WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (JTA) — Israel’s withdrawal from most major Palestinian population areas in the West Bank improved the human rights situation there in 1996, according to the U.S. State Department. But setbacks in the Middle East peace process resulted in “serious human rights abuses” by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, the department said. “The peace process is the ultimate instrument to advance human rights in the Middle East,” said John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. In its annual report on human rights conditions around the world, the State Department said the Israeli government generally respects human rights but added that authorities sometimes mistreat Palestinian security detainees. Most of the abuses by Israeli and Palestinian authorities stemmed from the pursuit of terrorists, said the report, which was released late last week. “At least two Palestinians died in Israeli prisons,” the report said. “Prison conditions are poor.” Last year’s report, which covered 1995, cited six such deaths. The State Department said the Palestinian Authority used “excessive force” against detainees in its “intensive efforts to counter and prevent terrorism,” resulting in four deaths in 1996. Five such deaths were reported in the previous year. “In the wake of terrorist bombings, [Palestinian] authorities arrested approximately 1,000 Palestinians suspected of affiliation with extremist Islamic and secular opposition groups and held all but one without charge,” the report said, adding that Palestinian prison conditions were “very poor.” The report also took issue with measures the Palestinian Authority took to suppress free speech. The Palestinian Authority “continued to harass, detain and abuse journalists and political activists who criticized” it, the report said.