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Freedom in the World 2003

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Palestinian terrorism eroded public security in Israel in 2002, exacerbating an already heightened sense of collective vulnerability. More than 400 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorism. Israelis braced for large-scale attacks as authorities thwarted several bombings designed to destroy office buildings or whole city blocks. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon adopted strong tactics, including armored incursions into Palestinian territory, generating intense international and domestic criticism. Rising numbers of reserve army officers, citing moral opposition to government policy, refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. Israel's national unity government collapsed in October, paving the way for new elections early in 2003. A bribery scandal in the Likud party damaged the government's credibility as elections drew near. The Supreme Court officially recognized religious conversions conducted under the auspices of the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism. Approximately one-fifth of the population was estimated to be living below the poverty line.

Israel was formed in 1948 from less than one-fifth of the original British Palestine Mandate. Arab nations rejected a UN partition plan that would also have created a Palestinian state. Immediately following Israel's declaration of independence, its neighbors attacked. While Israel maintained its sovereignty, Jordan seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank, while Egypt took control of Gaza.

In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel came to occupy the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, which had been used by Syria to shell towns in northern Israel. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan Heights in 1981. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led coalition government secured a breakthrough agreement with the Palestine 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. On November 4, 1995, a right-wing Jewish extremist, opposed to the peace process, assassinated Rabin in Tel Aviv.

At Camp David in July 2000, and at Taba, Egypt at the end of the year, Prime Minister Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton engaged the Palestinian leadership in the most far-reaching negotiations ever. For the first time, Israel discussed compromise solutions on Jerusalem, agreeing to some form of Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and its Islamic holy sites. Israel also offered over 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. However, the Palestinians effectively rejected the Israeli offers and, following a controversial visit by right-wing Likud party leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, initiated an armed uprising in late September 2000. Snap Israeli elections in February 2001 took place against the backdrop of continuing Palestinian violence. 

Sharon, promising to enhance Israel's security, trounced Barak at the polls. Sharon assembled a national unity coalition cabinet composed primarily of Likud and Labor party members along with member of several religious, centrist, and right-wing parties. For the first time in Israel's history, an Arab citizen, Salah Tarif, was accorded a full cabinet post.

Israelis experienced a pronounced decline in personal security in 2002. Islamic radicals and other Palestinian militants staged suicide bombings, ambushes, and bus and car bombings. In one suicide bombing in March, 29 people were killed at a Passover Seder in a hotel in the seaside town of Netanya. More than 700 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

Throughout 2002 Israeli police thwarted several major attacks that revealed a new sophistication and determination on the part of terrorists.  Early in the year, Israeli intelligence said it had uncovered a plot to blow up the twin Azrieli office towers in Tel Aviv. In May, a rigged tanker truck exploded at a fuel depot in Tel Aviv, nearly causing a massive secondary explosion in a heavily populated area.  In September, police stopped a car in northern Israel loaded with 1,300 pounds of explosives.

Israel retaliated for many terrorist attacks throughout the year, employing targeted killings of militants, air strikes, home demolitions, and curfews. The United States and other nations criticized Israel over the inadvertent deaths of innocent Palestinians. Towards the end of the year, Israel notably restrained itself from responding to suicide bombings in deference to American preparations for possible war against Iraq.

Israeli reprisals for Palestinian terrorist attacks led to sharp divisions within the cabinet; Labor Ministers threatened to resign over what they saw as heavy-handed tactics by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Palestinian areas. As the Palestinian uprising wore on, a growing number of Israeli troops and reservists refused to report for duty, citing moral opposition to the occupation of Palestinian territory. Approximately 200 reservists signed a petition stating they would no longer serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At the same time, a substantial number of reservists volunteered for duty.

In October, Sharon's coalition collapsed. The Labor party resigned from the government over a dispute concerning state money budgeted for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Labor wanted the funds--approximately $120 million--to finance social programs. Labor's departure left Sharon without a governing majority in the 120-seat Knesset. National elections were set for the end of January 2003.

As the Likud prepared for national elections, a bribery scandal emerged in December, implicating members of the party's Central Committee. Several members allegedly demanded bribes from Likud candidates in return for votes during the party's primary election. Some candidates with little or no political experience placed higher on the list for Knesset seats than some veteran politicians. Two members of the Central Committee were arrested for fraud.

Tension remained high along Israel's northern border with Lebanon throughout the year. Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group backed by Iran and Syria and based in southern Lebanon, took delivery of rockets capable of striking Israeli population and industrial centers. The group also attacked Israeli positions patrolling near the Shebba farms area. Hezbollah considers the area "occupied," despite UN confirmation in June 2000 that Israel had withdrawn fully from the "security zone" in southern Lebanon that it occupied for 18 years. Israel held the zone to protect its northern flank from attacks, including repeated Hezbollah rocketing of Israeli towns and farms.

