Palestinian death toll triples this year

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The Independent Online

The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip tripled this year, according to an Israeli human rights organisation. B'Tselem said 660 Palestinians had been killed during 2006, including 141 minors. The report claimed that at least 322 of those killed were not fighters.

At the same time, B'Tselem recorded a drop in the number of Israelis killed during the year. Palestinians killed 17 civilians, including one minor, and six members of the security forces.

In Gaza alone, since the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid on 25 June, Israel has killed 405 Palestinians, including 88 minors. Of this total, 205 were defined as non-combatants. B'Tselem said the number of civilians killed showed a "deterioration in the human rights situation in the occupied territories". That impression was reinforced by the demolition of 292 homes, housing 1,769 people, 279 of them in the Gaza Strip. Israel also demolished 42 Arab homes in East Jerusalem built without a permit.

Israel did not dispute the overall death toll, but accused B'Tselem of taking Palestinian definitions at face value. Miri Eisin, a government spokeswoman, said: "We're talking about definitions of a non-combatant."

Sarit Michaeli of B'Tselem said the figures were based on the organisation's own fieldwork. She said: "More than half the Palestinians killed in Gaza over the past year weren't participating in fighting when they were killed. The Israeli government has a tendency to describe every Palestinian killed as a terrorist."

Palestinians were disappointed yesterday by Israel's failure to release even a token number of security prisoners for the Muslim feast of Eid, which begins today. Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, had talked earlier of freeing a few dozen, mostly women and minors, as a gesture to Mahmoud Abbas, the pragmatic Palestinian President.

Officials said Mr Olmert was concerned that the radical Hamas government might claim the release as a victory, especially after Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister, hinted on Thursday that Hamas militants were close to a deal to free Corporal Shalit.

"You may be making a gesture to Mahmoud Abbas," one official said, "but Hamas may construe it in a different way. If you let out people now, Hamas will most likely see it as a victory of their own and not something you're doing for Abbas. It could influence a possible deal over Gilad Shalit." Other sources suggested Mr Olmert did not have enough support in his cabinet for a prisoner release. Sa'eb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused Mr Olmert of being unwilling to face the wrath of Israeli public opinion while Cpl Shalit was in captivity. Mr Olmert and his Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, were accused of further backsliding after Ha'aretz, a liberal daily paper, said settlers had erected 200 caravans without permits on West Bank settlements and supposedly illegal outposts since the Lebanon war in June.

This breaches undertakings to the international community to dismantle the outposts.

The European Union has also expressed "deep concern" at Mr Peretz's decision to build a settlement in the Jordan Valley for families evacuated from Gaza in 2005, contrary to its commitments under the international "road-map" for peace.

"Such unilateral actions," the Finnish EU presidency said, "are also illegal under international law and threaten to render the two-state solution physically impossible to implement".