Israeli forces opened fire yesterday on a group of women who streamed to a Gaza mosque to serve as human shields for gunmen holed up there, killing one and wounding 10, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.
A 22-year-old Palestinian man was also killed in the northern town of Beit Hanoun, which troops seized on Wednesday in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israeli communities. More than 20 Palestinians, most of them militants, have been killed since the offensive began.
The standoff at the mosque has become the focus of the fighting in the town.
Gunmen fleeing troops -- estimates ranged from one dozen to several dozen -- sought refuge there, and Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers quickly surrounded the building, the military and Palestinian security officials said. Most of the gunmen were thought to be from the military wing of the Palestinians' ruling Hamas party.
Throughout the night, the two sides exchanged fire. Troops also threw stun and smoke grenades to pressure the gunmen to surrender. Witnesses said an Israeli army bulldozer knocked down an outer wall of the mosque.
It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties inside.
As the two sides engaged exchanged sporadic fire yesterday morning, a Hamas radio station broadcast a call to women to go to Beit Hanoun to shield the militants. Dozens of women left their homes to hurry to the mosque, and en route, came under Israeli fire, witnesses and officials said.
One woman, about 40 years-old, was shot dead, and 10 others were wounded, they said.
The army said troops spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire, hitting the two.
A demonstration of Hamas women was scheduled for mid-morning outside the mosque.
Elsewhere in Beit Hanoun, Israeli troops lowered their visibility, after two days of fierce fighting in which helicopters, tanks and ground troops pressed the military's biggest operation in months against rocket squads.
No airstrikes were reported, and residents said infantrymen had stopped patrolling the streets. Tanks and armored personnel vehicles were in sight, however, and snipers were positioned on about two dozen rooftops.
The army said it targeted Beit Hanoun because it was a major staging ground for 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-scale military offensive in Gaza.
Militants have been undeterred by the offensive, however, and continued to fire rockets at Israeli border communities, including two that landed yesterday. Two Israelis were slightly wounded and a house was damaged in the latest attacks.
At a Hamas rally in Gaza City on Thursday night, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called the Israeli operation "terrorism."
In a separate operation on Thursday, an Israeli airstrike on a car in Gaza City killed three Hamas fighters, including a local militant commander, witnesses said. An army spokeswoman confirmed the strike.
The incursion into Beit Hanoun was launched as Abbas, a moderate, tried to form a new government with Hamas. A top Abbas aide said on Thursday that the Palestinian president would seek new elections if talks do not produce results in about two weeks.
Abbas has been trying to end a punishing aid cutoff by setting up a government acceptable to the West.