Number of Israeli-Palestinian fatalities dropped in 2007, says report
But the situation in Gaza worsened and intra-Palestinian killings reached a record high, the human rights report adds.
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The B'Tselem report noted that 2007 saw a modest slowing in the construction of Israeli settlements. That decrease may continue into early 2008, thanks to action by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Haaretz reports that in a letter sent Sunday, Mr. Olmert ordered the ministries of defense, agriculture, and housing not to authorize any new construction in the West Bank without his approval or the approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak.Skip to next paragraph
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Olmert emphasized in the letter that the order was a follow-up to the announcement he made in the cabinet meeting of Nov. 19, before the Annapolis peace conference, that Israel would not build additional settlements and would evacuate illegal outposts as it is obligated under the US-backed road map of 2003.
Olmert wrote that "construction, new building, expansion, preparation of plans, publication of residency tenders and confiscation of land stemming from other settlement activities in the [West Bank] area will not go forward and will not be implemented without requesting and receiving in advance approval by the defense minister and the prime minister."
"These instructions do not subtract from activities carried out legally whose goals are the preservation of security or public order. The validity of the law extends until further notice or a different government decision on the matter," the letter states.
The letter did not address construction of settlements in East Jerusalem, which Palestinian negotiators also want halted before a peace accord can be reached. Olmert did, however, tell members of his Kadima party that "the sweeping order [prohibiting new settlements] ... won't touch upon Jerusalem, but even on Jerusalem, we must act wisely and cautiously."
Amid these steps of progress, however, The New York Times writes that peace talks have been "rattled" by the killing of two Israeli settlers in the West Bank on Friday. The two men, who were off-duty soldiers, were attacked by gunmen while hiking near Hebron and died in the ensuing firefight. But just who attacked the men remains unclear.
On Sunday, the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility in a joint statement, saying the operation was a response to Israeli strikes against their fighters in the Gaza Strip and army killings and arrests in the West Bank. Earlier, a branch of the Fatah-affiliated Aksa Martyrs Brigades militia had claimed responsibility together with Islamic Jihad.
But the Palestinian security commander in Hebron, Samih al-Sayfi, told the Palestinian news agency Maan that the motive behind the attack had been strictly criminal and suggested that the attackers might have been trying to steal the Israelis' weapons. He said that the militant organizations had claimed responsibility to curry favor with the Palestinian public and to confuse the local security forces.
In response to the killing, Olmert warned that such violence threatened peace talks and must be brought under control by Palestinian officials. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Saturday that some suspects had been arrested in connection to the attack, though he did not identify the suspects.
Meanwhile, Palestinian sources say members of the Israeli army opened fire on a group of pilgrims returning from Mecca Sunday night, killing one woman and wounding several others, writes The Jerusalem Post. The army said, however, that the Israeli soldiers were returning fire against Hamas militants in southern Gaza and it is investigating the matter.