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Israeli-Palestinian fatalities drop, but other issues persist

In its year-end report, the leading Israeli human rights organization B'tselem noted a roughly 50 percent reduction in fatalities.

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East Jerusalem: A Palestinian man looks at a construction site of new housing unit. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a directive to his government that there should be nonew construction without first having authorization from hisoffice and from the defense minister.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP

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In its year-end report issued on New Year's Eve, the leading Israeli human rights group B'tselem said that the numbers of Palestinians and Israelis killed in clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has dropped dramatically, but that other human rights abuses persist.

Overall, the number of both Palestinians and Israelis who fell victim to the conflict decreased, a benchmark year that is being quietly noted by analysts as a sign of progress in a troubled region.

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B'tselem noted that the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in clashes in 2007 dropped significantly from the previous year, but that there was an increase in other human rights violations. For example, there was a 13 percent increase in the number of Palestinians held in "administrative detention" without trial, averaging 830 people at a time.

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Israeli troops killed 373 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in 2007 as of Dec. 29, compared to 657 for 2006, B'tselem announced. Of those Palestinians who were killed, 35 percent were civilians who were not taking part in the hostilities when killed – down from 54 percent.

The human rights organization, a watchdog group critical of Israeli policy in the territories the state occupied in the 1967 war, also pointed to the deteriorating status of other issues it tracks. These include the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which B'tselem said was at "an all-time low, following Israel's siege on the area." Hamas, an Islamic militant movement, took over in a coup in June.

Among its criticism of Israel's human rights record this year, B'tselem said that the number of house demolitions in East Jerusalem rose by 38 percent, and that the Israeli population in the settlements grew by 4.5 percent, compared to just 1.5 percent for Israelis inside the Green Line.

Mark Regev, spokesman of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, says that this is due to the fact that the settlements have a high proportion of religious Jewish families, which tend to be large.

"There is no deliberate policy by the government of Israel to grow the settlements," Regev says. "On the contrary, we have adopted a policy on the settlements that is four-pronged. One, no new settlements. Two, no outwards expansion of existing settlements. Three, no confiscations of Palestinian land, and four, we have annulled incentives" for living there.

On Sunday, Mr. Olmert moved to show he would put a stop to settlement building that is sometimes explained by Israeli officials as something that is somehow carried out by government branches making their own decisions, without approval on high. Olmert issued a directive to his government that there should be "no new construction, no publishing of construction plans, no tenders, no confiscation of land, without first receiving authorization" from his office and from the defense minister, Regev explains.

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"The idea here is that we have commitments under the road map," he says, "and we want to make sure that the arms of the government are implementing government policy."