Israel Calls Off Airstrikes as Hundreds of Palestinians Form Human Shields

In a new tactic, Palestinians serving as human shields guarded the homes of two top militants Sunday, settling in for a long standoff after forcing Israel to call off missile hits on the buildings.

In recent months, the Israeli air force had repeatedly struck homes of militants, after warning residents by phone to clear out. Israeli security officials said they didn't know how to respond to the human shield tactic.

However, Israel pressed ahead with other types of air strikes Sunday. In Gaza City, an aircraft fired a missile at a car, wounding nine people, including two Hamas militants. Four of the wounded were children, ages five, 13, 14 and 16, who suffered shrapnel injuries, hospital officials said. Later, an elderly man died of his wounds, they said.

The military said the target of the airstrike was a vehicle carrying senior members of the Hamas rocket launching operation.

The standoff over the homes of the militants began late Saturday when Mohammed Baroud, a local leader of a violent group, the Popular Resistance Committees, was informed by the army that his house would be hit. The three-story building is home to 17 people from Baroud's clan. Another militant, from Hamas, also received a warning.

Instead of leaving, the two decided to stay in their homes and called in reinforcements. They were quickly joined by crowds of supporters, including dozens of armed men, who gathered on balconies, rooftops and in the streets outside. Local mosques and Palestinian TV and radio stations also mobilized supporters.

Baroud, involved in rocket attacks on Israel, said he and his fellow militants had planned the response a few days earlier, after another house was destroyed in a missile strike.

By Sunday afternoon, about two dozen women were milling around on Baroud's roof, shielded from the sun by green tarp. On the floor below them, about a dozen men were resting on mattresses.

Baroud's mother, Umm Wael, said shifts had been organized in preparation for a long standoff. "Where should we go?" she said. "We will stay here or die in the house. Let them bring it down on our heads."

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyehof Hamas stopped by to show his support. "We are so proud of this national stand. It's the first step toward protecting our homes, the homes of our children," he said.

The army said it called off the nighttime airstrikes because of the large crowds. It condemned what it said was a cynical exploitation "by the terrorists of uninvolved people as human shields."

Still, Israeli military officials acknowledged they didn't have a solution for the standoff. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media.

Also Sunday, Hamas militants in Gaza fired six rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, seriously wounding one person. Last week, a Sderot woman was killed in a rocket attack.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbasand demanded that invoke his authority and put an end to the rocket fire, the Defense Ministry said. Peretz told Abbas Israel would not tolerate continued barrages. There was no immediate Palestinian comment.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmertsharply criticized a U.N. resolutionthat calls on Israel to pull its troops from Gaza and requests a fact-finding mission into the death of 19 members of an extended family killed in an Israeli artillery attack earlier this month.

The resolution -- which passed the General Assembly on Friday -- received support from all members of the EU after last minute changes were made to soften the tone. Israel, Australia, and the United States voted against it.

Olmert said Israel will not halt its five-month offensive in Gaza, which he said is a response to rocket fire from Palestinian militants, even though civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire.

He lashed out at members of the international community "who on their moral high-horse and eye-rolling ways view it as correct to initiate a U.N. resolution condemning us."