An American priest and nun spent several hours yesterday at a Palestinian militant's home that Israel has targeted for destruction, the first foreigners to join a weeklong standoff between Palestinian "human shields" and the Israel Air Force.

Father Peter Dougherty, 65, and Sister Mary Ellen Gundeck, 55, Michigan-based peace activists, said they were sent by God to help protect the Palestinians. The pair arrived yesterday morning at the family home of Mohammed Baroud, a militant involved in rocket attacks on Israel, and stayed for several hours. After sundown, Dougherty said they had left the house.

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

Since militants kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June, the IAF has destroyed the homes of at least 73 militants, usually after calling and warning residents to evacuate.

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

The nun and priest 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 Hamas and Fatah spend the nights there, gathering around a small fire to show Israeli aircraft they are still in the targeted house.

Hamas said it would continue to use the tactic. Local Hamas leader Nizar Rayan called on Palestinians to conduct their Friday prayers on the rooftops of the five targeted houses. However, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said militants calling on civilians to act as human shields was a "war crime." In a statement, the rights group also criticized Israel's policy of shelling houses.

The Israeli military said the militants were exploiting civilians.

Dougherty said civilians thwarting shelling was "a wonderful non-violent action."