THE bloodiest four days in more than two years in the occupied territories have left nine Palestinians dead and raised allegations that Israeli soldiers are ignoring the rules that govern their use of live ammunition.
Six Palestinian demonstrators were shot in separate incidents after three Palestinian gunmen were killed by an Israeli soldier Feb. 5 as they sat in their car in the Gaza Strip.
The killings point up a striking increase in the number of Palestinian fatalities since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took office last July.
The first six months of Mr. Rabin's government have seen a more than 20 percent increase in such fatalities compared with the last six months of his right-wing predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, up from 63 dead to 76, according to the Israeli human rights organization Btselem.
Some of the dead were wanted men or suspects trying to avoid arrest. The majority were shot while demonstrating or throwing stones at soldiers, prompting Btselem to complain Feb. 7 to the government that the security forces "have been less mindful" of open-fire regulations that are, in any event, "not strictly enforced."
Four ministers from the left-wing Meretz coalition, meanwhile, have called for greater government supervision of soldiers' conduct in the occupied territories. Meretz's leader in the Knesset (parliament), Ran Cohen, charged Feb. 8 that the expulsion of 415 Palestinians in December had "loosened soldiers' trigger fingers."
Mr. Rabin told the Cabinet Feb. 7 that there had been no recent change in the open-fire regulations. Those rules allow soldiers to open fire at demonstrators with live ammunition only when their lives are threatened, and even then only after a shouted warning and a shot in the air.
The Army chief of staff, Gen. Ehud Barak, told the Cabinet that protesters, especially in Gaza, have grown more violent, and soldiers have become more fearful of being attacked by gunmen.
"It's not what the Israeli Army does, it's what the residents do," says Lt. Col. Moshe Fogel, an Army spokesman. "In the Gaza Strip there has been more of a tendency to challenge soldiers."
The circumstances of many of the recent killings, however, as recorded by human rights groups, suggest that "it is simply not credible for the military to insist that [live ammunition] is used only in life-threatening situations," says Doug Ierley, an American lawyer working with the Gaza Center for Rights and Law.
Rather, human rights groups and Palestinian youths say the Army has begun to use live ammunition more quickly when putting down disturbances in recent months, shooting fewer tear gas grenades or rubber or plastic bullets beforehand.
"Now the Army is escalating shooting," says Samir Adwan, lying in a hospital bed in Gaza City and nursing a gunshot wound in his abdomen that he says he suffered when soldiers broke up a wake in the Jabalya refugee camp Feb. 6. "Now the Army has no mercy, even on women and old people and children."
"The escalation of incidents is more violent because of the Israeli response, not because the youths have changed their tactics," says a Western relief worker in Gaza. "We have seen so many instances of steps being skipped" before soldiers begin using live ammunition on stone throwers.
"My sense is that the Army seems very willing to engage, even in very minor situations," Mr. Ierley agrees. "Soldiers are often not going through any kind of procedure, or using lesser means. They are jumping straight to lethal force."
Such an observation is supported, Ierley says, by the fact that last month Gaza hospitals reported three times as many injuries from live ammunition as from plastic or rubber bullets. Normally, the two types of fire cause about equal numbers of casualties, he says. Human rights activists allege that the rising death toll reflects a change in government policy that is not necessarily spelled out in the open-fire regulations.
They point to General Barak's warning on Israeli television Dec. 9, the day six protesters were killed in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in Gaza, that "what happened in Khan Yunis will be repeated, and should be taken as an example of what can happen if residents continue their protests."
There is no doubt that soldiers patrolling Gaza have grown more afraid for their safety in recent months. Armed attacks on soldiers have increased, and six of them have been killed in ambushes since the beginning of December.
But if this explains the soldiers' growing anxiety that gunmen may be lurking among stone-throwing children, and the soldiers' greater readiness to use live fire, the tactic does not appear to have quelled the disturbances in Gaza.
"It has not changed the pattern of the intifadah [uprising], it has not stopped people throwing stones," says the relief worker. "If anything, it's been getting more violent since last October."
Khadr, a 16-year-old youth throwing stones at an Army patrol in Bureij refugee camp Feb. 8, and skipping down alleyways to avoid the plastic bullets shot back at him, seems to agree.
"Why should I be afraid?" he asks with bravado. "I've already been shot by the Army twice."