Jewish settlers are able to "terrorize" Palestinians with impunity, intimidating children on their way to school and destroying farmers’ trees and crops, a United Nations expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict said in a report.
John Dugard, a South African lawyer, also said that Israel continues to dominate life in the Gaza Strip despite having pulled out all troops and settlers because it continues targeted killings in the Strip and carries out sonic booms over it.
Dugard further said the U.S.-backed roadmap for Middle East peace is "hopelessly out of date" and needs to be revamped.
Itzhak Levanon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, rejected Dugard’s allegations as "misinformed and inaccurate."
Israel has previously rejected Dugard’s reports as being one-sided on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, noting that he has been assigned only to investigate violations by the Israeli side.
Settler violence has been particularly significant in the West Bank city of Hebron, Dugard said in his 22-page report prepared ahead of next week’s start of the annual UN Human Rights Commission.
Dugard said Hebron settlers "terrorize the few Palestinians that have not left the old city and assault and traumatize children on the way to school."
"It seems that settlers are able to terrorize Palestinians and destroy their trees and crops with impunity," Dugard said, adding that he himself was a victim of settler abuse while visiting the city in June 2005.
Dugard’s report "is guided by a clear political agenda, and bears little relation either to the facts or existing principles of international law," Levanon said in an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press.
Dugard prepares his regular reports for the UN’s human rights commission during visits to the region, but receives no cooperation from the Israeli government.
The report "ignores the fact that the Hamas, considered as a terrorist organization by the family of nations, controls the Palestinian authority and disregards the enormous efforts done by Israel to fight this terrorism while preserving humanitarian law and human rights," Levanon said.
Dugard said Israel’s treatment of Gaza violated the Geneva Conventions on warfare, which forbid "all measures of intimidation or of terrorism" against civilian persons in time of war.
He called the Gaza withdrawal a positive step, but said Israel’s military still exercised effective control over the region and was obliged as an occupying power to ensure protection of civilians.
"Sonic booms, which terrorize and traumatize the population (and constitute a form of collective punishment) and the targeted assassination of militants (and innocent bystanders) by rockets fired from the skies, serve as a constant reminder to the people of Gaza that they remain occupied," he said.
In the first three months after the Gaza withdrawal, targeted killings by Israel Defense Forces killed – in addition to 15 militants – at least 18 civilians and wounded 81, he said.
Israel has long used sonic booms to rattle Palestinians in times of tension and violence and maintained the practice at all hours of the day and night since its pullout from Gaza in September.
He also reiterated previous criticism of Israeli policy.
The continued construction of Israel’s separation barrier, which he termed a "wall" to seal off the West Bank, is a violation of Israel’s human rights obligations, Dugard said. But Supreme Court decisions to change the route of the barrier "have reduced the suffering of the Palestinian people," he said.
A seperate United Nations report says that the Israeli military has increased the number of roadblocks and barriers in the West Bank by 25 percent since last summer, tightening travel restrictions for Palestinians and making it harder for them to reach properties, markets and medical services.
Palestinian officials said the roadblocks have worsened life in the West Bank in recent months and made their goal of establishing an independent state in the territory increasingly remote.
Israel says its network of permanent checkpoints, concrete barriers and temporary mobile roadblocks are needed to protect Israeli towns and Jewish settlements from Palestinian attacks.
In its report, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said the number of road obstacles rose to 471 in January, from 376 last August, at the time of Israel’s Gaza pullout.
The entire increase was in unmanned structures – such as concrete barriers and earth mounds – and temporary checkpoints.
The World Bank has identified Israel’s "closure" system as a leading cause for the Palestinians’ economic woes, and Palestinians have long complained that the roadblocks are excessive, collective punishment.
"As we see here, after the Gaza withdrawal, things have become much worse," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator. "This is destroying the livelihoods of Palestinians, the economy, agriculture, education and health situation."
The report said "a picture is emerging" of a West Bank divided into three areas – north, central and south. "Movement is easier inside these areas, but travel between them is hampered by a combination of checkpoints and other physical obstacles," the report said.
It said the roadblocks have helped create a system of roads limited for Israeli use, while funneling Palestinian motorists onto alternative routes where movement is restricted. "The new physical obstacles have further restricted access to land, markets, services and social relations," it said.
It cited a new permit system limiting Palestinian access to the West Bank’s Jordan Valley, where many farmers own land. Farmers also have difficulty reaching fields in the northern town of Salfit and southern city of Hebron, while rural communities have been isolated from cities because of the travel difficulties, it said.
The travel restrictions have made it difficult for farmers to ship their produce to markets in the West Bank, prevented residents from reaching medical services and make it difficult for people to visit relatives, the report said.
Erekat said the travel restrictions, coupled with Israel’s construction of its West Bank separation barrier, "will kill the viability of an independent state."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the increase in roadblocks is in response to "an escalation of terrorist activity," noting that there have been 2 stabbings and a shooting by Palestinians against Israeli forces in the West Bank in the five weeks since the election of the Hamas party in Palestine. In contrast, Israeli forces have killed over 40 Palestinians in the same five week period, and arrested hundreds, including over 200 children.
"These actions on the ground are defensive and responsive to that increased threat," he said. "They can be removed and hopefully these things can come down as the threat recedes."
Israel has pledged to revamp its system of roadblocks, pledging to use new technology and other measures to restrict freedom of movement. Since the election of the Hamas party in January 25th elections, Palestinians have been "punished" for their democratic choice (in the words of Israeli acting prime minister Ehud Olmert), with all but one of the West Bank border crossings completely closed to Palestinians, and the Gaza Strip completely sealed.