JERUSALEM — Israeli troops fired live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators Saturday, wounding at least eight Palestinians in the worst day of violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in more than two weeks.
At a time when it appeared that the unrest that has afflicted the occupied territories since Dec. 9 had begun to ebb, protesters challenged Israeli soldiers and police throughout the occupied territories, waving banned Palestine Liberation Organization flags and hurling large stones and bottles at the troops.
The return fire was the first widespread use of live ammunition by Israeli forces since Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced Jan. 19 that soldiers would use beatings and other non-lethal methods instead of gunfire in suppressing riots.
Altogether, at least 36 people have been killed by Israeli personnel during the period of unrest, but the most recent fatality occurred Jan. 15.
Scene of Constant Unrest
Nablus, the largest city on the West Bank and the scene of constant, if low-level, demonstrations over the last two weeks, was the site of Saturday's most serious confrontation.
According to army spokesmen, a crowd of at least 200 people marched on the military command post in the West Bank town of Nablus, which is about 50 miles north of Jerusalem.
"We tried tear gas and rubber bullets," one officer said, "but when they began to endanger the post, the commander of the border police ordered the men to shoot" with live ammunition.
The army said five people were "lightly wounded" by the gunfire. However, doctors at Al Itihab hospital told The Times late Saturday that at least six people had been brought in with bullet wounds, two of them in serious condition, including an 11-year-old boy shot in the neck. At least nine other people were injured by rubber bullets, a doctor said.
Hospital Raid Reported
Late in the day, soldiers were reported by Palestinian sources to have raided the hospital and arrested several people. The army did not deny the allegation, saying that it was investigating the claim.
The army also confirmed that two people had been shot by soldiers in Gaza City, including one person seriously wounded in the chest. The other, a 17-year-old girl, was wounded in the hand.
According to the army, the use of live ammunition in Gaza was necessary because soldiers were attacked when they ordered residents to tear down a street barricade.
"One person attacked the soldier with a metal pipe and another person tried to take his rifle. That is when the army opened fire," a spokesman said.
There were other demonstrations in Ramallah, Hebron and East Jerusalem, which the army dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets and clubs. There were no serious injuries reported in those incidents.
2 Soldiers Hurt
All told, at least 24 Palestinians were injured by the Israelis, while the army reported that at least two soldiers were hurt in the clashes.
Although the occupied areas have been tense in recent days, the level of demonstrations and violence had dropped considerably. This is believed to be the result of protesters' weariness and the new army tactic of beatings, which is aimed at discouraging individual Palestinian protesters by making the repression effort more personal but potentially less harmful.
The troubles in Nablus began Friday night and continued until nightfall Saturday. A resident said in a telephone interview that there was fighting "all around the city center. It's fierce. I could hear shots all around."
Other eyewitnesses reported seeing an army helicopter firing tear gas canisters into rioters as ground forces chased them, swinging clubs and shooting rubber bullets.
Danced on Their Roofs
In spite of all this, journalists said that hundreds of people danced on their roofs in Nablus, cheering on the demonstrators, especially when some youths used slingshots to aim stones at the military helicopter.
Security forces closed Nablus to journalists during the day, a tactic used in the Gaza when the army said that the presence of reporters and, particularly, television cameras, incited the demonstrators. Palestinians asserted that the real reason is to hide the level of force being used to cope with the unrest.
A total curfew was imposed on the Balata refugee camp on Nablus' outskirts after its inhabitants kept up running scrimmages with soldiers. That action ended what had been the first day in seven weeks that no curfews were in effect anywhere in the occupied territories.
Other signs that neither the Israeli tactics nor weariness among the Palestinians had brought a semblance of normality to the region came in the form of the demonstration in Hebron and the continuation of a widespread commercial strike by Arab merchants.