Israeli-Occupied Territories * | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Israeli-Occupied Territories *

Israeli-Occupied Territories *

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In response to Palestinian terrorism in Israel and against Jewish settlers, Israel re-occupied several areas of the West Bank and Gaza, imposing strict curfews and blockades and besieging and destroying parts of Yasser Arafat's compound in an effort to force the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to clamp down on terrorism. Israel also staged several reprisal raids and carried out targeted killings in the aftermath of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. While these were targeted against militants, many civilians were inadvertently killed, leading to widespread international cen-sure of Israel. Israel also destroyed many Palestinian civil and military institutions and homes. Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, close to 2,000 Palestinians and more than 700 Israelis have been killed. International human rights groups accused Israel of war crimes. At the end of the year the United States put forward a "road map" for peace that calls for Palestinian crackdowns on terrorism and subsequent Israeli troop pullbacks. It envisions a Palestinian state by 2005. At the core of the plan is a call for Arafat's removal from power. 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.

After Palestinian rejection of a UN partition plan in 1947, Israel declared its independence on the portion of land allotted for Jewish settlement. The fledgling state was jointly attacked by neighboring Arab states in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. 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, the 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.

In what became known as the intifada, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza began attacking mainly targets of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1987 to protest Israeli rule. A series of secret negotiations between Israel and Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) conducted in Oslo, Norway, produced an agreement in September 1993. The Declaration of Principles provided for Israeli troop withdrawals and gradual Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.

Elections for the PA's first Legislative Council and for the head of the council's executive authority were held in January 1996 and were considered to be generally free and fair. Independents won 35 of the 88 council seats, while Arafat's Fatah movement won the remainder. Arafat won the chairmanship of the executive authority with 88 percent of the vote.

Most of Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho were turned over to the PA in May 1994. Following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist opposed to the peace process, Israel, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, began redeploying its forces in the West Bank and Gaza. After a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in early 1996, Peres lost a general election to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who ruled until 1999. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in May of that year and immediately pursued negotiations over the Golan Heights with Syria.

Intensive peace negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down in January 2000 over disagreements on final borders around the Golan Heights. A March summit between U.S. president Bill Clinton and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, designed to sound out the Syrian leader on his peace terms and jump-start negotiations with Israel, failed to produce any forward momentum. The key sticking point centered on which country should control a strip of shoreline along the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee, located below the western slopes of the Golan. The sea serves as Israel's primary freshwater source. Israel has agreed in principle to a return of all of the Golan in return for security guarantees. Prior to losing the Golan in 1967, Syria had used the territory to shell northern Israeli towns. With the death of Assad in June 2000, and the ascension to power of his relatively inexperienced son Bashar, the prospect of further talks appeared, at best, remote. Barak then pursued talks with the Palestinians, setting the Oslo peace process on a new course.

Under the provisions of Oslo implemented so far, the Palestinians have had full or partial control of 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank and 98 percent of the territory's Palestinian population. Israel has temporarily reentered and seized some Palestinian lands since the eruption of the second intifada.

At Camp David in July 2000, and at Taba, Egypt, at the end of that 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 more than 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 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.

In May 2001, a fact-finding commission headed by former U.S. senator George Mitchell issued a report on the crisis. Apportioning blame for the violence to both sides, the Mitchell Report called for a cessation of violence as an unconditional first step, to be followed by a series of confidence-building measures. These included a total freeze of Israeli settlement activity; a full and sincere effort by the PA in clamping down on terror; the use of nonlethal force by the IDF against Palestinian demonstrators; the prevention by the PA of attacks against Israelis from Palestinian areas; the lifting of border closures by Israel; and the resumption of PA cooperation with Israeli security agencies. The plan was never put into effect.

Violence continued to rage throughout the occupied territories in 2002. In response to successive waves of suicide bombings inside Israel and attacks on Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli forces staged several incursions into Palestinian-ruled territory, arresting many suspected militants. After a spate of suicide bombings in Israel in March that killed 80 civilians, the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield, re-occupying 7 of 8 major West Bank towns and placing them under 24-hour curfew. Israel in effect re-occupied most areas of the West Bank that had been under complete Palestinian control, known collectively as "Area A." In June, in the wake of a suicide bombing attack on a Jerusalem bus that killed 19 people, Israel announced it would hold Palestinian land for as long as terrorism continued.

The conflict in the territories resembled guerilla warfare as Palestinian tactics became more lethal. Successful attacks were carried out against Israeli tanks in the Gaza Strip, indicating a new sophistication among militants, perhaps garnered from Iranian training, some analysts suggested.

Israel killed several top Palestinian militia figures and radical Islamists suspected of committing or preparing attacks against Israel. Palestinians condemned Israel for the killings--often carried out by helicopter gunships or undercover units--and labeled them "assassinations." Israel also faced international criticism for what it termed "targeted killings." Israel justified the policy on the grounds that its repeated requests to the PA that it detain Palestinians suspected of planning or carrying out attacks had gone unheeded.

Israeli reprisal raids and targeted killings of Palestinian militants sometimes resulted in the deaths of numerous Palestinian civilians. Israel denied the deliberate targeting of civilians, asserting that Palestinian gunmen and other militants were deliberately positioning themselves among civilian populations, thus endangering them.

Israel faced intense international criticism for its handling of the Palestinian uprising. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations condemned Israel for using disproportionate lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators. Although the IDF disciplined some soldiers for apparent excessive use of force, Israeli human rights organizations criticized the army for not being more vigilant.

Israel seized thousands of documents they said implicated Arafat and the PA in the sponsorship of terror attacks against Israelis. Israeli forces repeatedly blockaded and bombarded Arafat's Ramallah compound in an attempt to force him to crack down on terrorism.

