AT least one of the six Palestinians killed here in the Jabalya refugee camp on March 28 was shot in cold blood by an Israeli soldier as he ran away, according to two Palestinian eyewitnesses.
When Israeli undercover commandos opened fire on masked Palestinian militants, one tried to flee, says Mahmoud Wadi, who was caught up in the attack. ``A soldier ran after him, grabbed his head from behind, banged it on the steps, and then shot five or six times into his head,'' Mr. Wadi told reporters here March 29.
Saleh Abu Aida, owner of the garage where the incident took place, says he also saw a masked man brought down by a soldier on the garage steps, six feet from where he was standing, and shot in the head.
Israeli military sources say they have no knowledge of the alleged murder, but that the story is being checked. They say that six armed militants of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat's group, Fatah, were killed because the men were ``suspected to be terrorists.'' Two bystanders also were wounded in the shooting.
The incident threatened to derail the Israeli-PLO autonomy talks once again, just as they appeared to be back on track. PLO and Israeli negotiators were due on March 29 to finalize agreement on an international force to protect Palestinians in Hebron, in the wake of last month's mosque massacre.
Once that was in place, Israeli officials hoped to resume negotiations on limited autonomy for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, where Israeli troops are due to withdraw by April 13.
At press time, Palestinian officials had just returned to the talks, after Mr. Arafat conferred with aides. A PLO statement condemned the Jabalya attack as ``a new massacre'' and accused elements within the Israeli Army of trying to torpedo the peace process.
According to Mahmoud Wadi - a young chauffeur - he was filling his tank with gas at about 7 p.m. March 28 at Mr. Aida's corner storefront that doubles as a gas station and video store when he saw about 12 hooded men wearing camouflage fatigues - some of them armed - approach.
Four of them were in a white Subaru sedan, he says, while the others were walking alongside the vehicle, distributing leaflets.
The leaflets condemned Fatah dissidents for alleged wrongdoings, which suggests strongly that the men handing them out were mainstream Fatah Hawks, supporters of Arafat's strategy of peace negotiations with Israel, which has come under fierce attack in the Gaza Strip.
Since the Sept. 13 signature of the draft peace accord between Israel and the PLO, and Israel's recognition of the PLO, uniformed men have regularly appeared freely on the streets of Gaza, residents say, and weapons have proliferated.
The Israeli authorities declared an amnesty for almost all Fatah members, and none of those killed March 28 was wanted, military sources say.
The fact that the men were walking slowly, in a large group, making no effort to hide themselves, indicates to some observers that they were confident they would not be targeted.
The Fatah men were in the process of commandeering Mr. Wadi's car, and another one belonging to Abu Aida's cousin, Mohammed Abu Aida, when the garage owner says he saw two cars approach from different directions, with about four men in each.
After walking back into his store, ``I heard shooting from all directions,'' Saleh Abu Aida says.
The undercover Israeli soldiers in the two cars opened fire first, Wadi says. The Fatah Hawks ``didn't have time to shoot. I was still talking to the one who was asking for my keys when the shooting started, and then they were lying on the ground.''
Israeli military sources acknowledged there was ``no indication'' that the undercover soldiers had been fired upon before opening fire themselves. Israeli military regulations allow soldiers to shoot only in life-threatening situations.
``But when it is dark and difficult to see, when someone with a uniform and weapon comes toward you, it is suspicious,'' one Israeli military official says.
When the shooting broke out, Wadi says, he ran for cover up three steps into the store, where Saleh Abu Aida was already sheltering. One of the masked men followed him, the two men agree, although they differed over whether he was armed or not.
As he reached the steps, the masked man was brought down by a ginger-haired undercover soldier, Wadi says. ``But after he had shot him, he covered his face with a cap so we could not see what he looked like.''
Several of the Fatah Hawks fled the scene, Wadi says. Six were killed, and the Israeli Army says its men recovered two automatic rifles and two pistols.