Israel | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Israelis spent 2001 gripped by the continuing violence of the Palestinian intifada (uprising). Suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, and ambushes eroded the public's sense of security, restricting their freedom of movement and assembly. By year's end, more than 200 Israelis had been killed as a result of Palestinian attacks. This situation prevented a return of the country's civil liberties rating to a score of 2 after it had been downgraded last year. In February, with the violence extending into its fifth month and showing no signs of abatement, Israelis overwhelmingly elected a new prime minister, the right-wing Likud Party leader and hawkish former general, Ariel Sharon. Feeling the Palestinians were ultimately unwilling to compromise for peace, the Israeli populace, including those on the left, shifted dramatically to the right, with security issues and the specter of war looming large in the Israeli psyche. Israel faced intense international criticism throughout the year for its handling of the Palestinian uprising. Prime Minister Sharon adopted strong tactics including armored incursions into Palestinian territory, targeted killings of suspected terrorists, and air strikes. Sharon stepped up use of these tactics after Palestinian gunmen assassinated an Israeli cabinet minister in Jerusalem on October 18. Israel launched a public commission of inquiry into the October 2000 shooting deaths of 13 Israeli Arab citizens at the hands of Israeli troops.

Israel was formed in 1948 from less than one-fifth of the original British Palestine Mandate. Its neighbors, rejecting a United Nations partition plan that would have also created a Palestinian state, attacked immediately following independence in the first of several Arab-Israeli conflicts. Israel has functioned as a parliamentary democracy since independence. Since 1977, the conservative Likud and the center-left Labor Party have shared or alternated power.

Following June 1992 Knesset (parliament) elections, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led coalition government secured a breakthrough agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993. The Declaration of Principles, negotiated secretly between Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Oslo, Norway, provided for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and for limited Palestinian autonomy in those areas. Negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, refugees, and Israel's borders began in November 1999. On November 4, 1995, a right-wing Jewish extremist, opposed to the peace process, assassinated Rabin in Tel Aviv.

After winning a landslide election in 1999 on an ambitious peace-making platform, Prime Minister Ehud Barak succeeded Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. At Camp David in July 2000, Barak engaged the Palestinian leadership in the most far-reaching negotiations ever. For the first time, Israel offered compromise solutions on Jerusalem, agreeing to some form of Palestinian control and quasi-sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which contains Islamic holy sites. Israel also offered 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The Palestinians rejected the Israeli offers, and no agreement was reached. Barak's determination to address all the final-status issues with the Palestinians at once, rather than in incremental steps, as proscribed by the Oslo process, was seen as dangerous by some members of his own cabinet. Much of the public too became disillusioned with the prime minister, feeling he was insufficiently informing them about the compromise solutions he was proposing.

In a snap election in February 2001, held against the backdrop of the continuing Palestinian uprising, Barak lost by a landslide to Likud leader Ariel Sharon. Israelis identified with Sharon's promises to enhance Israel's security as Barak's political stock plummeted in the wake of the failed Camp David talks.

While Israelis voted overwhelmingly for Sharon, voter turnout was low at 62 percent. Approximately 18 percent of eligible Arab Israelis voted in the elections, down from 75 percent in 1999. Most Arab citizens boycotted the vote, registering their disaffection with the political establishment and their solidarity with the Palestinians. Sharon assembled a cabinet composed primarily of Likud and Labor along with several religious, centrist, and ultra- and extreme-right-wing parties. For the first time in Israel's history, an Arab citizen, Salah Tarif, was awarded a cabinet post.

In June, a Belgian court began deliberations over whether to indict Prime Minister Sharon on charges of crimes against humanity. A group of Belgians, Palestinians, Lebanese, and Moroccans submitted a complaint assigning to Sharon responsibility for the deaths of 800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, while he was defense minister. An Israeli state inquiry ruled in the late 1980s that Sharon--the architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon--was indirectly responsible for the deaths.

In September, Israel's Labor Party held an inconclusive leadership primary. Decimated by the results of the February elections and attendant infighting, the party split its votes between Abraham Burg, an Orthodox Jewish dove, and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the country's hawkish, yet peace-oriented defense minister. Ben-Eliezer accused the Burg camp of stuffing ballot boxes. Ben-Eliezer captured the party's leadership in a subsequent round of voting in late December. In October, the state comptroller accused Prime Minister Sharon of campaign finance irregularities, alleging that he had accepted a $1.4 million donation from a foreign company. As the Palestinian uprising wore on, a growing number of Israeli troops and reservists refused to report for duty. Approximately 600 reservists have refused to report to their bases since the start of the intifada in September 2000.

Israelis experienced a pronounced decline in personal security in 2001. Over 100 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorist attacks. Islamic radicals and other Palestinian militants staged suicide bombings, ambushes, and car bombings, eroding the public's freedom of movement. In one case in February, a Palestinian bus driver deliberately rammed his vehicle into a group of Israelis standing at a Tel Aviv bus stop, killing eight. Suicide bombers struck crowded gathering points in several Israeli cities during the year, including a Jerusalem pizzeria and a Tel Aviv disco, killing scores. Some Palestinian attackers disguised themselves as Orthodox Jews or Israeli soldiers, discreetly placing themselves in large crowds before detonating explosives or opening fire. Suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa, and other attacks in late November and the first half of December killed dozens of people, forcing Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to declare and enforce a cease-fire which significantly damped down the violence for the rest of the year.

In October, seven months into his term, Sharon faced his first real internal political challenge when right-wing members of the government withdrew from the coalition. Citing fears that Sharon was giving in to U.S. pressure to ease restrictions on Palestinians, two cabinet ministers resigned, taking between them seven parliamentary seats. While Sharon's coalition held a commanding 76-seat majority, other members threatened to resign, raising the prospect of early elections. Two days after issuing his resignation, Rehevam Ze'evi, the right-wing former tourism minister, was assassinated in a Jerusalem hotel by Palestinian gunmen.

