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International monitors should be deployed in the Palestinian areas and Israel to document and investigate human rights violations, the head of Amnesty International said Saturday after a weeklong tour of the region.
Irene Khan, the group's secretary general, said the situation, particularly in the Palestinian territories, is becoming "very desperate" and that the world is not paying enough attention. "There is a human rights crisis that will get much worse if it is not addressed," she said in a telephone interview from the Gaza Strip.
Khan said she is sending a letter to EU leaders, ahead of next week's meeting of the European Council, with a call for action.
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Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev had no immediate comment.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat welcomed the idea of monitors in the Palestinian areas, noting the weekly demonstration against Israel's security fence in the West Bank town of Bilin, where troops often clash with protesters.
"The presence of international human rights monitors will really strengthen the nonviolent movement and peaceful movement the Palestinians are leading against the wall," he said.
Khan said that during her tour, she was struck by the sense of despair and pessimism among Israelis and Palestinians. She urged both sides to take advantage of a fragile truce that started taking hold in Gaza two weeks ago, but has not been expanded to the West Bank.
On Saturday, she toured Beit Hanun where last month, 19 members of an extended family were killed by Israeli artillery fire. Israel faulted a technical failure for the fatal shelling of a residential complex.
However, Khan said she believes Israeli troops have fired recklessly in civilian areas, not just in Beit Hanun, but also when aiming missiles at wanted militants moving in densely populated areas.
"These kinds of situations, in which the risk of civilian deaths is high, the (Israeli) government is taking it (the risk) knowingly," she said. "Even though they take precautions, for them this is war. They see these incidents as part of collateral damage. We believe there needs to be a rethinking of strategy, where there are such heavy civilian casualties."
Capt. Noa Meir, an Israeli army spokeswoman, defended the army's tactics, saying Palestinian militants routinely take cover in civilian areas.
"We target only terrorists. Unfortunately the terrorists choose to operate from within civilian areas. Therefore the responsibility for acting in these areas should fall on them," she said. She also accused Palestinian militants of "firing purposely and indiscriminately at Israeli civilians."
Five Israelis have been killed during the Gaza offensive - three soldiers in Gaza and two civilians hit by rocket fire on Israel.
Earlier in the week, Khan visited the Israeli border town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets from Gaza. "The people there are terrified as well," she said.
She also noted that dozens of Palestinians have been killed in factional fighting in the past year.
Khan called for the deployment of international human rights monitors. "There have been so many incidents, abuses of human rights," she said. "There have been no independent investigations into these incidents on the Israeli or Palestinian side. There needs to be an end to impunity."