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A sharp reduction in terrorist attacks in 2004 fostered a greater sense of public security among Israelis. The drop in attacks came with a price, however, as Israel became the target of intense international opprobrium, diplomatic isolation, and sanctions threats over its antiterror tactics, which included further construction of a West Bank security barrier and ongoing killings of Palestinian terror suspects. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a plan to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli armed forces from the Gaza Strip by 2005, causing a significant political shakeup; by the summer, Sharon was presiding over a minority government and was later fending off no-confidence motions and parliamentary revolts. Members of the Jewish Orthodox establishment appealed to Israeli soldiers to disobey settlement evacuation orders. Sharon spent much of the year engulfed in potentially destabilizing bribery and corruption scandals.
Israel was formed in 1948 from less than one-fifth of the original British Mandate of Palestine. 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, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip.
In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel came to occupy the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Syria had previously used the Golan to shell towns in northern Israel. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan Heights in 1981. It returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982 as part of a peace agreement between the two countries.
In 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led coalition government secured a breakthrough agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). 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, and for Palestinian recognition of Israel and a renunciation of terrorism. 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, in the fall and in early 2001, Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. president Bill Clinton engaged the Palestinian leadership in the most far-reaching negotiations ever. The Palestinian leadership ultimately rejected the Israeli offers, leading some analysts to suggest that Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, was not satisfied that Palestinian territory in the West Bank would be contiguous or that Israel would recognize a "right of return" allowing Palestinian refugees to live in Israel. Following a controversial visit by then Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000, the Palestinians launched an armed uprising, effectively ending the peace process.
Sharon, first elected in 2001, was reelected in national elections in January 2003, against a backdrop of continuing Palestinian violence in Israel, characterized mainly by devastating suicide bombings in buses, cafes, restaurants, bars, and marketplaces.
While Palestinian suicide bombers succeeded in carrying out some attacks in 2004, terrorist strikes inside Israel declined markedly, which allowed for unusual stretches of calm and a return to relative normality for Israeli citizens. Israeli intelligence operations, combined with the construction of a security barrier in the West Bank and targeted killings of suspected Palestinian terrorist operatives and leaders, helped reduce the overall level of terrorism inside Israel. According to the Israeli security establishment, nearly three-quarters of suicide bombers were intercepted before reaching their targets. A twin suicide bombing in August aboard buses in the southern city of Beersheba killed 16 people. The attack's success was attributed to the incomplete section of the security barrier along the southern edge of the West Bank, from where the bombers were thought to have originated.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip launched increasing numbers of crude, short-range Qassam rockets into Israel. Most rockets struck the town of Sderot, where three people were killed, including two children. Israeli officials voiced fears that Qassams might eventually be fired from the West Bank, where the largely inaccurate rockets would be within ideal firing range of dense Israeli population centers.
Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) retaliated for many terrorist attacks throughout the year. The IDF carried out targeted killings of terrorist suspects in the West Bank and Gaza, where it also staged air strikes, demolished private homes, and imposed curfews. The United States and many other countries, along with the United Nations, criticized Israel over its tactics and for the deaths of innocent Palestinians during antiterror operations.
Sharon weathered political storms throughout the year, brought on primarily by his announced plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza. In June, two right-wing members of Sharon's cabinet resigned over the plan, reducing the government to a minority coalition composed of 59 of 120 Knesset (parliament) seats. The resignations followed the dismissals of seven other cabinet officers opposed to the Gaza pullout plan. Likud Party members also voted in a nonbinding poll to reject the plan, setting the stage for a contentious debate over the withdrawal proposal. According to polls, at least two-thirds of Israelis back the plan, but it was strenuously opposed by some in the settler community and among the right-wing establishment. Some members of the Orthodox community publicly urged soldiers to disobey evacuation orders. This tactic elicited sharp denunciations from political and military leaders, distressed over the apparent undermining of Israel's democracy by segments of the religious establishment. Sharon prevailed at the end of October, when the Knesset voted to approve the Gaza withdrawal plan by a vote of 67-45.
