Death toll in Arab-Israeli conflict fell in 2007

The number of Israelis and Palestinians killed in the Middle East conflict dropped last year but human rights abuses continued, a leading Israeli human rights group said on Tuesday.

The number of Israeli casualties was at its lowest level since the start of the second intifada in 2000, reflecting a growing sense of security within Israel. The number of Palestinians killed in 2007 was down sharply on 2006, but rights group B’Tselem was critical of Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories.

There were 13 Israelis killed, of whom seven were civilians. There was only one suicide bombing in Israel last year, an attack in Eilat that killed three people. B’Tselem also said the number of rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza into Israel dropped to an average of 109 a month from 149 a month in 2006.

But the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in 2007 stood at 373, of whom 53 were under 18. B’Tselem said its research showed about 35% of the dead were civilians who were not involved in fighting when they were killed. The previous year, Israeli military operations in Gaza claimed hundreds of lives.

B’Tselem reported a big increase in violence between Palestinian groups, which claimed at least 344 lives. Most were killed in Gaza in a near civil war between Hamas, the Islamist movement that won elections in early 2006, and its rival, Fatah. Hamas eventually seized full control of Gaza.

The Israeli rights group criticised Palestinian violence, describing attacks on Israeli civilians as war crimes and unjustified. But it was also highly critical of Israeli operations in the occupied territories. ”Far too often Israel fails to appropriately balance its security needs with equally important values, including protecting the rights of Palestinians under its control,” the group said in its report.

”Israeli authorities often exploit security threats in order to advance prohibited political interests under the guise of security.”

It said hardships were imposed on Palestinians to perpetuate Jewish settlements and ”effectively annex them to Israel”. The number of Palestinians held by Israel in detention without trial rose by 13% while the number of Israeli checkpoints did not fall, despite pledges to remove them.

The Israel Defence Force (IDF) defended its actions. ”IDF’s activities are carried out due to imperative security considerations, and comply with Israel’s obligations under international law,” it said. ”The IDF places great efforts in order to minimise the harm caused to persons who are not involved in hostile activities.”

Despite the decline in Israeli casualties, the Israeli government insists Palestinians crack down on militant groups before any new moves towards peace.

The call comes after two armed Israeli settlers, both off-duty soldiers, died in a shootout during a hike near the West Bank city of Hebron on Friday. ”As long as the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take the necessary steps and act with the necessary vigour against terrorist organisations, Israel won’t be able to carry out any change that would expose it to any jeopardy or endanger Israel’s security,” said the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert.

On Sunday, Olmert issued an order halting new construction in West Bank settlements without his approval. A similar understanding has been reached for East Jerusalem settlements, officials said. The move seems designed to prevent surprise announcements of new house building in the settlements, which are illegal under international law, while Israelis and Palestinians try to restart serious peace talks. — Guardian Unlimited Â

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