JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM—Israel's summer war with Hezbollah in the north and small rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip in the south have overshadowed a striking reality: Fewer Israeli civilians died in Palestinian attacks in 2006 than in any year since the Palestinian uprising began in 2000.
Palestinian militants killed 23 Israelis and foreign visitors in 2006, down from a high of 289 in 2002 during the height of the uprising.
Most significant, successful suicide bombings in Israel nearly came to a halt. Last year, only two Palestinian suicide bombers managed to sneak into Israel for attacks that killed 11 people and wounded 30 others. Israel has gone nearly nine months without a suicide bombing inside its borders, the longest period without such an attack since 2000.
The figures highlight Israel's success in insulating most of its citizens from the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, largely by containing battles to the predominantly Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The drop in Israeli casualties was accompanied by a dramatic rise in Palestinian deaths, which more than tripled, to 660 from 197 in 2005—28 Palestinian deaths for every Israeli killed. Most of those deaths came in the second half of the year, during an unsuccessful Israeli military campaign in Gaza sparked by the capture of an Israeli soldier last June.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said one major factor in that success had been Israel's controversial separation barrier, a still-growing 250-mile network of concrete walls, high-tech fencing and other obstacles that cuts through parts of the West Bank.
"The security fence was put up to stop terror, and that's what it's doing," said Capt. Noa Meir, a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces.
Israel began building the barrier in 2002 when Palestinian suicide bombings were at their peak. It's pressed ahead with construction despite an international court opinion criticizing the route as cutting across wide swaths of Palestinian land. About 10 percent of the land that Palestinians want for a state now lies on the Israeli side of the wall, and several large Palestinian settlements have been divided by 25-foot-tall concrete slabs.
Opponents of the wall grudgingly acknowledge that it's been effective in stopping bombers, though they complain that its route should have followed the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories known as the Green Line.
"Although undoubtedly it has had an effect in blocking suicide bombers, the point is that it still would have had that impact if it had been built legally under international law on the Green Line or inside Israel," said Ray Dolphin, the author of "The West Bank Wall: Unmaking Palestine."
Jeff Halper, an Israeli activist and longtime critic of the barrier, said it was doing more harm than good.
"I suppose that the wall has a certain effect, but the damage is disproportionate to the advantages," said Halper, the coordinator of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. "The only way Israel is going to have peace is by giving up territories, not annexing them."
Halper and Dolphin also said Israel's security had been aided by a decision last year by the leading Palestinian groups to declare a cease-fire that largely was still holding.
IDF spokeswoman Meir said Israeli military operations that disrupted militants planning attacks from the West Bank also deserved credit for the drop in Israeli fatalities.
She cautioned that the decline might be misleading. While successful suicide bombings are at a low, the number of attempts is rising, she said. The Israeli army arrested 187 potential suicide bombers last year, up from 96 in 2005, according to Israeli military statistics.
"The motivation is there, but thanks to our activity we have managed to thwart it and spare many, many Israeli lives," Meir said.
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dragged on last year, Israelis faced a more immediate threat from the north when Hezbollah militants from Lebanon captured two Israeli soldiers in a mid-July cross-border attack that sparked a 34-day war.
During that time, Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, killing 43 civilians. In response, Israel staged a widespread air and ground operation that claimed more than 1,100 Lebanese lives. Before a cease-fire took hold in mid-August, 119 Israeli soldiers also were killed.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007