Hezbollah did not cooperate in negotiating the release of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped from Israel's side of the Israel Lebanon border in October 2000. Neither did it release an Israeli businessman kidnapped by Hezbollah in Europe and believed transported to Lebanon.

In September, Lebanon announced its intention to pump the Wazzani Springs, which serve as headwaters for the Jordan River, Israel's primary freshwater source. Israel hinted at possible retaliation.

Peace talks with Syria did not take place during the year.  Intensive negotiations 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. In May, Prime Minister Sharon narrowly won passage of a $2.7 billion austerity budget designed to reduce a deficit enlarged by rising defense costs. 

The Israeli economy suffered throughout the year from plummeting tourism and the strain of combating Palestinian terrorism. A government report in November revealed that one-fifth of the population, including 531,000 children, was living in poverty.

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.

Arab residents of East Jerusalem, while not granted automatic citizenship, were issued Israeli identity cards after the 1967 Six-Day War. They were given all rights held by Israeli citizens, except the right to vote in national elections. They do have the right to vote in municipal elections and are eligible to apply for citizenship. Many choose not to seek citizenship out of a sense of solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While East Jerusalem's Arab population generally enjoys greater freedoms and social services than other Palestinians, they do not receive a share of municipal services proportionate to their numbers. Arabs in East Jerusalem do have the right to vote in Palestinian elections.

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. They are believed to have direct knowledge of Israeli airman Ron Arad, thought to be held in Lebanon since his plane was shot down in 1986.

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 are not eligible for financial benefits--including scholarships and housing loans--available to Israelis who have served.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak testified before a public inquiry examining the circumstances surrounding the shooting deaths of 13 Arab Israeli citizens in October 2000, after police opened fire on demonstrators protesting in support of the Palestinian uprising.  Barak testified that he did not authorize police to use "any means" against the protestors, but the commission suggested Barak had not properly prepared police for rioting and did little to calm the situation. The commission had earlier warned Chief Police Superintendent Shmuel Mermelstein that he could face trial for positioning snipers in the protest areas without proper authority.

Continuing a recent trend, a handful of Israeli Arab citizens were linked to suicide bombings in 2002. Israelis were noticeably alarmed, fearing that Israel's substantial minority might represent a fifth column. In the summer the Interior Ministry proposed taking steps to establish a new policy that revokes citizenship from Arab Israelis charged with involvement in terrorism. The law does not apply to non-Arab Israelis.

Suspicion of Arab Israelis--and Arab citizens' feelings of discrimination--increased in October with the arrest of 11 Arab Israeli soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel, on charges of spying for Hezbollah. The officer allegedly provided intelligence on IDF troop positions on Israel's northern border in exchange for money and drugs.

In July, the cabinet supported a bill submitted by a religious right-wing Knesset member that would allocate state lands exclusively for Jewish residents. Critics called the bill racist and said it would deny non-Jews the right to live in certain parts of Israel. Supporters of the bill argued that it would grant Jews the right to live amongst themselves in secure areas. At the heart of the debate was Israel's perennial challenge of maintaining a state that is simultaneously Jewish and democratic. In response to the highly charged controversy, the cabinet agreed to oppose the bill until a public committee reviewed it and offered its recommendations.

Newspaper and magazine articles on security matters are subject to military censor, though the scope of permissible reporting is wide. 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.

In December the interior ministry ordered the closure of the radical Islamic weekly Sawt al-Haq wa Al-Hurriya, published by the radical wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Israel said the paper was a mouthpiece for Hamas.

Israel's Government Press Office, citing security concerns, did not renew credentials of several Palestinian journalists in 2002. Western news organizations--which rely heavily on Palestinian crews--and press freedom organizations demanded the accreditations be reinstated.

Publishing the praise of violence is prohibited under the Counterterrorism Ordinance. Israeli authorities prohibit expressions of support for groups that call for the destruction of Israel. An Arab Knesset member, Azmi Bishara, stood trial during the year for "voicing solidarity with a terrorist organization" after delivering a speech in Syria in 2001.

In December, the Israeli Election Commission disqualified Bishara and another Arab Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, for running for reelection over charges that they supported Palestinian violence against Israel. Both had appealed to the Supreme Court and were awaiting a ruling at year's end.

On several occasions during the year, journalists covering events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under gunfire by IDF troops. Italian freelance photographer Raffaele Ciriello was shot and killed in Ramallah in March. In some cases the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom groups 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.

The International Press Institute also criticized Israel for not allowing journalists access to some Palestinian towns and villages where the IDF was active. In August, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer apologized to an Israeli journalist shot at by IDF troops while driving in a West Bank military zone. The Israeli Government Press Office also denied press credentials to several Palestinian journalists working for international media organizations. Some Arab journalists traveling to Israel were denied entry visas.