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Palestinian human shields give Israel pause

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In perhaps the most effective act of nonviolent protest in the six-year Palestinian uprising, hundreds of Gazans forced Israel over the weekend to call off airstrikes on the residence of a militant leader by swarming the house as human shields.

In recent months, Israeli security forces have used telephone calls to warn Palestinian militants and others near alleged militant safe houses and weapons caches, giving them up to a half hour to evacuate. When militia leader Mohammed Baroud got the call Saturday, he enlisted neighbors to protect his house from the Israeli military. They've now set up a system of shifts to protect the house around the clock.

Palestinian leaders are hailing this as a moral victory that will be replicated. If so, it may herald a significant tactical shift from attacks by tiny secretive militant groups to nonviolent civilian protest, a change that will force Israel to adjust its strategy. It also underscores the difficulty of fighting militant groups embedded in a civilian population – whether it be in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Gaza.

"The Palestinians are creative and this is something amazing," says Maher Miqqdad, a Fatah spokesman. "Maybe in the past six years of the intifada, the focus was on military resistance. But we shouldn't deny the importance of peaceful resistance. There is an importance in increasing the peaceful struggle."

An Israeli army spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity said the attack was scrapped after the military realized that dozens of Palestinians were demonstrating on the roof of Mr. Baroud's home.

Having backed down, Israel's military might have to rethink its methods of striking at militant targets. Israel's army prefers attacking from the air to risking soldiers' lives by sending infantry and armored units on raids. And the advance warning of raids is meant to avoid civilian casualties, the Israeli military says.

But now, less than two weeks after the killing of at least 20 Palestinians in northern Gaza brought a storm of international criticism against Israel, this tactic may have backfired by creating the risk of even more innocent victims.

"This is definitely a problem," says the army spokesman. "The reason why we warn ahead is to avoid innocent injuries. Instead, they are using the warning to do what they did yesterday. We'll see how we can deal with it."

Baroud is a member of the Popular Resistance Committee, a militia which participated in the abduction of Israel Cpl. Gilad Shalit and frequently fires Qassam missiles into southern Israel.


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