Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians and wounded several others here Friday in some of the worst street fighting of the anti-occupation uprising, now in its third month.
The two deaths, confirmed by hospital personnel and an army spokeswoman, raised the toll of fatalities to at least 54 since the uprising began Dec. 9.
The fighting, which began after Friday afternoon prayers here in the largest city on the West Bank, broke 2 1/2 days of relative quiet after the ending of a 10-day curfew.
When prayers ended at the blue-domed Nablus Grand Mosque on the edge of the casbah, several hundred protesters, mostly youths wearing red-checked kaffiyehs over their faces, ran through the narrow, winding streets and alleyways of the city's old market area shouting Palestinian nationalist slogans and waving the banned Palestine Liberation Organization flag.
At first, nearby soldiers did nothing, but a patrol of about 20 soldiers at the edge of the casbah was suddenly attacked with flaming gasoline-filled bottles, large rocks, flower pots and steel ball bearings and glass marbles hurled from slingshots. The missiles came from every direction and sent the soldiers running for cover in doorways and behind vehicles.
Most of the attackers were hidden on the roofs of the gray, run-down two-story buildings that make up the casbah.
Journalists saw the troops fire tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into the streets and at the roofs, where hundreds of women were cheering the protesters on.
When the hail of objects increased, several shots were fired in the air. By this time, more troops had gathered but were outnumbered by what appeared to be at at least 150 protesters, most of them hurling rocks and bottles.
2 Soldiers Wounded
According to an army spokeswoman, commanders in Nablus estimated that several hundred people attacked the troops. Two soldiers were reported to have been injured by stones.
"They were very well organized," she said, "and whatever was said to them in the mosque obviously had them so excited that no tear gas or rubber bullets was going to stop them."
She said that "when it became clear the lives of the soldiers were endangered they had to fire (live ammunition) at the legs of the demonstrators."
Doctors at Nablus' Al Ittihad hospital said that one of the fatalities, Basil Taysir al Jatan, 14, was shot in the head, and that the other, 17-year-old Bashar al Masri, was shot in the chest.
More Casualties Expected
The army said that five other demonstrators were wounded by gunfire, but doctors at Al Ittihad and the Rafidiyah Hospital said they had treated at least twice that number and expected more casualties as wounded people who had fled from the army were brought in for treatment.
Some journalists who went to Al Ittihad reported that the army had closed off the street leading to the hospital and refused to let them inside.
Army officials said they were investigating assertions that soldiers had fired shots inside the hospital and arrested several wounded patients for allegedly taking part in the demonstrations.
Army officers said they had tried to avoid confronting the Nablus demonstrators and had not challenged them when they emerged from the mosque.
Attacked From Rooftops
"It wasn't until they started bombing us from the roofs and from every direction that we had to fight back," said a captain who may not be identified by name under Israeli government rules.
In recent days the army has tried to reduce the street battles by ignoring relatively minor incidents and provocations such as tire-burnings and the blocking of side streets. But it appeared that the Nablus demonstrators were intent on starting a fight.
Some observers believe that recent relative quiet in such large cities as Nablus and in some of the bigger refugee camps--a situation that resulted from the army's relatively placid approach--had begun to slow the momentum of the uprising.
The uprising's leaders, believed to represent the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Communist groups and radical Muslim religious organizations, are thought to have pushed for a serious confrontation to reawaken the protest.
There were reports of scattered but less serious demonstrations Friday elsewhere on the West Bank and in the Gaza strip. An army spokeswoman said that tear gas was used to break up protests at Gaza City, Beit Hanun, Beit Lahia and refugee camps at Jabaliya, Bureij and Shati.
5 Cities Under Curfew
At least five cities, including Hebron, south of Jerusalem, were put under total curfew.
In Jerusalem, about 5,000 worshipers attended afternoon prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque in the walled Old City, but the police did not try to stop a march by 150 or 200 Palestine youths who marched out of the Muslim holy place waving flags.
There were more reports of army night raids on rural villages and refugee camps, including the beach camp in Gaza City and the village of Dura. The raiders search for suspected organizers of demonstrations.
Meantime, the army identified Ahmad Abdallah Najeeb as the Palestinian protester who was fatally wounded Thursday at the West Bank refugee camp of Tulkarm. Najeeb, 36, was killed when he was shot in the stomach, doctors said. Army officials said he was shot when a soldier slipped and fell, accidentally firing his rifle. They said that the soldier's conduct is under investigation.