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.

According to a new Israeli human rights report, 2007 saw the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces decrease to nearly half of those killed in 2006, but those killed in intra-Palestinian fighting reached a record high.

The report, published by the human rights group B'Tselem, says that 373 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces through Dec. 29, 2007, a 43 percent drop from 2006, when Israeli forces killed 657 people. The report also says that of those Palestinians killed in 2007, 35 percent were civilians not involved in hostilities – also a drop from 2006, when 54 percent of Palestinians killed were civilian bystanders.

In addition, the report says that only seven Israeli civilians were killed in 2007, the lowest Israeli civilian fatality rate since the beginning of the intifada. In 2006, 17 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians.

But the B'Tselem report adds that there were a number of setbacks as well in 2007. The number of Palestinians killed in internal violence, at least 343, was the highest ever during the intifada, due to the fighting between Hamas and Fatah. Also, 2007 saw an increase of 13 percent in the number of Palestinians held by Israel in administrative detention without trial, and the number of permanent checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank remained largely unchanged.

B'Tselem, which "endeavors to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a human rights culture in Israel," writes that the 2007 report reveals two themes.

The first is the use of security justifications for virtually every Israeli action in the Occupied Territories. There is no doubt that Israel faces serious security threats, and is entitled and even obligated to do its utmost to protect its population. However, far too often, Israel fails to appropriately balance its security needs with equally important values, including protecting the rights of Palestinians under its control. In addition, Israeli authorities often exploit security threats in order to advance prohibited political interests, such as perpetuating settlements and effectively annexing them to Israel.
The second theme arising from the report is the lack of accountability of Israeli security forces, in all matters relating to human rights. This can be seen clearly in the reluctance of the state to thoroughly investigate violations and to prosecute those responsible for them. The lack of accountability can also be seen in the denial of most Palestinians' right to compensation when they are injured through no fault of their own by Israeli forces.

Agence France-Presse reports that a spokesman for the Israeli army declined to immediately comment on the report's findings, saying the army had not yet received a copy.

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.

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.

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