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Israel Accused of 'Massacring' Unarmed Palestinians - 2002-09-01

The Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of "massacring" four unarmed Palestinians in the West Bank Sunday. The Israeli army says soldiers opened fire to prevent an attack against a Jewish settlement. The four were shot dead by Israeli troops in fields belonging to Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba, close to Hebron.

A preliminary investigation by the Israeli Army concluded that the four had "infiltrated" the area and soldiers took action "to prevent an attack". The inquiry found that the soldiers had warned the four before opening fire and that the men were carrying axes, clubs and wire-cutters. No firearms were found near their bodies. However, senior unnamed Israeli security officials told Israeli media that the four were "completely unsuspecting civilians".

Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, said that the four Palestinians had entered the area, just as the soldiers were anticipating an attack, after receiving warnings to that effect. Palestinian witnesses however claim that the four were shot at close range without provocation. The witnesses told a Palestinian human rights group that the four were quarry workers, returning from work to their homes in a nearby village.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat blasted Israel over the killings, describing them as a "massacre" and part of a deliberate policy to kill off any hopes of reviving peace talks.

Palestinian Information Minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, called for a suspension of contacts with Israel over the incident, and the killing of five other Palestinians, including two children, in an Israeli helicopter attack on Saturday.

Israel's President Moshe Katsav, said it was imperative that the Israeli Army examine its tactics but warned against coming to what he called "hasty conclusions" that some soldiers might have become "trigger happy".