Israel's largest human rights organisation has accused Ariel Sharon's government of undermining the foundations of democracy in the country.
In its annual report, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel says the actions of Mr Sharon's government "call into question the very basis of democratic principles, the social fabric, and the foundation of human rights in Israel".
In the occupied territories, the report says, "a complete decimation of human rights has taken place, as well as unprecendented injury to civilians", and goes on to detail several cases of abuse of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, including one last April in which a soldier carved a Star of David into the throat of a Palestinian civilian using a piece of glass.
The report says that as well as the dire situation in the occupied territories, human rights and democratic principles are under attack inside Israel as well. "although this government cannot be held solely responsible for the decline," the report states, "it is clearly guilty of perpetuating and even exacerbating the situation".
The report is all the more damning to Mr Sharon's government because it comes from an independent Israeli human rights organistaion. The most shocking section of the report, unsurprisingly, concerns the situation in the occupied territories – where, the report says, abuses of Palestinians' human rights are "a day-to-day reality".
"Most of the abuses occur not as a result of operational necessity on the part of the IDF [Israeli army]," the report says, "but from vindictiveness on the part of the soldiers, who receive implicit approval to denigrate the dignity, life and liberty of innocent Palestinian civilians."
This is a direct response to the Israeli army, which claims the majority of harm done to innocent Palestinian civilians is regrettable but inevitable "collateral damage". In answer to the army's claim that it takes abuses by soldiers very seriously, the report quotes data supplied by the army itself, which "reveals that, in reality most of the incidents, and the majority of deaths, are not investigated".
Between September 2000 and last month, the army opened 362 internal investigations involving soldiers serving in the occupied territories, according to the report. In only 46 of those investigations were charges brought against the soldiers concerned.
The report links many cases of abuse by soldiers to the checkpoints which the Israeli army has put up across the West Bank, and describes the case of Qassam Avisa'at, a 19-year-old Palestinian civilian who had a Star of David carved into his throat by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint last April.
The report says the checkpoints and unmanned roadblocks also endanger the lives of Palestinians by preventing sick people from reaching medical aid.
It documents the cases of Rawan Harizat, a four-year-old girl from Hebron who died after soldiers delayed her evacuation to hospital; Azzam Alawana, a woman who suffered from heart disease and died because medics could not reach her across a ditch dug by the army; and an unnamed pregnant woman who was forced to give birth at a roadblock because soldiers would not let her through. The baby died.
The report highlights the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians during assassinations of leading militants by the Israeli military. In the last year, the report says, the military assassinated 80 Palestinians – the army only acknowledges 20 -- 90 innocent bystanders were killed during those operations, and more than 300 people were injured.
Quoting the Israeli air force's own statistics, the report says that in 25-30 per cent of cases where helicopters are used – a method favoured by the Israeli military – the pilots hit innocent civilians. In built-up urban areas like Gaza the proportion is almost 50 per cent.
The report points out that the army continues to use Palestinians as human shields, under a new order which requires the Palestinian involved "agrees" and is in no danger. The army "ignores the section of the order that prohibits endangering the individual's life," the report charges.
The report also details erosion of democracy and human rights inside Israel, and points in particular to efforts to exclude Arab political parties – representing Arabs who live inside Israel, as opposed to the occupied territories, and are Israeli citizens – from the last parliamentary elections, and to government support for legislation that would make it possible to give state land to settlements for Jews only.
It describes "Jews who have rights and Arab citizens who have none".