Freedom in the World
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Israel held early national elections in March 2006 after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in January and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, assumed the premiership. Sharon’s newly formed Kadima party led the voting and built a coalition government that included the center-left Labor Party, which had placed second. A June 2006 cross-border attack from the Gaza Strip led Israeli forces to reenter that area. Fierce fighting ensued, but was soon overshadowed by a parallel development in the north. A cross-border attack from Lebanon by the Islamist militia Hezbollah prompted the Israelis to launch a month-long bombing campaign and ground incursion, while Hezbollah kept up a rocket bombardment of northern Israel. The United Nations in August imposed a ceasefire and authorized a multinational force to patrol southern Lebanon as Israeli troops withdrew.
Israel was formed in 1948 from part of the British Mandate of Palestine, which had been created by the League of Nations following the defeat and breakup of 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, it 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 its 1967 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 northern Israeli towns. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and extended Israeli law to 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 Party–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 West Bank and Gaza Strip and limited Palestinian autonomy in those areas, in exchange 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.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak presided over a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from the south of Lebanon in 2000 as well as renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. A flurry of talks in 2000, including an extended summit at Camp David with the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian leadership, failed to produce a final settlement allowing Palestinian statehood. Following the breakdown of negotiations and a controversial visit by Ariel Sharon, then leader of the right-wing Likud Party, 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 incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party in prime ministerial elections in 2001. In March 2002, after a series of particularly devastating attacks, the government launched Operation Defensive Shield, reoccupying many of the West Bank areas that had been ceded to the autonomous Palestinian Authority (PA) during the Oslo peace process. Israel also began the construction of a controversial security barrier roughly along the West Bank side of the 1949 armistice line, or Green Line, a move that was criticized for, among other things, creating hardships for Arabs living or working in the barrier’s vicinity. Sharon was reelected in January 2003 against a backdrop of continuing Palestinian violence in Israel.
After the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November 2004, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), a moderate PLO leader, was elected president of the PA in January 2005. The following month, Abbas and Sharon met in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, and declared—but did not sign—a 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 led 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 terrorists, helped reduce the overall level of terrorism inside Israel in 2005, continuing a trend from 2004. In its efforts to stamp out terrorism, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also staged air strikes, demolished private homes, and imposed curfews. The United States, the European Union (EU), and many other countries joined the United Nations in criticizing Israel for its tactics, which frequently caused civilian deaths in Palestinian areas.
In September 2005, Sharon’s government completed its planned unilateral withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and four sites in the West Bank, overcoming fierce opposition from settler groups and many within Likud itself. In order to shake off his right-wing critics and press ahead with a broader unilateral disengagement plan, Sharon in November left Likud and founded a new, centrist party dubbed Kadima. The move upended the political balance as March 2006 elections approached, with Kadima quickly growing into a third major force alongside traditional rivals Labor and Likud and the remaining assortment of smaller special-interest parties. In January, Sharon suffered a massive stroke, leaving him in a coma. Then–deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert became acting prime minister as well as acting Kadima chairman.
In the March elections, Kadima won 29 of the 120 seats in Israel’s Knesset (parliament), with 22 percent of the popular vote. Labor won 19 seats, while Shas (a religious party with strong support among Sephardic Jews) and Likud each took 12 seats, and the rightist Yisrael Beitenu, a party with strong support among Israel’s Russian-speaking immigrants, won 11 seats. The remainder went to a wide range of smaller parties. A standout was the newly formed Pensioners party, which gained seven seats in its first-ever campaign. The elections drew Israel’s lowest voter turnout on record, estimated at just over 63 percent and also showed a significant loss of support for Likud and its smaller far-right allies.
In January 2006, elections were held for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the legislature of the PA. The Islamist faction Hamas, running under the name List of Change and Reform, won 74 of 132 seats. Fatah, the party formed by Arafat and now led by Abbas, won only 45 seats. The election formula distributed half of the seats by nationwide proportional representation and half through races in individual districts. The two parties ran approximately even on the national level, and some analysts blamed poor candidate discipline at the local level for a split in the Fatah vote that tipped many districts to Hamas. The results allowed Hamas to form a government without Fatah support, and were met with disappointment in Israel and among a number of foreign governments. At an emergency cabinet meeting on election day, Olmert’s government declared its unwillingness to negotiate with a Palestinian government in which Hamas was a participant, citing the group’s responsibility for terrorist attacks that had killed hundreds of Israeli civilians over several years. The United States similarly rejected the legitimacy of the new Palestinian government, announcing a halt in aid to the PA so long as it included Hamas, which was listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. The EU was also skeptical, citing the need to reassess European relations with the PA in light of the election results.
The informal truce established in 2005 between Israel and the Palestinian factions at first appeared to have survived Hamas’s rise to power. However, while the level of violence during the first half of 2006 was markedly lower than in the years preceding the truce, attacks continued. The PA complained of Israeli antiterrorism activities in the West Bank, and there was also a marked increase in Qassam rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The Israeli government, having completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, held the PA responsible for the rocket attacks, while the PA continued to claim that the rockets were being launched by rogue militias.
Violence mounted steadily in March, April, and May, with increasing numbers of Qassam rocket attacks, several major terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians both within Israel and in West Bank settlements, and a jump in the Palestinian death toll amid intensified Israeli countermeasures. April alone saw 31 Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), while a massive suicide bomb attack by Palestinian Islamic Jihad the same month killed 11 civilians in Israel and injured close to 70. Nearly 100 Qassam rockets were fired into Israel in April, and at least one longer-range Katyusha was also fired; however, damage from these attacks was minimal.