Tensions remained high along Israel's northern border with Lebanon during the year. In January, Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group backed by Iran and Syria and based in southern Lebanon, fired across the border at an Israeli soldier clearing mines, killing him. Hezbollah reportedly has taken delivery of rockets capable of striking Israeli population and industrial centers. The group has in the past attacked Israeli positions patrolling near the Shebba Farms area. Hezbollah considers the area occupied Lebanese territory, despite UN confirmation in June 2000 that Israel had withdrawn fully from a "security zone" in southern Lebanon it had occupied for 18 years. Israel had held the zone to protect its northern flank from attacks, which included repeated Hezbollah rocketing of Israeli towns and farms.
In January, Israel conducted a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, releasing more than two dozen Lebanese and Arab prisoners and 400 Palestinian prisoners. Hezbollah released an Israeli businessman kidnapped in 2000 and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. The soldiers had gone missing near the border with Lebanon in October 2000. Hezbollah is still believed to be holding or at least have information about missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, thought to be held in Lebanon or Iran since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
The Israeli economy, especially its tourism sector, rebounded slightly during the year as terrorist attacks abated.
Israeli citizens can change their government democratically. Although Israel has no formal constitution, a series of basic laws has the force of constitutional principles. A largely ceremonial president serves as chief of state while the prime minister, appointed by his or her party, serves as head of government. The unicameral Knesset (parliament) is composed of 120 seats and members are elected by popular vote for four-year terms. Israel features a wide range of political parties.
Arab residents of East Jerusalem, while not granted automatic citizenship, were issued Israeli identity cards after the 1967 Six-Day War. However, by law, Israel strips Arabs of their Jerusalem residency if they remain outside the city for more than three months. Arab residents have the same rights as 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 solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and because they believe East Jerusalem should be the capital of an independent Palestinian state. East Jerusalem's Arab population does not receive a share of municipal services proportionate to its numbers. Arabs in East Jerusalem do have the right to vote in Palestinian Authority elections.
Israel was ranked 26 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Sharon was cleared of involvement in a bribery and corruption scandal that emerged early in the year. Sharon and his son Gilad, were allegedly bribed by an Israeli businessman seeking Greek government approval to develop property on a Greek island. While Israel's state prosecutor recommended in March that Sharon be indicted, the attorney general dropped the case in June out of lack of evidence.
Press freedom is respected in Israel. While media reports on security matters are subject to a military censor, the scope of permissible reporting is wide. Editors may appeal a censorship decision to a three-member tribunal that includes two civilians. Publishing the praise of violence is prohibited under the Counter-terrorism Ordinance. Israeli authorities prohibit expressions of support for groups that call for the destruction of Israel.
Arabic-language publications are censored more frequently than are Hebrew-language ones. Newspapers are privately owned and freely criticize government policy. Internet access is widespread and unrestricted. In March, the Organization of Arab Journalists in Israel called for the creation of an Arabic-language television channel, claiming that Israel's Arab community is underserved by the national media.
In May, Israeli police arrested British journalist Peter Hounam who allegedly violated a court order barring interviews of Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli citizen released from jail in April after serving an 18-year sentence for spying and discussing Israel's reputed nuclear capability. Hounam was freed shortly after his arrest. In August, the Supreme Court denied a government appeal to uphold a ban on granting Palestinians Israeli press credentials. Israel's Government Press Office earlier ceased issuing press cards to Palestinians on security grounds; the government claimed some Palestinians posing as journalists used the cards to gain entry into Israel to carry out or abet terrorist attacks. In September, Israel deported a British freelance journalist who had been prevented from entering the country because of her political activities with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group sympathetic to Palestinians. According to Israel, ISM members obstruct Israeli operations in the West Bank and Gaza strip, endangering themselves and others.
