JERUSALEM — AS darkness fell Tuesday and most of the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip's 650,000 Palestinians remained inside, two young activists in the intifadah (uprising) were going about their business in one of the few neighborhoods not under curfew. Jan. 1 marked the 26th anniversary of the first guerrilla operation against Israel by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
Some reports say the two, Adnan abu Hammad and Usama al-Najjar, were among a group of five masked men scrawling nationalist graffiti on walls. Others say they had just effected a reconciliation between two halves of a divided family.
Whatever their activity, the men, armed with knives and toy pistols, were interrupted by the arrival of an Israeli Army patrol.
Military sources say the soldiers followed the usual procedure for apprehending the men, one of whom, they add, was wanted in connection with the murder of Arabs suspected of collaborating with Israel.
According to this procedure, soldiers must first call on suspects to halt. If this fails, they can open fire, first in the air and then at the lower legs. Only if they deem their lives to be in danger can soldiers shoot to kill.
Palestinian sources say the men were approached by plainclothes soldiers, driving civilian cars. When the men tried to run, and failed to heed an order to halt, they were shot. One was injured and two managed to escape. Abu Hammad and Najjar were killed.
The Army's policy of shooting at masked activists, first introduced in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 1989, has been the subject of repeated criticism from human rights organizations.
Following a similar incident last weekend, in which another two masked youths were killed in the Gaza town of Rafah, the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq put out a statement calling on the Army to rescind its orders governing the use of live ammunition.
According to the statement, the Rafah youths were killed ``without warning and without an attempt at arrest.'' In subsequent rioting, some of the most ferocious in recent months, three more Palestinians died and more than 200 were injured by Israeli gunfire.
Al-Haq's condemnation of Israeli practices is uncompromising: ``The growing list of multiple deaths and injuries are the result of Israel's fundamentally illegal policies, which violate the universal principles of necessity and proportionality, and are indicative of what can only be described as a shoot-to-kill policy.''
This is not the first time such accusations have been made. Exactly a year ago, the international human rights organization Amnesty International said the Israeli government ``had effectively condoned and even encouraged extrajudicial executions of Palestinians.''
Moshe Fogel, an Israeli Army spokesman, says there was nothing wrong with the policy.
``We don't believe that the procedures are to blame,'' he says, adding that an increase in tension and violence in recent weeks provides a better explanation.
The orders relating to the shooting of masked activists were justified, he says, since the mask itself - more often than not a traditional Palestinian headdress, worn tightly around the face - was ``an indication of their violent intentions.''
An inquiry into the precise circumstances of Tuesday night's incident elicited a routine response.
``We don't go into the the methods we use,'' Mr. Fogel says. ``But there's no question that we try to keep them off balance.''
Fogel agreed that the death of four people in similar circumstances in four days was high, but said that an overall reduction in casualties since the introduction of the guidelines proved they were working.
The second half of 1990 saw a decline in casualties from Army gunfire - and a steady increase in the number of Palestinians killed by other Palestinians - but the numbers have crept up again since October, when the security forces killed at least 20 Palestinians outside the al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
The latest round of violence comes at an inopportune moment for the Israeli government. Guido de Marco, the president of the United Nations General Assembly, arrived in Israel last night for a three-day visit that will include trips to the occupied territories.
Mr. de Marco's visit is unrelated to recent UN Security Council condemnation of Israeli practices, but UN sources say there will be nothing to stop his reporting back to UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, when he returns to New York.