A U.N. rights expert on Monday said Israel's recent withdrawal of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip has allowed the Jewish state to divert attention from its further expansion into East Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories.
"This focus of attention on Gaza has allowed Israel to continue with the construction of the wall in Palestinian territory, the expansion of settlements and the de-Palestinization of Jerusalem with virtually no criticism," South African lawyer John Dugard said in a 19-page report.
Dugard, who monitors the Palestinian territories for the U.N. Human Rights Commission, prepares his regular reports during visits to the region. However, he receives no cooperation from the Israeli government, which says his mandate is one-sided.
Itzhak Levanon, Israel's ambassador to the U.N. offices in Geneva, immediately condemned the report as "distorted in its presentation, excessive in its political conclusions and a repetitive exercise in Israel-bashing."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reaped diplomatic rewards for ending the country's 38-year Gaza occupation of the Gaza Strip. In the past month, Qatar, Pakistan and Indonesia have held high-level public meetings with Israel, a rare event for Muslim countries, and Sharon met Friday with Jordan's King Abdullah II for their first talks in months.
But Dugard said the cordial relations have disguised Israel's drive to extend its West Bank settlements and its security barrier, which "is designed to be the border of the state of Israel."
He also criticized Israeli policies in East Jerusalem, where he said large settlements are being connected "in order to make the city more Jewish.
"East Jerusalem is being destroyed by the presence of Jewish settlements and by house demolitions," Dugard said. "The clear purpose of these changes is to remove any suggestion that East Jerusalem is a Palestinian entity capable of becoming the capital of a Palestinian state."
The report also was critical of other Israeli policies including its treatment of Palestinian prisoners, numerous checkpoints which hinder the freedom of movement and violations of "social and economic rights."
But Israel's mission to United Nations offices in Geneva contested the findings, saying the report failed to back up its allegations with "data, names or official sources."
Rescuers found the pilot of one of the two Su-34 fighters that had collided in midair in the Far East on January 18