Israel | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Israel's civil liberties ratings improved from 3 to 2 due to a marked decrease in terrorist attacks in 2005, as well as a surge of civic activism surrounding the country's "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip.

Note: The numerical rating and status reflect the state of political rights and civil liberties within Israel itself. Separate reports examine political rights and civil liberties in the Israeli-occupied territories and in the Palestinian administered areas.


The year 2005 saw a continued and substantial reduction in terrorist attacks in Israel, resulting in greater security and freedom of movement. The year was dominated by Israel's "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip-including the withdrawal of all Jewish settlers and Israeli armed forces from the territory-and a slew of related political developments that led to the dissolution of parliament and the scheduling of general elections for 2006. The withdrawal, conducted in August and September, was preceded by large-scale demonstrations by both opponents and supporters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to abandon all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank.

Israel was formed in 1948 from less than one-fifth of the original British Mandate of Palestine; the mandate was assigned to Britain by the League of Nations following the defeat of Palestine's previous rulers, the Ottoman Empire, in World War I. The British relinquished control of Palestine (separated in 1921 from the territory of Transjordan) to the United Nations in 1947; a UN partition plan dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state was rejected by the Arab Higher Committee and the Arab League. Following Israel's 1948 declaration of independence, Israel was attacked by a coalition of Arab states. While Israel maintained its sovereignty and expanded its borders, Transjordan seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip.

As a result of Israel's 1967 Six-Day War with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, 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, United States, 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, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, was not satisfied that Palestinian territory in the West Bank would be contiguous or would not accept Israel's refusal to recognize a comprehensive "right of return" allowing Palestinian refugees to live in Israel. Following the breakdown of negotiations and a controversial visit by Ariel Sharon, then Likud Party leader, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000, the Palestinians launched an armed uprising, effectively ending the peace process.

Sharon, campaigning on his ability to bring security to Israel, defeated Barak in prime ministerial elections in 2001. He 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, cafés, restaurants, bars, and marketplaces. In March 2002, after a series of particularly devastating attacks, the government launched Operation Defensive Shield, re-occupying many of the areas in the West Bank ceded to the Palestinian Authority during the Oslo peace process. Israel also began the construction of a controversial security barrier roughly along the West Bank side of the 1967 armistice line (Green Line).

Following the death of Arafat in November 2004, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), a moderate PLO leader, was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in January 2005. The following month, Abbas and Sharon met in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt and declared-though did not sign-a formal truce; Abbas had previously coordinated a tahida (declared calm) among some Palestinian militant groups, and Sharon vowed to refrain from attacking these groups in exchange for a halt in Palestinian attacks. The agreement did lead to a general decline in violence, but did not halt it. Nevertheless, the truce, along with the continued construction of the security barrier in the West Bank, Israeli intelligence operations, and targeted killings of suspected Palestinian terrorist operatives and leaders, helped reduce the overall level of terrorism inside Israel in 2005, continuing a trend from 2004. The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, continued to carry out targeted killings of terrorist suspects in the West Bank and Gaza, in addition to staging air strikes, demolishing private homes, and imposing curfews. The United States, the European Union, and many other countries, along with the United Nations, criticized Israel for its tactics and for the deaths of innocent Palestinians during antiterror operations.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the year saw a slight decrease in the number of warnings of attacks and a more substantial decrease in the number of attacks and related casualties in Israel. Still, a number of terrorist attacks were perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists in 2005, including a shooting attack on the Israeli side of the Karni crossing station between Israel and Gaza, killing 6 civilians and wounding another 5; a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub, killing 5 people and wounding 50; a suicide bombing at a mall in Netanya, killing 5 and wounding 90; a suicide bombing at the Beersheba bus station, injuring at least 10 people; and a suicide bombing at a market in Hadera, killing 6 and wounding 55 people. In addition, in August, a Jewish terrorist (and discharged IDF soldier) killed 4 Israeli Arabs and wounded 12 on a bus near Shfaram. Also, as in 2004, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip launched increasing numbers of crude, short-range Qassam rockets into Israel.

In September 2005, Israel completed its unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements. In the Gaza Strip, all Israeli civilians and military personnel were removed from the territory by the IDF. The plan's implementation was preceded by a vigorous public debate and a slew of political maneuverings. While polls showed that at least two-thirds of Israelis favored Sharon's plan, public opposition was significant. Following Sharon's announcement of his disengagement plan in 2004, opponents began a mostly nonviolent campaign-led by leaders of the settler movement and religious Zionist political parties-to stop the withdrawals.

