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  Israeli troops open fire on women outside mosque

London Guardian | November 3, 2006

At least one Palestinian woman was killed and another 10 were reported wounded when Israeli forces today opened fire on a group preparing to act as a human shield for militants in a Gaza mosque.
Dozens of women were gathering outside the mosque in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip this morning after an appeal on a local radio station. Up to 60 gunmen had taken refuge in the building after the Israeli army began its largest Gaza offensive in months in an attempt to stop militants launching rocket attacks on nearby Jewish settlements over the border.

Television pictures showed at least 50 women making their way along a pavement when shots could be heard ringing out. They started to flee in terror and at least two women were left lying on the ground.

Witnesses said one woman, aged about 40, was killed, and 10 others were wounded. Some reports said a second woman had died. The Israeli army said troops spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire.

Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers surrounded the building when militants took refuge there after two days of fighting, the Israeli military and Palestinian security officials said.

A large group of women protesters went on to gather outside the mosque. In the resulting confusion all the militants managed to escape and the building reportedly collapsed.

A 22-year-old Palestinian man was also killed in the northern town, which troops seized on Wednesday. More than 20 Palestinians, most of them militants, have been killed since the offensive began.

Overnight, the two sides exchanged fire. Troops also threw stun and smoke grenades into the mosque to pressure the gunmen to surrender. Witnesses said an Israeli army bulldozer knocked down an outer wall of the mosque. It was not clear if there were any casualties inside.

Residents said Beit Hanoun, a town of 30,000 people, was effectively under full Israeli control, with a curfew imposed.

After the shooting, 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 Israeli army said.

The army said it targeted Beit Hanoun because it was a major site for launching rocket attacks. But Israeli officials have said the takeover of Beit Hanoun was expected to last only a few days and did not signal the start of a wider military offensive in Gaza.

Militants, however, continued to fire rockets at Israeli border communities. Two Israelis were slightly wounded and a house was damaged in the latest attacks today.

In a separate operation last night, an Israeli air strike on a car in Gaza City killed three Hamas fighters, including a local militant commander, witnesses said. An Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed the strike.

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