Freedom in the World
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Israeli-Occupied Territories *
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The Israeli-Occupied Territories received a downward trend arrow due to an apparent increase in civilian deaths during IDF incursions, and arrests and indictments of some soldiers and border police for abuse of Palestinian civilians.
With the internationally backed "road map" to peace effectively in tatters and violence continuing, Israel in 2004 laid the groundwork for a unilateral disengagement of its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Israel continued construction of a security barrier in the West Bank, eliciting international condemnation. Israel maintained security roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza and carried out several armed operations against terrorist suspects. Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Yasser Arafat remained confined to his Ramallah compound until he fell ill; he died in November. Extensive and repeated raids in Gaza killed many militants and, in several cases, civilians. Several Israeli troops were arrested during the year for alleged mistreatment of Palestinians, including one for the unlawful killing of a teenage girl in Gaza.
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, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel came to occupy the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Golan Heights had been used by Syria to shell northern Israeli communities.
After 1967, Israel began establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an action regarded as illegal by most of the international community. Israel maintains that these settlements are legal since under international law the West Bank and Gaza are in dispute, with their final legal status to be determined through direct bilateral negotiations based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. The settlements have become a major sticking point in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and in relations between Israel and the international community. The PA- and U.S.-backed road map demands a freeze on settlements, a condition that Israel did not honor in 2004.
In what became known as the intifada (uprising), Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza began attacking mainly settlers and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops in 1987 to protest Israeli rule. A series of secret negotiations between Israel and Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) conducted mainly in Oslo, Norway, produced an agreement in September 1993. The Declaration of Principles provided for a PLO renunciation of terrorism, PLO recognition of Israel, Israeli troop withdrawals, and gradual Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.
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 from six major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Under the Oslo provisions implemented so far, the Palestinians have had full or partial control of up to 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank and 98 percent of the Palestinian population. However, Palestinian jurisdiction eroded considerably after the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000, with the IDF temporarily reentering areas under PA control.
At the U.S. presidential retreat, Camp David, in July 2000 and at Taba, Egypt, in the fall and in early 2001, Israeli and Palestinian leaders engaged in negotiations under U.S. sponsorship. For the first time, Israel discussed compromise solutions on Jerusalem, agreeing to some form of Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City. Israel also offered all of the Gaza Strip and more than 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership rejected the Israeli proposals. Some analysts suggested that Arafat was not confident that Israeli offers guaranteed contiguity of Palestinian territory in the West Bank or that Israel would recognize a "right of return," allowing Palestinian refugees to live in Israel.
After the collapse of the talks, the Palestinians launched an armed uprising, and violence continued throughout the occupied territories in 2004. Insisting that the PA was not preventing terrorism, Israel responded to successive waves of Palestinian suicide bombings by staging incursions into Palestinian-ruled territory, destroying weapons factories, and killing several members of radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as members of the secular Tanzim and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, both offshoots of Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement. No longer distinguishing between militants and political leaders of the groups, Israel assassinated Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March and Abdel Aziz Rantisi in April in helicopter strikes in Gaza.
The IDF staged several raids into the Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from there into Israel. Israeli troops also tried to destroy arms-smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza, killing civilians and razing many Palestinian homes and farming groves in the process; militants often operate in civilian areas and dig smuggling tunnels directly into private homes. In October, IDF forces staged Operation Days of Repentance, a 17-day mission in Gaza carried out to prevent rocket attacks against Israeli cities. At least 110 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, about half of whom were civilians, according to media reports. Israel denied the deliberate targeting of civilians, asserting that Palestinian gunmen and other militants were intentionally positioning themselves among civilian Palestinians, thus endangering them.
Israel and the PA took no meaningful steps during the year toward implementing a road map to peace put forward in April 2003 by the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union (EU). The multistage, performance-based plan demands concrete Palestinian moves against terrorist groups, to be followed by Israeli troop pullbacks and relaxation of curfews and travel restrictions. The plan also called for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
While attacks against Israel markedly decreased, isolated attacks, including suicide bombings, did take place. The PA continued to refuse to dismantle the terrorist groups.
