaza, following instructions from the security cabinet last week to take steps to stop rocket attacks and to prevent the terrorist organizations from using the vast quantities of weapons smuggled from Egypt.
However, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have been reluctant to approve an expansion beyond the pin-point, one-to-four day incursions undertaken since the IDF returned to Gaza following Hamas's abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit on June 25.
The IDF continued its antiterror efforts in the West Bank over the weekend. Troops opened fire at two Palestinians preparing a car bomb in the Balata refugee camp east of Nablus on Friday morning, killing one and wounding the other, the military said.
In Bethlehem, two Palestinians were killed during an arrest raid. IDF officials said border policemen arrested a senior Islamic Jihad operative during the raid after coming under fire from local gunmen. The IDF could not confirm Palestinian reports that an 80-year-old woman had been killed by a stray bullet.
On Saturday night, Palestinians rioted at a checkpoint north of Nablus, punching and kicking soldiers conducting routine inspections, the army said.
Troops fired in the air to disperse the rioters, and then directed their fire at the lower body of one man, wounding him lightly.
Soldiers administered first aid and the man was transported to a hospital in Israel, the officials said.