GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ A Palestinian military court sentenced three of Yasser Arafat's bodyguards to death Thursday for killing a man, but the punishment will be carried out only if the Palestinian leader authorizes it.

A lieutenant colonel in the bodyguard unit and two other bodyguards were sentenced to death by firing squad in the fatal beating of a neighbor.

The military prosecutor said Nasser Radwan was arrested and beaten after telling the wife of one of the officers that she should dress more modestly and cover her hair, in line with Islamic tradition. Radwan, a 28-year-old father of three, died of his injuries Monday.

A special military tribunal imposed the sentence on the members of the elite Force 17 unit after three days of hearings.

But the sentence can be carried out only if it is approved by Arafat. More than a dozen Palestinians have been sentenced to death in the past three years, but in each case the sentence was commuted to life in prison.

When the judge read the decision, relatives of Radwan clapped, cheered and shouted ``Allahu Akbar,'' or ``God is great!'' Radwan's father cried and flashed a victory sign.

The defendants stood as the sentence was announced. Lt. Col. Fathi Freihat sat stone-faced after protesting his innocence.

``I didn't beat him ... I didn't give any orders for his arrest,'' Freihat said.

Eight Force 17 members stood trial in Radwan's death. Two were sentenced to five years in prison each, one was given a six-month term and two were acquitted.

Freihat pleaded innocent, but the seven other defendants initially entered a guilty plea. Midway through the first session, after being allowed to consult a lawyer, they changed their plea to innocent.

The harsh sentences apparently were meant to address the growing dissatisfaction among Palestinians over the performance of their security forces. Human rights groups have complained of arbitrary arrests, mistreatment in detention and the abuse of power to settle personal scores.

The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group welcomed the Palestinian Authority's measures to confront torture and violence in the security forces, but said the death sentences were themselves a violation of human rights.

``The goal of the judicial system should be to expose wrongdoing, not cover it up with the use of unfair military trials that reveal none of the details surrounding the case,'' the group said.

The Gaza police commander, Ghazi Jabali, has set up a hotline for complaints about the security forces, and promised in newspaper ads that he would personally supervise each investigation.