After many hours of laying siege to a mosque in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, IDF forces managed to gain control over the structure. Dozens of Palestinian gunmen were holed up in the structure throughout Thursday night and Friday morning and witnesses reported heavy exchanges of fire. Palestinians reported that all the men wanted by the IDF fled the scene.
Some 60 gunmen were reported to have fortified themselves inside the mosque late Thursday after the IDF began encircling the town as part of the operation to stop the launching of Qassam rockets from the area. Palestinian sources reported that the gunmen fired at the troops from within the windows of the mosque and that the IDF responded with stun grenades and teargas to try to force the gunmen to surrender. Witnesses said an Israeli army bulldozer knocked down an outer wall of the mosque, the army reported that part of the mosque's ceiling had collapsed as a result and Palestinian sources reported that there were casualties inside.
Large army forces and special IDF units were sent to the area to carry out the operation. An Israeli soldier was lightly wounded from an anti-tank missile which hit a post along the security fence, he received medical treatment on location.
Women called to serve as 'human shields' for gunmen (Photo: Reuters)
Forces reportedly opened fire on a group of women who streamed to the encircled mosque to serve as shields for gunmen holed up there, killing one and wounding 10, Palestinian officials and witnesses said. The army says that IDF forces in the area exchanged fire with gunmen standing amidst a group of rioters protesting the operation.
A Hamas radio station in Gaza broadcast a call Friday to northern Gaza women to go to the mosque to serve as 'human shields' for the gunmen.
Military sources say that there were large amounts of arms inside the mosque, and that among the gunmen were several senior wanted Palestinians who headed the Qassam rocket infrastructure in northern Gaza.
These latest developments are part of a larger operation labeled 'Autumn Clouds', yet another attempt to stop the launching of Qassam rockets at Israel from Gaza. The operation, which includes house-to-house searches, is the first of its kind to be conducted in Gaza over the last few years, including the years in which the IDF secured the now non-existent Gush Katif settlements. The arrests of terrorists responsible for Qassam attacks may carry the significant impact the IDF is looking for as Beit Hanoun is considered a central axis of the Qassam infrastructure in Gaza. The army said more than one-third of the 800 rockets fired at Israel in recent months were launched from Beit Hanoun.
4 Hamas members killed
Meanwhile, an Israeli air strike killed four Palestinian gunmen Friday. In the air strike, Hamas sources said a vehicle carrying four members of its group was hit by a missile in Gaza City. An Israeli military source confirmed an "aerial attack on a vehicle carrying terrorists", but gave no further details.
Ammar Mushtaha, a Hamas commander who had survived previous assassination attempts, was among the four killed, as well as a bodyguard for one of the ministers in the Hamas-led government.
Air strike against Hamas cell in Gaza city (Photo: AFP)
Yesterday forces assembled the male residents of Beit Hanoun in one spot and questioned them in an attempt to locate some of the wanted men.
Palestinian sources said that four gunmen were killed in two IDF strikes Thursday, the first in Beit Hanoun and the second east of Jabaliya. Palestinians say that the four belong to the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigades and Hamas. The army said it had targeted a Qassam rocket cell near its launchers.
Despite the offensive, militants fired seven rockets at Israel from northern Gaza on Thursday, the military said. Two Israelis were slightly wounded and a house was damaged.
Thursday marked the second day of operation Autumn Clouds in Beit Hanoun and a senior IDF officer said that it was going according to plan. He said that 15 Palestinians wanted for terror activity have been arrested and transferred to Israel for questioning by security forces.
Ali Waked, news agencies contributed to this article