U.N.: Jewish Settlers Harass Palestinians

Jewish settlers are terrorizing Palestinians with impunity, attacking children on their way to school and destroying farmers' trees and crops, a U.N. expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict said in a report.

John Dugard, a South African lawyer, called the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip last summer a positive step. But the Jewish state effectively controls Gaza through targeted killings and sonic booms from warplanes flying over the region, Dugard said in a report prepared ahead of next week's annual meeting of the 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Itzhak Levanon, Israel's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, rejected Dugard's allegations as "misinformed and inaccurate."

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.

Israel has previously rejected Dugard's reports on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute as being one-sided, noting that he has been assigned only to investigate violations by the Israeli side.

Dugard said settler violence has been particularly egregious in the West Bank city of Hebron. His 22-page report made no reference to Palestinian terrorism, but 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 prepares regular reports for the U.N.'s human rights watchdog during visits to the region, but receives no cooperation from the Israeli government.

Next week's meeting comes as U.N. member states debate replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission with a new body. The commission has been widely criticized for allowing some of the worst rights-offending countries to use their membership to shield each other from condemnation.

Dugard filed his report before Hamas won Palestinian elections in January and made no mention of the Islamic militant group, which is sworn to Israel's destruction and refuses to renounce violence.

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 actions in Gaza violated the Geneva Conventions on warfare, which forbid "all measures of intimidation or of terrorism" against civilians in time of war.

In the first three months after the Gaza withdrawal, targeted assassinations by Israeli defense forces in the territory killed 18 civilians and injured 81, in addition to killing 15 militants.

Palestinians have launched rockets from Gaza against southern Israeli towns, and Israel has retaliated with artillery fire and airstrikes.

Hamas has observed a yearlong moratorium on suicide and shooting attacks. But Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Tuesday that Hamas leaders, including the incoming Palestinian prime minister, will not be immune from pinpointed Israeli killings if the group were to resume attacks.