After the resignation or dismissal of several of Sharon's cabinet ministers over their opposition to the plan left the prime minister without a majority coalition in the Knesset, the opposition Labor Party, led by elder statesmen Shimon Peres, agreed to join Sharon's ruling Likud Party in a national unity government in December 2004. The following month, the IDF dismissed six high-ranking officers who had called on soldiers to disobey impending orders to evacuate Gaza. In March 2005, members of parliament opposed to the plan-many from within Likud-tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill mandating a public referendum on the withdrawals; the Knesset had approved the disengagement plan in October 2004. Amid increasing protests by its opponents, in June the Israeli Supreme Court declared the disengagement plan legal, rejecting an appeal by a group of Gaza settlers that the plan violated their civil rights and removing the final legal obstacle to the execution of the plan.

The implementation of the disengagement plan, however, did not stop further developments within Israel's dynamic political arena. In late September, Binyamin Netanyahu-a former prime minister, Likud leader, and disengagement opponent who had resigned his post as finance minister in August-led an attempt to force a leadership poll within the Likud Central Committee; the motion was narrowly defeated, 51 to 49 percent. In November, trade unionist Amir Peretz defeated Peres in an intraparty election for head of the Labor Party. Citing his opposition to the Sharon government's liberal economic policies, Peretz withdrew Labor from the governing coalition later that month and called for early elections. Also in November, Sharon shocked the political establishment by announcing he was leaving the right-wing Likud Party, which he helped found in 1973, and forming a new, centrist political party (later named Kadima). Sharon cited opposition within the Likud Party to his policies, as well as his overarching goal of achieving a lasting peace settlement with the Palestinians, as the primary reasons for his departure from Likud. The following day, President Moshe Katsav announced the dissolution of the Knesset and set parliamentary elections for March 2006.

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. 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; the distribution of seats among Israel's wide range of political parties is determined by a system of proportional representation. Parties or candidates that deny the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, those that oppose the democratic system, or those that incite racism, are prohibited.

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. Under the 1948 Law of Return, all Jewish immigrants and their immediate family are granted Israeli citizenship and residency rights; other immigrants must apply for these same rights.

Israel was ranked 28 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2005, Israeli police launched an investigation into an alleged money laundering scandal at the country's largest commercial bank, Bank Hapoalim, leading to the arrest of 25 employees and the freezing of $375 million in funds. In August, Omri Sharon-a Likud member of Knesset and the son of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon-was indicted on corruption charges stemming from allegations of improper funding of his father's 1999 prime ministerial run. After his parliamentary immunity was lifted in July, Sharon was convicted in November of falsifying corporate documents and giving false testimony. According to Kol Yisrael radio, 11 members of Knesset were involved in criminal proceedings in November 2005.

Press freedom is respected in Israel, and the country features a vibrant and independent media landscape. All Israeli newspapers are privately owned and freely criticize government policy. The Israel Broadcasting Authority operates public radio and television services, and commercial television networks and radio stations are widely available. Most Israelis subscribe to cable or satellite television; internet access is widespread and unrestricted. While newspaper and magazine articles on security matters are subject to a military censor, the scope of permissible reporting is wide and there is a broad range of published material. In March 2005, the daily Ha'aretz and the Channel 2 television station were both made to apologize for failing to submit to the censor reports on the sale of military technology to China. That same month, BBC News similarly apologized to the government for not submitting for review an interview with Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli citizen imprisoned for 18 years for committing espionage and disclosing information about Israel's nuclear weapons program; the government demanded the apology before renewing the visa of the BBC Jerusalem deputy bureau chief. Vanunu's release from prison in 2004 was conditioned on a series of restrictions on his speech and movement; the government warned Vanunu he would be brought to trial if he continued to speak to foreign media, among other prohibitions.

Journalists are occasionally subject to official restrictions. However, the independent judiciary and an active civil society adequately protect the free media. In 2004, the Supreme Court denied a government appeal to uphold a ban on granting press credentials to Palestinians. Israel's Government Press Office (GPO) had 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 July 2005, pressure from press and civil rights groups led the GPO to reinstate the credentials of Yishai Carmeli-Polak, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who is a highly critical reporter of government policies.

