Palestinian residents flocked to the home of a Hamas operative Monday to prevent the Israeli army from carrying out an airstrike. It was the latest instance of Palestinians volunteering to serve as human shields to protect a home of a targeted terror operative.
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The protest began shortly after Wael Rajab received a phone call from the army ordering him to leave his home. In recent months, the army has frequently issued such warnings ahead of airstrikes against weapons-storage sites and other militant targets, saying it wants to avoid casualties.
The army had no immediate comment on Monday's incident. But military officials have said they do not yet know how to deal with the issue.
Fearing terrorists will continue to exploit civilians as human shields around terror targets in the Gaza Strip, a high-ranking officer said Sunday that the IDF was prepared to launch ground raids into the Palestinian territory to demolish buildings that could not be destroyed in airstrikes.
Late Saturday night, hundreds of Palestinians, including women and children, surrounded the home of Mohammedweil Baroud - head of the Popular Resistance Committees' (PRC) Kassam rocket cell - after he received a warning from the IDF late Saturday night giving him 30 minutes to leave his house in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. Out of fear that innocent bystanders would be injured, the IDF called off the air strike.
Calling residents ahead of airstrikes on suspected weapons-storage and manufacturing sites is a routine tactic the IDF employs in the Gaza Strip and also used over the summer during the month-long war in Lebanon during which thousands of targets were struck by Israeli missiles. The incident in Beit Lahiya on Sunday however, was the first time Palestinians have tried to prevent such an air strike and represents, officials said, a change in tactics to try and prevent the IAF missile strikes.
"These human shields will not stop us from reaching every target of ours," an IDF officer told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "If we can't get to the target by air due to the human shields, we will reach it by ground and the Palestinians will pay a heavy price."
The officer said that the Air Force as well as the Operations Directorate has not given up using the "phone-call tactic" and would continue to call Palestinians before bombing a civilian area.
The IDF might however, he added, change the amount of time it gave the Palestinians to evacuate the area.
"We are obligated to reach every single target whether from far or up close," the officer said. "It might be harder now due to the human shields and require more planning but we will not give up our moral values and principles."
Palestinians said the decision to resort to the new "human-shield" tactic was taken over the weekend, when the IDF destroyed a house belonging to Ala Akailan, commander of the Hamas-controlled "Executive Force" in the Shati refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip.
"Since July, Israel has destroyed 58 houses in the Gaza Strip," said a senior Hamas official. "More than 240 people have been left without a roof."
In the last three days alone, eight houses were targeted, as well as two workshops, a library and a charity run by Rasha Rantisi, widow of slain Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
The demolition of the houses has created tremendous pressure on the Hamas-led government, which is being forced to find alternative housing for those who lost their homes.
The plight of the new "refugees" is amplified by the fact that most people in the Gaza Strip are afraid to host the fugitives and their families for fear that their houses would also be targeted by the IDF.
Most of the displaced families have sought shelter in tents supplied by UNRWA and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
At Friday prayers, several Hamas-affiliated preachers called on worshippers to "occupy" every house that is threatened with demolition. The preachers noted that the IDF always phones the owners of the houses and warns them that they must leave within 15 to 30 minutes.
"Instead of running away, the owners must stay inside their homes and call the neighbors and as many people as possible," said one of the preachers. "The human shields are the best way to protect the houses."
Buoyed by Saturday night's success in Jabalya refugee camp, several armed groups called on Palestinians not to leave their homes after receiving warnings from the IDF.
"We have won," said Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees. "From now on we will form human chains around every house that is threatened with demolition."
Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the PA Ministry of Interior, lauded the behavior of the Jabalya residents as "wonderful," describing the Israeli policy of targeting houses in the Gaza Strip as a "blow to stability." He also criticized the international community for "remaining silent" toward Israel's actions.
AP contributed to this article