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Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has ordered Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon to launch an inquiry - to be headed by an officer ranked at least general - into the the recent spate of Palestinian civilian deaths during Israel Defense Forces operations in the territories.

Early yesterday morning, IDF soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians near the Beni Na'im stone-cutting plant, but there were contradictory accounts of the events leading up to the deaths.

According to eyewitness accounts collected by the Palestinian human rights organization, El Haq, the soldiers shot the four - who it claims were workers at the plant - at close range, after they had already been placed under arrest.

The IDF denies the Palestinian version of events, with a military spokesman saying that an IDF force identified several suspects who had broken into a Jewish-owned plot of land close to Beni Na'im. The soldiers opened fire on the group, which had already penetrated the compound. The IDF also said that when they scoured the area after daybreak, they discovered the tools used to break into the grove, as well as weapons such as clubs, axes and several wirecutters.

In recent weeks, there had been several warnings of a planned attack on the plot, where several yeshiva students from Hebron were wounded by a bomb three months ago. The land belongs to an ex-member of the Jewish underground, Menachem Livni.

The four are twin brothers Hasan and Hisham Halika, 32, their cousin, Atiyah Halika, 21, and Ala Ayedah, 20. All four were residents of the village of Shwiah, northeast of Hebron.

An Al Haq investigator spoke to the brother of Atiyah Halika - Is'haq Halika - who also works at the plant, as well as people who live close to the factory, all of whom reported having seen the soldiers and hearing shots.

According to Is'haq Halika, who was with the four men killed, they were all working the night shift at the factory, which operates round the clock. Halika said that at around 2 A.M. they asked for a break to prepare a light meal. He went to the toilets, while his four coworkers went out to the yard at the front of the plant, which is surrounded on three sides by residential buildings. On the fourth side, however, the northwestern side, some 300 meters from the plant, there is a grove with a variety of fruit trees, which has been under Jewish ownership since 1917. The yard itself leads onto the fenced-off grove, bordered on the far side by the Hebron-Beni Na'im road, which has been closed to Palestinian traffic for the last 12 months.

When Halika made his way outside, he spotted several soldiers - between six and 10 - surrounding his four friends in the yard. The workers were standing with their hands in the air. Halika quickly hid himself and, according to his testimony, he saw the soldiers lead the four workers to an unpaved road that leads on to the Hebron-Beni Na'im road.

After about 200 meters, he could no longer see what was going on, when he suddenly heard shouting and assumed the soldiers were beating up their detainees. According to his testimony, he then heard a short round of gunfire, followed by what sounded to him like laughter. Shortly afterward, he heard a second, third and fourth round of gunfire. After several minutes, he saw a military vehicle emerge.

At 5 A.M., the mayor of Beni Na'im received a phone call from "Captain Benjamin" - a Shin Bet or IDF officer - who informed him, "There has been an exchange of fire between IDF troops and terrorists, who were killed." The mayor was summoned to identify the bodies.

According to people who live close to the plant, they heard shouts of "Ya Ala, Ala," from which Al Haq investigators concluded that Ala Ayedah had been shot first, in front of his friends, who had called out his name. When the bodies were discovered, Ayedah's body was some 50 meters away from the others. The bodies of the Hasan and Hisham Halika were some 20 meters away from Atiyah Halika's. According to Al Haq, all three had been shot in the head and chest.

Elsewhere yesterday, a Palestinian teenager was killed by IDF troops in the Jenin refugee camp, after they came under fire from Palestinian gunmen.

Security sources identified the youth as 16-year-old Abdel Karim Bassam Sadi, the son of Bassam Sadi, the local leader of Islamic Jihad's military wing.