BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) – Hundreds of Palestinian women in robes and headscarves streamed into a Gaza combat zone Friday to help free gunmen besieged by Israeli troops at a mosque. Two women who came under fire were killed and at least 10 wounded, but some gunmen managed to escape.

The women, many with ties to the Islamic militant group Hamas, left their homes after daybreak in response to appeals on the local Hamas radio station or telephone calls from friends and relatives. By nightfall, they were celebrated as heroes, an unusual role in a deeply conservative society that tends to keep women on the sidelines. Until Friday, battling Israeli troops had been men’s business in Gaza.

The mosque standoff came on the third day of Israel’s fiercest bid in months to halt Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli border communities. The offensive began Wednesday, when Israeli forces took over the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, close to the border with Israel.

In all, 36 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Wednesday, including a Hamas militant who was traveling in a minivan targeted by an Israeli airstrike early Saturday.

Seventeen Palestinians were killed on Friday, including the two women protesters, a 16-year-old boy, two medics and at least 10 militants. Most of the deaths were a result of a series of Israeli airstrikes after sundown. In the deadliest hit, five Palestinians were killed in an Israeli strike in the Jebaliya refugee camp.

The army said the strikes targeted militants trying to plant explosives or launch rockets.

The Beit Hanoun sweep is different from previous Israeli incursions into Gaza, a senior Israeli military official said. Rather than staying on the outskirts of populated areas, troops are going house to house in Beit Hanoun, sometimes breaking through inner walls to cut down on exposure to gunmen.

In another new tactic for Gaza, troops have rounded up hundreds of men for questioning, releasing most of them but detaining dozens, the army official said. On Friday evening, for example, soldiers ordered men between the ages of 16 and 46 in Beit Hanoun’s Al Masri neighborhood to report to the local agricultural school for questioning.

In the most dramatic episode of the Beit Hanoun incursion, dozens of Palestinian gunmen, many from Hamas, took cover in the town’s Al Nasser Mosque on Thursday and were quickly surrounded by Israeli forces. The two sides exchanged fire throughout the night. An army bulldozer knocked down an outer wall of the mosque, causing the ceiling to collapse.

On Friday morning, Al Aqsa Radio, the local Hamas station, broadcast appeals to women to come to the rescue of the trapped gunmen. Hundreds responded, many of them Hamas supporters. The women marched toward the mosque, coming under Israeli fire at times, and approached armored personnel carriers and bulldozers near the mosque.

Volleys of shots were fired toward them, sending the group rushing toward a nearby wall for cover, according to Associated Press Television News footage. In all, nearly 60 shots were heard on the footage, but it was not clear in every case who fired.

Two women, both age 40, were shot and killed, and at least 10 others were wounded, hospital officials said.

One of the wounded was Tahrir Shahin, a 36-year-old housewife. She said that after hearing the radio appeal, she left her seven children sleeping at home and set out for the mosque, an hour’s walk away, with her sister. En route, a bullet hit Shahin’s left leg; it had to be amputated above the knee.

Still, she said, she did not regret her choice. “I was so upset about what was happening, so I answered their call,” she said from her hospital bed.

Maj. Avital Leibovich said Hamas was exploiting women. “They were using those poor women as human shields,” she said. “This is a clear example of use of innocent population for terror.”

The army said the gunmen inside the mosque took advantage of the demonstration to escape because there were not enough infantrymen to block the women from approaching the building, and troops did not want to shoot into the crowd.

The army said troops spotted two militants hiding in the crowd of women and opened fire, hitting the two.

As the women rushed away from the scene, at least two men disguised in women’s clothes were seen in the crowd. Jubilant bystanders embraced them, celebrating their escape.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas “saluted the women of Palestine … who led the protest to break the siege of Beit Hanoun.” Haniyeh urged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to witness firsthand “the massacres of the Palestinian people,” and appealed to the Arab world to “stop the ongoing bloodshed.”

Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour said he sent letters to Annan and the presidents of the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly “requesting from them to do whatever they can to stop this aggression immediately” and to pressure Israel to withdraw its forces from Gaza.

Annan expressed deep concern at the continuing escalation of violence and rising death toll and urged Israel “to exercise maximum restraint, do their utmost to protect civilians and to refrain from further escalating an already grave situation,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Loudspeakers across Gaza called on people to come to demonstrations after Friday prayers to express solidarity with Beit Hanoun. Tens of thousands representing various Palestinian factions massed in streets throughout the coastal strip,

The army said Beit Hanoun was targeted because it was a major staging ground for rocket attacks. But Israeli officials have said the takeover of the town did not signal the start of a wider-scale military offensive in Gaza.

Militants have been undeterred by the offensive, however, and have continued firing rockets, including four that landed in southern Israel on Friday, slightly wounding two people.

AP-ES-11-04-06 0014EST

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