In April, Palestinian gunmen ambushed IDF troops searching for terror suspects in the West Bank town of Jenin, killing 13 soldiers. Ensuing battles over several days left 56 Palestinians dead, most of who were armed. While some innocent civilians died in the fighting, charges of wholesale Israeli massacre and war crimes were discredited by a UN inquiry. Reports conducted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International did criticize the IDF for using Palestinians as human shields during house-to-house searches.

In an attack against Salah Shehadeh, a commander of the radical group Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel, an Israeli F16 fighter jet dropped a one-ton bomb on a house in Gaza City in July. Shehadeh was killed, but 14 others, including 9 children, also died. The attack incurred international opprobrium; Israel acknowledged that flawed military intelligence had led to the devastating effects of the attack.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank have continued to grow since the signing of the Oslo accords. In 2002, settlers established scores of isolated outposts on land not yet allocated for settlements, a practice deemed illegal by the Israeli government. The government ordered the dismantling of several of those West Bank outposts during the year.

Substantive peace negotiations between the two sides did not take place during the year. In October the United States, in coordination with the EU, Russia, and the United Nations, distributed a draft "road map" plan that envisioned Palestinian statehood by 2005. The multi-stage, performance-based plan was premised on demonstrated Palestinian commitments to ending violence, to be followed by Israeli troop pullbacks and the easing of curfews and travel restrictions on Palestinians. It also called for a freeze of Israeli settlement activity. Progress toward these goals was conditioned on the PA's first implementing sweeping political and economic reforms and establishing an "empowered prime minister" who would ostensibly replace Arafat as lead Palestinian negotiator.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Palestinian residents of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem do not have the right to vote in national elections in Israel. After Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Arab residents there were given the option of obtaining Israeli citizenship. They do have the right to vote in municipal elections. Palestinians in the occupied territories chose their first popularly elected government in 1996. Despite some irregularities, international observers regarded the vote as reasonably reflective of the will of the voters.

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 total number. Arabs in East Jerusalem do have the right to vote in Palestinian elections.

Druze and Arabs in the Golan Heights, who were formerly under Syrian rule, possess similar status to Arab residents of East Jerusalem. They cannot vote in Israeli national elections but do have municipal representation.

Palestinians accused by Israel of security offenses in Israeli-controlled areas are tried in Israeli military courts. Security offenses are broadly defined. Some due process protections exist in these courts, though there are limits on the right to counsel, the right to bail, and the right to appeal. Administrative detention is widely used. Most convictions in Israeli military courts are based on confessions, which are often obtained through torture. Confessions are usually spoken in Arabic and translated into Hebrew for official records. Palestinian detainees are seldom able to read Hebrew and thus sign confessions that they cannot read.

Some Palestinian structures built without permits were destroyed during the year. Building permits are difficult for West Bank Palestinians to obtain.

Throughout the Palestinian uprising, Israel has destroyed many homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the grounds that they provided cover for gunmen and bombers. In August Israel's Supreme Court upheld the IDF's right to demolish homes of terror suspects without warning, arguing that prior warning would allow militants to booby-trap houses slated for demolition.

Violence between Palestinians and settlers is not uncommon. Several Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were ambushed and killed by Palestinian gunmen; some were targeted while traveling in cars or buses; others were attacked while in their homes or schools. In October, following a spate of attacks against settlers, Palestinians fled the village of Khirbat Yanun because of settler intimidation and violence. The villagers eventually returned with promises of IDF protection. Attacks by settlers against Palestinians also took place during the year. Jewish residents of Hebron carried out attacks against Palestinian residents following funerals for slain settlers.

International press freedom groups criticized Israel for barring journalists access to conflict zones in the West Bank. They also called upon the PA to cease harassment of journalists. In March, Italian freelance journalist Raffaele Ciriello was shot and killed by Israeli tank fire during a firefight with Palestinian militants in Ramallah. Other journalists were caught in crossfire while reporting from conflict zones at various times during the year. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in September that more than 40 journalists had been hit by gunfire since the beginning of the uprising.

All West Bank and Gaza residents must have identification cards in order to obtain entry permits into Israel and Jerusalem. Israel often denies permits to applicants with no explanation. Even senior Palestinian officials are subject to long delays and searches at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank.

The Israeli army maintained roadblocks throughout the West Bank in order to prevent terrorists from entering Israel. The measure denied Palestinians easy passage from one town to another, making access to jobs, hospitals, and schools extremely difficult. Restrictions of movement between and among Palestinian towns and cities were denounced as collective punishment. Israel exercises overall military control at border crossings between both the West Bank and Jordan and between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

The intifada has exacted a serious toll on the Palestinian economy. According to the International Labor Organization, unemployment in Palestinian areas was recorded at 43 percent late in the year. Economic output plunged as tens of thousands of Palestinians who normally work in Israel were denied entry into the country for most of the year.

In August, a study released by the U.S. Agency for International Development revealed that 53 percent of women and children in the West Bank and Gaza are malnourished and suffer from anemia.

Labor affairs in the West Bank and Gaza are governed by a combination of Jordanian law and PA decisions pending the enactment of new Palestinian labor codes. Workers may establish and join unions without governmental authorization. Palestinian workers seeking to strike must submit to arbitration by the PA Ministry of Labor. There are no laws in the PA-ruled areas to protect the rights of striking workers. Palestinian workers in Jerusalem are subject to Israeli labor law.

Israel generally recognizes the right to freedom of worship and religion. On several occasions during the renewed intifada, Israel restricted Muslim men under the age of 40 from praying on the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, for fear of violent confrontations. Palestinians have deliberately damaged Jewish shrines and other holy places in the West Bank.