Freedom of religion is respected. Christian, Muslim, and Baha'i communities have jurisdiction over their own members in matters of marriage, burial, and divorce. In the Jewish community, the Orthodox establishment generally handles these matters. As a result, the law does not allow civil marriages, which prevents Jews and non-Jews from marrying. Many Israelis choose to marry in civil ceremonies outside the country, rather than submit to a religious ceremony. In February 2002, the Supreme Court for the first time formally recognized Jewish conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel. While the ruling allows those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis to be listed as Jews in the official population registry, the Orthodox establishment can still refuse services - such as weddings - to Reform and Conservative converts.
In 2003, the Sharon cabinet disbanded the Religious Affairs Ministry, effectively putting rabbinic courts under the control of the Justice Ministry. The decision cleared the way for increased allocations of state resources to non-Orthodox religious institutions, including those attached to the Reform and Conservative movements. The move was seen as a further erosion of the Orthodox monopoly on Israel's religious affairs.
Freedom of assembly and association is respected. Israel features a vibrant civic society that includes a diverse array of nongovernmental organizations. Demonstrations, including those outside government buildings and the official residence of the prime minister, are permitted. Demonstrations by Jewish protestors in or near the West Bank are sometimes treated differently, and usually draw a greater security force. In December, Israeli troops fired on Israeli demonstrators protesting at a section of the West Bank security barrier, wounding one person in the leg. In September a state prosecutor opened a criminal investigation into a right-wing activist thought to have caused incitement by making threatening remarks towards Sharon.
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 (the national labor union) or are covered under its social programs and collective bargaining agreements. Foreign workers in the country legally enjoy wage protections, medical insurance, and guarantees against employer exploitation. Illegal workers are often at the mercy of employers, and many are exploited.
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. In September, thousands of Palestinian prisoners staged an 18-day hunger strike to protest prison conditions. Israel insisted conditions were satisfactory and that the prisoners were demanding extra privileges such as telephone calls, which Israel was refusing. There are approximately 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.
While extended full political rights, some one million Arab citizens of Israel (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.
In 2003, an independent commission issued its findings of a public inquiry into the shooting deaths of 13 Arab Israelis by police in October 2000. The police opened fire on rioters demonstrating in support of the Palestinian uprising. The report identified discrimination against Israel's Arab minority as the primary cause of the riots and led to the initiation of criminal investigations of several of the police officers who had opened fire, labeling them "prejudiced." While the 800-plus-page report was criticized by some for not going far enough - and by others for excusing Arab violence - it was generally regarded as an important breakthrough in addressing the social and economic disparities between Jewish and Arab Israelis. In January 2004, Sharon declared that every state-run company must have at least one Arab-Israeli on its board of directors. Salah Tarif, an Arab-Israeli, is a member of Sharon's cabinet. An Arab-Israeli judge also sits on the Supreme Court.
Some Israeli analysts, including supporters of Arab minority rights, cautioned against the radicalization of segments of Israel's Arab population and of Arab residents of East Jerusalem. Several Arab-Israelis and East Jerusalem residents were arrested in 2004 for involvement in terrorism.
While the state protects wide personal autonomy, the Law of Citizenship, passed in 2003, bars citizenship to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Arab-Israelis. The law, extended for six months in July 2004, would ostensibly lead to the separation of families or to their relocation from Israel. As the law is not retroactive, it does not affect Palestinians previously granted citizenship. Some human rights groups characterized the law as racist. Israel maintained the law was necessary because some Palestinians have opportunistically married Arab citizens of Israel so they can move to the country to more easily carry out terrorist attacks or to slowly shift the demographic reality in their favor.
Most Bedouin housing settlements are not recognized by the government and are not provided with basic infrastructure and essential services.
Freedom of movement is sometimes affected by security alerts and emergency measures that can subject Israelis to delays at roadblocks and public places. Israeli security forces and police sometimes carry out random, spot identity checks of civilians. By law, all citizens must carry national identification cards.
Women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society. Women are somewhat underrepresented in public affairs; 18 women sit in the 120-seat Knesset. In the May 1999 election, an Arab-Israeli woman, Husaina Jabara, was elected to the Knesset for the first time. Arab women citizens and residents face some societal pressures and traditions that negatively affect their professional, political, and social lives. The trafficking of women for prostitution has become a problem in recent years.