BEIT HANOUN, Gaza, (Reuters) – Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinian women acting as human shields between soldiers and Palestinian gunmen holed up in a mosque in Gaza on Friday, as well as a militant in a nearby clash, witnesses said.
The violence came on the third day of an Israeli assault on the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, the largest operation it has conducted in the Gaza Strip in months, designed to put a stop to militants firing homemade rockets into Israel.
Militants from the Islamist group Hamas fired two rockets into southern Israel hours later, causing no casualties.
“Bombardment for bombardment and blood for blood,” Hamas, which heads the Palestinian government, said in a statement.
About 60 gunmen took refuge in the al-Nasir mosque on Thursday. On Friday, around 50 veiled women, answering an appeal on local radio, marched on the mosque, acting as cover against the Israeli troops to allow the gunmen to flee.
Reuters television footage showed Israeli forces opening fire and one of the women fall dead. At least 10 were wounded.
The Israeli army said it had fired at armed Palestinians and was investigating whether it had also shot the women. The army said it had film showing armed men among the women, which it described as human shields.
The footage filmed by Reuters showed no men among the crowds of women when the first shots were fired.
Israeli soldiers also killed a Hamas militant east of Beit Hanoun during a clash that erupted between troops and Palestinian gunmen as some 30 Israeli military tanks moved towards the town of Jabalya, a militant stronghold.
An Israeli air strike wounded three Palestinians near another Gaza mosque, Palestinian rescue workers and security sources said. It was unclear if the injured had been armed. An Israeli army spokesman said the strike was aimed at militants in an open area who were planting a bomb.
Palestinian gunmen, including some from Hamas, managed to flee the Bein Hanoun mosque. Moments later, its roof collapsed. The army said it would investigate the shootings of the women.
“We are very cautious about the issue of harming anyone uninvolved,” the senior Israeli military source said of the mosque shootings. “I think overall the operation is very successful. We will check to see if there was something wrong.”
The army began a massive assault against militants in Gaza after several of them abducted an Israeli soldier in a raid inside the Jewish state in June. Israel says it also aims to stop rocket fire from the territory.
“We will stay until we fulfill all the goals we set for ourselves,” a senior Israeli military source told reporters. “We still have not found all the weapons warehouses, there may be more people to detain.”
Since the start of the offensive four months ago more than 280 Palestinians have been killed, about half of them civilians. Three Israeli soldiers have been killed.
Israel had allowed trucks loaded with medical and food supplies to reach hospitals, and for ambulances to evacuate the wounded in northern Gaza, said Colonel Nir Press, head of Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Administration in the area.
Israel’s Gaza offensive, one of its biggest against Palestinian militants, has further weakened any chance of peace talks, already minimal since Hamas won elections. Hamas is officially sworn to Israel’s destruction.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian during a raid to detain militants. Elsewhere in the territory, soldiers killed a Palestinian during a clash with teenagers who threw stones and bombs at troops, doctors said.