Israel continued construction of a controversial security fence roughly along the West Bank side of the 1967 armistice line. Composed of high-wire fencing, ditches, security sensors, watchtowers, and in some parts concrete slabs, the fence is designed to prevent terrorists from infiltrating Israel. In some areas, the fence juts farther east into the West Bank and restricts access to farming fields, schools, and jobs. For the most part, however, the fence is roughly close to the 1967 armistice line (Green Line). Paradoxically, some media reports noted that the security fence provided a return to relative normalcy for some Palestinian communities; city officials in the West Bank town of Jenin reported a greater sense of security with fewer IDF incursions and increased commerce as a result of the barrier's construction. However, the barrier is seen by Palestinians as a means to expropriate West Bank land and collectively punish ordinary Palestinians for acts committed by terrorists. In July, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the security fence was illegal and that it should be dismantled. While Israel ignored the ruling, in August it re-routed a section of the fence after the country's high court ruled that the barrier cut off some Palestinian villagers from their land. The court issued its order after receiving a petition filed by Palestinians. Israel insists the fence is a temporary solution to an ongoing terrorist threat, not a permanent border.
During the year, in partial accordance with the road map, Israel dismantled some illegal West Bank settlement outposts built without permits. Outposts normally consist of a handful of trailer homes placed mainly by religious Jews on uninhabited land. However, new outposts reappeared shortly after others were dismantled. In late January, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon presented an initiative to withdraw Jewish settlements and Israeli troops from Gaza. The plan was not devised in conjunction with the Palestinians and was premised on being carried out unilaterally. It also included the dismantlement of four West Bank settlements. Palestinians voiced concern that the plan was part of a larger permanent settlement envisioned by Israel that would be imposed unilaterally and would stop short of a larger Israeli pullout from the West Bank.
In April, U.S. president George W. Bush publicly acknowledged that some large West Bank settlements would remain intact as part of a final status resolution to the conflict, particularly heavily populated settlements close to the 1967 Green Line. Bush also rejected the right of Palestinian refugees to return to ancestral areas within Israel. Palestinians reacted very negatively to Bush's announcement. In August, the Israeli government issued tenders for 1,000 new housing units in existing West Bank settlements. The announcement came after the United States signaled that it would accept construction to accommodate the natural growth of settlement communities, but not entirely new settlements.
Israel confined Yasser Arafat to his Ramallah compound in 2003 and continued to do so throughout 2004. When he fell ill in early November he was permitted to fly to Paris for medical treatment. After Arafat's death on November 11, Sharon hinted that the Gaza plan could be implemented bilaterally.
Substantive peace talks between Israel and Syria, which in the past have centered on the status of the Golan Heights, did not take place during the year.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot vote in Israeli elections, as they are not citizens of Israel. They are permitted to vote in elections organized by the Palestinian Authority. Preparations for municipal and presidential elections began in mid-November, following Arafat's death, and voter registration was carried out smoothly.
After Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Arab residents there were issued Israeli identity cards and given the option of obtaining Israeli citizenship. However, by law, Israel strips Arabs of their Jerusalem residency if they remain outside the city for more than three months. Arab residents of East Jerusalem who do not choose Israeli citizenship have the same rights as Israeli citizens except the right to vote in national elections (they can vote in municipal elections). Many choose not to seek citizenship out of solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, believing 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 have the right to vote in Palestinian Authority 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 they are represented at municipal levels.
International press freedom groups regularly criticize Israel for preventing journalists from accessing conflict zones in the West Bank and Gaza, harming and sometimes killing them during armed battles, and harassing Palestinian journalists. Israel has long denied that it deliberately targets journalists and insists that reporters covering armed conflict in the West Bank and Gaza are in danger of getting caught in crossfire.
Early in the year, British photojournalist Tom Hurndall died after suffering a gunshot shot in the head by IDF troops as they battled gunmen in the West Bank. In March, IDF troops operating in the West Bank town of Jenin shot a Palestinian photographer covering clashes there. In May, an Agence-France Press photographer was shot in the leg while covering confrontations between Palestinians and IDF troops in Gaza. In June, the nongovernmental organization Reporters Sans Frontieres lodged a complaint with Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz alleging a pattern of harassment of journalists by IDF troops that included soldiers shooting at journalists with tear gas and detaining and threatening them. Also in June, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a Gaza City building housing local and international media offices, causing some injuries. The IDF said the building was used by Hamas to communicate with terrorists and distribute incitement material.
Israel generally recognizes the right to freedom of worship and religion. On several occasions during the intifada, Israel has restricted Muslim men under 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.
While academic freedom is generally respected, IDF closures, curfews, and the West Bank security barrier restrict access to Palestinian academic institutions. Israeli authorities have at times shut universities and schools have been damaged during military operations. Throughout the intifada, schoolchildren have periodically been injured or killed during fighting.