While the basic laws and the Declaration of Independence declare Israel a "Jewish and democratic state," 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 addition, Orthodox definitions of Jewish identity are used to determine if immigrants are eligible for the citizenship and residency rights awarded to Jews under the Law of Return. However, recent years have seen a steady erosion of the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs. In 2004, the Sharon cabinet disbanded the Religious Affairs Ministry, effectively putting rabbinic courts under the control of the Justice Ministry and freeing up state resources to be allocated to non-Orthodox religious institutions. In March 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the state must recognize as Jews people who undergo non-Orthodox conversions begun in Israel but formalized abroad; previously, only non-Orthodox conversions conducted entirely abroad were recognized. Muslim and Christian communities accuse the government of discrimination in resource allocation and upkeep of religious sites. In November, the government objected to the swearing in of Theophilus III as the Jerusalem patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church because it had not recognized him as such; the ceremony proceeded without disturbance.

Freedom of assembly and association are respected. Israel features a vibrant civic society that includes a diverse array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and demonstrations are widely permitted. In the run-up to the implementation of the disengagement plan, both opponents and supporters of the plan staged large demonstrations. While most of the demonstrations were nonviolent, others employed more violent tactics. In April through June of 2005, antidisengagement protestors blocked highways across Israel by setting up roadblocks, burning materials, and dousing roads with oil and nails; in April, protestors forcibly locked schools and nurseries across Tel Aviv. In July, about 10,000 opponents of disengagement gathered outside a village near the Gaza Strip, intending to march into the territory and disrupt the evacuation of settlements; after three days and repeated clashes with police-who prevented the protestors from marching to Gaza-the demonstration ended. In August, 25,000 to 50,000 Israelis demonstrated in the border town of Sderot, which has been the most frequent target of Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. Hundreds of demonstrators were detained-and several indicted for endangering lives- during antidisengagement protests. Media attention focused on the cases of seven young girls detained for more than three weeks because of their refusal to sign a pledge not to participate in "illegal demonstrations."

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. Beginning in November 2004, more than 100 workers at the Beersheva transportation company Metrodan struck for almost 150 days, the country's longest strike. Foreign workers in the country legally enjoy wage protections, medical insurance, and guarantees against employer exploitation. However, foreign workers who leave their original employers are shorn of these rights, considered illegal, and subject to deportation. Illegal workers are often at the mercy of employers, and many are exploited.

The judiciary is independent and regularly rules against the government. In February, Attorney General Meni Mazuz ordered the government to cease implementing the 1950 Absentee Property Law, which allowed the government to claim Arab-owned land in East Jerusalem from absentee landlords without compensation. In September, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the government must reroute part of the security barrier near the West Bank town of Qalqilya in order to reduce the barrier's impact on Palestinian villagers, the second such ruling in as many years. Security trials 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; there are approximately 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. In 2005, there were credible reports that Palestinian detainees were subject to abuse and torture in Israeli jails.

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." In September 2005, a Justice Ministry probe decided not to prosecute any policemen or officers involved in the October 2000 shootings, citing insufficient evidence; the decision was condemned by Israeli human rights and Arab rights organizations.

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. Arab-Israelis 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 January 2004, Sharon declared that every state-run company must have at least one Arab-Israeli on its board of directors. Before being convicted of corruption, Salah Tarif, an Arab-Israeli, was a member of Sharon's cabinet. Thirteen members of the Knesset are Arab-Israeli, most representing majority Arab political parties. 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. In March, Ashraf Qaisi was charged with murder for assisting and conspiring with the perpetrator of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing.

The state generally protects wide personal autonomy. However, 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 2005, 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 that the law was necessary because some Palestinians have opportunistically married Arab citizens of Israel so that they can move to the country to more easily carry out terrorist attacks or to slowly shift the demographic reality in their favor. At year's end, the Supreme Court was considering petitions by NGOs to have the law declared illegal. 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. The security fence restricts freedom of movement for some East Jerusalem residents. Upon his 2004 release, Mordechai Vanunu was subject to extensive travel restrictions.

Women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society. Women are somewhat underrepresented in public affairs; 18 women sit in the 120seat Knesset. In the May 1999 election, an Arab-Israeli woman, Husaina Jabara, was elected to the Knesset for the first time. Arab women and religious Jewish women 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. In March 2005, a parliamentary report claimed that 3,000 to 5,000 women-mostly from the former Soviet Union-have been smuggled into the country as prostitutes in the past four years.