BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip, (AP) -Hundreds of Palestinians crowded around the homes of two militant leaders throughout the night Sunday, a new tactic that forced Israel to call off airstrikes on the buildings and re-evaluate its aerial campaign in the Gaza Strip.
The protests erupted shortly after the Israeli army ordered occupants out of the homes. 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 mobilized 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 Mohammedweil Baroud, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees. Baroud, who oversees rocket attacks on Israel, in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. About two hours later, Mohammed Nawajeh, a Hamas leader in northern Gaza, got a similar call.
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. It was not clear whether the protests were spontaneous or planned ahead of time.
“These Palestinian masses have come to defeat the Zionist swords which are targeting our heads and the heads of our fighters. This is the beginning of the popular activities to protect the fighters and their homes,” said Nizar Rayan, a Hamas leader in northern Gaza.
“Look we are defeating them,” Rayan said, pointing to the Israeli warplanes overhead in the night sky.
Redwan Abu Daya, a 16-year-old Fatah supporter who lives near Baroud, said he was ignoring party lines because he felt a duty to protect his neighbor’s homes from bombardment.
“I came here because everyone should be here,” Abu Daya said, while the nearby mosque called on loudspeakers for people to gather at Baroud’s home.
The army said it called off the nighttime 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 Sunday, crowds continued to protect the targeted homes.
Also Sunday, 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.
On Saturday, Abbas tried to push the negotiations forward. The sides said they had made progress and were tackling the distribution of the Cabinet ministers. The government is expected to be made up of independent experts acceptable to the rival parties, but without explicit ties to them.
Israel and Western donor nations have demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize 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 — U.S.-educated Mohammed Shabir, the former president of the Islamic University in Gaza City — but differences are expected 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 on Saturday. 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.