Freedom of assembly is generally respected. However, Israel has imposed strict curfews in the West Bank at various times since September 2000. In December 2003, Israeli troops, reportedly fearing their lives were in danger, shot at demonstrators on the West Bank side of Israel's security fence.
There are many Palestinian nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, whose activities are generally not restricted by Israel. Labor affairs in the West Bank and Gaza are governed by a combination of Jordanian law and PA decisions. Workers may establish and join unions without government authorization. Palestinian workers in Jerusalem are subject to Israeli labor law.
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 rights to counsel, bail, and appeal. Administrative detention is widely used. Most convictions in Israeli military courts are based on confessions, sometimes obtained through physical pressure. In 2000, Israel outlawed the use of torture as a means of extracting security information, but milder forms of physical coercion are permissible in cases where the prisoner is believed to have immediate information about impending terrorist attacks. Human rights groups still criticize Israel for engaging in what they consider torture. Confessions are usually spoken in Arabic and translated into Hebrew for official records.
Israel holds approximately 7,000 Palestinians in jail. Many, suspected of involvement in terrorism, are held in administrative detention without charge or trial. Approximately 2,500 Palestinians were detained in 2004. In January, Israel released several hundred Palestinian prisoners as part of a swap with the radical Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, which released one Israeli hostage and the remains of three Israeli soldiers. In September, Israel released an additional 160 prisoners.
While Palestinians have recourse to Israel's highest civilian courts to protest home demolitions and Israel's tactics in carrying out targeted assassinations, decisions made in their favor are rare.
Several Israeli soldiers were arrested in 2004 for allegedly abusing and beating Palestinian civilians. In October, an IDF commander was arrested for the wrongful death of a 13-year-old girl in Gaza. According to the army, soldiers shot and wounded the girl as she walked in a restricted area carrying what was thought to be a bag of explosives. Carrying only books, the girl was again shot repeatedly by the IDF commander after he approached her. Although the IDF has disciplined some soldiers for apparent excessive use of force, Israeli human rights organizations have criticized the army for not being more vigilant in ensuring effective prosecution.
During the year, Israel continued its controversial policy of destroying the homes of families of suicide bombers, claiming that the policy serves as a deterrent. Throughout the Palestinian uprising, Israel has also destroyed many homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the grounds that they provide cover for gunmen and bombers. Additionally, Israel has destroyed some Palestinian structures built without permits, especially in East Jerusalem.
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 or attacked with mortar fire in 2004. Attacks by settlers against Palestinians also occasionally take place. In September, a Jewish settler in the West Bank who said he shot dead a Palestinian in self-defense was placed under house arrest.
Israel at times severely restricts freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli army maintained roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank and Gaza in 2004 to prevent terrorists from entering Israel. The security measures denied Palestinians easy passage from one town to another, making access to jobs, hospitals, and schools extremely difficult. Even senior Palestinian officials are subject to long delays and searches at Israeli checkpoints. The restrictions of movement between and among Palestinian towns and cities have been denounced as collective punishment. Travel for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza is extremely difficult. Israel exercises overall military control at border crossings between the West Bank and Jordan and between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Construction of Israel's security barrier has also disconnected many Palestinians from their farming fields and has denied them and others easier access to other parts of the West Bank. All West Bank and Gaza residents must have identification cards in order to obtain entry permits into Israel, including East Jerusalem. Israel often denies permits to applicants with no explanation.
The Palestinian economy has been seriously affected by the intifida and the Israeli closures of the West Bank and Gaza; thousands of Palestinians rely on access to jobs in Israel. At various times during the year, Israel permitted several thousand Palestinian workers to enter the country, but not the nearly 200,000 who regularly crossed daily into Israel before the intifada. In November, the World Bank reported that nearly half the Palestinian population was living on less than two dollars per day.
While Palestinian women are underrepresented in most professions and encounter discrimination in employment, they do have full entry access to universities and to many professions. Although Israel's occupation restricts the rights of women, Palestinian personal status law, derived in part from Sharia (Islamic law), puts women at a disadvantage in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Rape, domestic abuse, and "honor killings," in which unmarried women who are raped or who engage in premarital sex are murdered by a relative, are not uncommon. Since societal pressures prevent reporting of such incidents, the exact frequency of attacks is unknown. According to media reports, an average of one honor killing a week takes place in the West Bank and Gaza. These murders often go unpunished, or perpetrators serve extremely short prison sentences.