JERUSALEM – The number of people killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dropped sharply in 2007, but human rights abuses in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank increased, an Israeli human rights watchdog said on Monday.
Israeli troops killed 373 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in 2007 up to December 29, compared to 657 last year, B’Tselem said in its annual report.
Thirty-five percent of the dead were not involved in hostilities, compared to more than half in 2006.
Palestinians killed seven Israeli civilians — the lowest number since the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising in 2000 — and six soldiers, the group said. In 2006, Palestinians killed 17 Israeli civilians.
Despite the lower death toll, B’Tselem said respect for human rights had deteriorated in the Palestinian territories due to an Israeli blockade on Gaza, an increase in the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and a rise in the number of Palestinians held without trial.
“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 a statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas relaunched peace talks in November and agreed to try to reach a deal on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.
But it is unclear whether Olmert or Abbas has the political clout to make painful concessions. The Islamist group Hamas’s control of Gaza has cast further doubt on the prospects of implementing any future deal. The talks have already become bogged down over Israeli settlement activity.
The population of Israeli settlements in the West Bank grew by 4.5 percent in 2007, compared with 1.5 percent growth in Israel, B’Tselem said.
The number of Palestinians held by Israel in detention without trial rose 13 percent, it said. Meanwhile, Israel had not made good on pledges to ease travel restrictions by dismantling some of the hundreds of checkpoints and road blocks that dot the West Bank.
Government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was working with the Palestinians to ease restrictions on travel but must guard against creating a “security vacuum”.
Israel says the checkpoints are needed to stop suicide bombers. Palestinians say they amount to collective punishment.
Under U.S. pressure, Israel pledged to remove a small number of checkpoints ahead of last month’s peace meeting. Groups that monitor the restrictions say the change has been minimal.
B’Tselem also said the number of Palestinians killed in internal factional fighting had risen to its highest level since before the uprising because of the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas.
The group said Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized control of the territory had brought the situation there to an “unprecedented humanitarian low”. More than 80 percent of Gazans depend on food aid, it said.
Israel pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but controls its borders and bans all but humanitarian imports.