TEL AVIV — 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.
"It's a victory. They forced the army to change direction," says Sliman A-Shafi, a Gaza correspondent for Israel Channel 2 who said the Palestinians protested under the slogan "Either we live together or we die together."
The success of the mass protest is stirring nostalgia for the first Palestinian intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a battle with Israel seen as a popular uprising fought with stones and Molotov cocktails rather than with missiles and suicide bombers.
Palestinians credit the first intifada as winning self-government and international recognition, while the economic hardship and anarchy accompanying the recent uprising has made it much more difficult to celebrate.
"People realize that we might go back to the popular resistance as we had in the first intifada," says Omar Shaban, a Gaza political analyst. "People are becoming convinced that the popular resistance is more effective than the military resistance."
But one human rights activist expressed reservations about the use of human shields to ward off the Israeli army.
"In principle, it's forbidden for militants to draft people to protect them," says Sarit Michaeli, a spokewoman for the Israeli human rights monitor B'tselem. "The idea of citizens coming to protect a house which is a military target is problematic, to say the least."
And yet, Ms. Michaeli says that whether or not the human shield protest constitutes a human rights breach depends on whether the protesters participated willingly or were coerced, whether minors were involved, and whether the house was a genuine military target.
On Sunday, 10 Palestinians were injured in a botched Israeli strike on Hamas operatives accused of being involved in manufacturing rockets. To be sure, under constant pressure from Israel's campaign against militants, many Gazans are unlikely to disavow the role of fighters who retaliate against the attacks.
"This kind of [peaceful] resistance cannot replace the rocket resistance," says Jamila Shanti, a female member of Hamas who helped organize a permanent presence of female human shields around the house. "The popular resistance is to protect the people from the bombing. The rocket resistance is to confront the Israeli machinery."
•Safwat al-Kahlout contributed to this report from Gaza City.