Throughout the year, Israel faced attacks from southern Lebanon by Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group backed by Iran. In June 2000, Israel withdrew from its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon, after occupying the area for 18 years to protect its northern region from attacks. While the UN authorized Israel's withdrawal as complete, Hezbollah nonetheless continues to attack Israeli troops, especially those patrolling near the Shebba farms area in northern Israel. Hezbollah considers the area Lebanese, a claim backed by Syria.

In April and again in July, Israel attacked Syrian army positions in Lebanon after Hezbollah attacked Israeli troops in northern Israel. Syria maintains 35,000 troops in Lebanon and controls most of the country's political system. Israel thus holds Syria ultimately responsible for Hezbollah attacks against Israeli troops and civilians.

Peace talks with Syria did not take place during the year. Intensive negotiations between the countries broke down in January 2000 over disagreements on final borders around the Golan Heights. Prior to losing the Golan in 1967, Syria had used the territory to shell northern Israeli towns.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Israeli citizens can change their government democratically. Although Israel has no formal constitution, a series of basic laws has the force of constitutional principles.

In March, Israel reinstated a proportional voting system for national elections, replacing a dual voting system in which voters cast separate ballots for political parties and prime ministerial candidates. The dual voting system resulted in the proliferation of several small political parties, which made it very difficult for a prime minister to compose a cohesive and stable governing majority. In the proportional system, voters cast ballots for a party list. The total percentage of votes determines the number of parliamentary seats earned. Party leaders, elected by party members, naturally stand for the prime ministership.

The judiciary is independent, and procedural safeguards are generally respected. Security trials, however, may be closed to the public on limited grounds. The Emergency Powers (Detention) Law of 1979 provides for indefinite administrative detention without trial. The policy stems from emergency laws in place since the creation of Israel. Most administrative detainees are Palestinian, but there are currently two Lebanese detainees being held on national security grounds. Members of Lebanese Shiite Muslim groups, they are believed to have the most direct knowledge of Israeli airman Ron Arad, believed to be held in Lebanon since his plane was shot down in 1986. In August the Supreme Court ruled that the two detainees must receive visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Israel had previously blocked visits by the ICRC.

Some one million Arab citizens (roughly 19 percent of the population) receive inferior education, housing, and social services relative to the Jewish population. Israeli Arabs are not subject to the military draft, though they may serve voluntarily. Those who do not join the army do not enjoy the financial benefits available to Israelis who have served, including scholarships and housing loans.

In February a public inquiry headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or convened to examine the circumstances surrounding the shooting deaths of 13 Arab Israeli citizens in October 2000. Israeli police opened fire on the Arab demonstrators protesting in support of the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza. Testimony provided during the commission's initial hearings revealed police blunders and the unauthorized used of firearms during the protests.

In September Israeli police discovered an Arab-Israeli terror gang in the country's north. Police suspected that the Tanzim - the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction - recruited the group's members. The group was accused of staging a bomb attack at a road junction. Israelis were noticeably alarmed by the discovery, fearing that Israel's Arab citizens may represent a fifth column.

Newspaper and magazine articles on security matters are subject to a military censor, though the scope of permissible reporting is expanding. Editors may appeal a censorship decision to a three-member tribunal that includes two civilians. Arabic-language publications are censored more frequently than are Hebrew-language ones. Newspapers are privately owned and freely criticize government policy.

Publishing the praise of violence is prohibited under the Counter-terrorism Ordinance. Israeli authorities prohibit expressions of support for Hamas and other groups that call for the destruction of Israel. In November 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court lowered the standard by which public speech or publications can be deemed inciteful and harmful to the "values of public order," including "social cohesion." Previously, only public statements found to be threatening to the foundations of democratic rule were considered tantamount to sedition and subject to punishment.

In June 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a report on the shootings of journalists covering the intifada. It claimed 15 had been shot and wounded by Israeli forces since the beginning of the uprising in September 2000. In some cases, CPJ claimed journalists were deliberately targeted, a charge the Israeli government denied. In July, Israeli military authorities ordered field commanders to protect journalists covering street clashes in the West Bank and Gaza.

Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Freedom of religion is respected. Each community has jurisdiction over its own members in matters of marriage, burial, and divorce. In the Jewish community, the Orthodox establishment handles these matters. A heated debate has erupted in recent years over the Orthodox monopoly on conversions, which denies certain rights, such as citizenship and marriage, to Reform and Conservative converts. However, a 1999 lower court ruling rejected the Orthodox hold on conversions, clearing the way for the participation of the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism.

In April 2001 Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef, the highly influential spiritual leader of the Orthodox Sephardic Shas Party, publicly called for the annihilation of Arabs. He was widely condemned by the Israeli political establishment.

Women are underrepresented in public affairs; only 9 women were elected to the 120-seat Knesset in 1996. In the May 1999 election, an Arab woman, Husaina Jabara, was elected to the Knesset for the first time. However, women continue to face discrimination in many areas, including in military service, where they are barred from combat units, and in religious institutions.

Most Bedouin housing settlements are not recognized by the government and are not provided with basic infrastructure and essential services. In September 2000, residents of four recognized Bedouin villages in the Negev desert elected their own representatives to local governments for the first time. The interior ministry usually appoints representatives.

Workers may join unions of their choice and enjoy the right to strike and to bargain collectively. Three-quarters of the workforce either belong to unions affiliated with Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) or are covered under its social programs and collective bargaining agreements.