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American Nun, Priest Join Gaza Standoff

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip —  An American priest and nun spent several hours Wednesday at a militant's home that Israel has targeted for destruction, the first foreigners to join a weeklong standoff between Palestinian "human shields" and the Israeli air force.

Father Peter Dougherty, 65, and Sister Mary Ellen Gundeck, 55, both Michigan-based peace activists, said they were sent by God to help protect the Palestinians. The pair arrived Wednesday morning at the family home of Mohammed Baroud, a militant involved in rocket attacks on Israel.

For the past week, Palestinian militants and civilians have crowded into five militants' houses to try to thwart Israeli threats to hit them with missiles. The use of human shields is a new tactic in the Palestinians' war against Israel's mighty military.

Since militants allied with the ruling Hamas party kidnapped an Israeli soldier in June, the air force has destroyed the homes of at least 73 militants, usually after calling owners and warning residents to evacuate.

House demolitions are considered harsh punishment in crowded Gaza. Most people live in densely populated apartment blocks with extended families, and dozens are often left homeless when one building is destroyed.

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Dougherty and Gundeck said they had visited several of the houses under threat on Tuesday, and on Wednesday they reached Baroud's three-story home.

"It is wrong for Israel to bomb people's houses," Dougherty said. "We are here in solidarity, and to try communicate to the world what is really going on."

The nun and priest, dressed in shirts and pants, said they were staying for several hours at each of the targeted houses. They were warmly welcomed by Ahmed Baroud, a brother of the militant.

The building's rooftop has been decorated with Palestinian political faction banners. Local leaders of the rival Hamas and Fatah groups spend the nights there, gathering around a small fire to show Israeli aircraft they are still in the targeted house.

In the past, a call from the Israeli military would send residents rushing from targeted houses in panic, carrying blankets, savings, and identity cards.

Hamas said it would continue to use human shields. Local Hamas leader Nizar Rayan called on Palestinians to hold their Friday prayers on the rooftops of the five targeted houses. Other Palestinian factions have also endorsed the move.

However, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said militants calling on civilians to act as human shields was a "war crime."

"There is no excuse for calling civilians to the scene of a planned attack," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. The rights group also criticized Israel's policy of shelling houses.

The Israeli military said the militants were exploiting civilians.

"It just further demonstrates the cynical use of civilians by terrorists," said Israeli army Capt. Noa Meir. She said she was not familiar with any specific attempt by foreign volunteers to enter Gaza and serve as human shields.

Dougherty said civilians thwarting shelling was "a wonderful nonviolent action."

Visiting U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbor said on Tuesday the human shield tactic was a sign of Palestinian desperation.

"There is something frankly almost pathetic in the sense of despair ... civilians rallying in a defensive gesture," she said during a Gaza visit.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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