In response to the firing of an artillery shell that killed eight Palestinian civilians on a Gaza beach, Hamas declared an end to the 16-month truce and launched nearly 20 Qassam rockets into southern Israel on June 10. The PA, as well as all armed factions involved, claimed the artillery shell was fired by Israeli forces, while the Israeli government maintains that the nearest military position was out of range, and therefore Israel could not have been responsible. The event is still a source of dispute.
Hamas and other militant groups that month carried out a raid on an IDF outpost near the Gaza Strip, killing two soldiers and capturing a third, Corporal Gilad Shalit. Israel responded by invading Gaza for the first time since its September 2005 withdrawal. The IDF destroyed a large number of Qassam launchers and ammunition sites, but were unable to locate Shalit. Israel also drew condemnation from human rights groups for destroying a major Gaza power plant and causing many civilian deaths in the course of the fighting. Israeli troops detained several Hamas lawmakers on June 29, adding to accusations that the true aim of the incursion was to topple the Hamas-led PA government. While there was no stated end to the operation, Israeli military activity decreased dramatically after the initial fighting in July.
The Gaza operation was largely eclipsed by much wider fighting that began on Israel’s northern border on July 12, when the Lebanese Islamist militia Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two—Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev—were taken captive. The IDF’s response was a combination of naval blockade, aerial strikes, and ground operations aimed at degrading Hezbollah’s ability to attack Israel and forcing the return of the kidnapped soldiers. The first 10 days featured limited operations by IDF ground troops in the Hezbollah-controlled villages north of the border and extensive aerial bombardment of Hezbollah installations throughout Lebanon, as well as civilian infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Beirut’s main airport was targeted, as were Hezbollah administrative sites, many of which were located in urban areas. Meanwhile, Hezbollah kept up a barrage of Katyusha rocket fire aimed at northern Israeli cities and towns. Israel opened a wider ground offensive on July 23, and IDF forces by mid-August pushed as far north as the Litani River.
Despite Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration of “open war” on Israel, Hezbollah soon began calling for an unconditional ceasefire, while Israel stated its preference for a conditional ceasefire that would include the return of its kidnapped soldiers and the disarming of Hezbollah in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559. The Lebanese government pleaded from the outset for the Security Council to impose an immediate, unconditional ceasefire. Following extensive diplomatic maneuvering by the United States, Britain, and other European governments, a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect on August 14. Israel was condemned throughout the engagement for the disproportionate loss of civilian life on the Lebanese side, as well as the targeting of civilian infrastructure and the large-scale displacement of civilians from southern Lebanon. Israel insists that Hezbollah’s deliberate use of civilians and residential areas to shield their belligerent activities made civilian casualties inevitable, and that blame for civilian deaths should lie with those who provoked the conflict. Domestically, Olmert’s government, and in particular Defense Minister Amir Peretz, have been accused of mismanaging the war effort. The UN resolution that imposed the ceasefire does not ensure Hezbollah’s disarmament and has therefore been labeled a diplomatic failure for Israel.
Israel is an electoral democracy. Although there is no formal constitution, a series of basic laws have the force of constitutional principles. A largely ceremonial president, elected by the unicameral Knesset for seven-year terms, serves as chief of state. The prime minister is usually the leader of the largest party or coalition in the Knesset. The Parliament is composed of 120 seats, and members are elected by party-list proportional representation for four-year terms. Parties or candidates that deny the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, oppose the democratic system, or incite racism are prohibited. The three main parties are the center-left Labor Party, the centrist Kadima, and the right-wing Likud. New special-interest parties typically emerge with each election cycle, but many of them dissolve quickly or merge with a larger bloc. All citizens aged 18 and over can vote; the Knesset roundly rejected a November 2006 proposal by a far-right party that would have required voters to take an oath of loyalty to the state.
Arab residents of East Jerusalem, while not granted automatic citizenship, were issued Israeli identity cards after the 1967 war. However, Israeli law strips such Arabs of their Jerusalem residency if they remain outside the city for more than three months. They have the same rights as Israeli citizens, except the right to vote in national elections. They can vote in municipal elections as well as PA elections and are eligible to apply for Israeli 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. Under the 1948 Law of Return, all Jewish immigrants and their immediate family are granted Israeli citizenship and residence rights; other immigrants must apply for these rights.
Israel was ranked 34 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2006, the political arena was hit with a wave of scandals. President Moshe Katsav was accused of rape and other offenses; Justice Minister Haim Ramon, an architect of the ruling Kadima Party, was forced to resign in August amid charges of sexual impropriety with a female soldier; and Tzahi Hanegbi, another Kadima member and chair of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, at one point faced charges of fraud, bribery, and perjury relating to appointments made during his 2001–2003 term as environment minister. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was investigated by the state comptroller for the purchase of a Jerusalem property for a sum allegedly much lower than the market price, though no charges were filed in 2006. In perhaps the highest-profile scandal in recent months, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was alleged to have sold off roughly $25,000 in privately held securities shortly after fighting began with Hezbollah in July.
A grass-roots corruption watchdog organization known as the Movement for Quality Government in Israel was recently recognized by Transparency International with an Integrity Award. The organization was included in an anticorruption lobby formed in 2006 by opposition Knesset members, the stated aim of which is to increase protections for whistleblowers. The lawmakers involved in the effort succeeded in June in stopping the appointment of a candidate for the directorship of the Health Ministry, due in large part to allegations of fraud and potential conflict of interest.
A public committee, set up by former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and headed by retired Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir, was convened in 2006 to address the issue of corruption by elected officials. The committee issued its recommendations in October. In addition to formulating a formal code of conduct for Knesset members, the panel recommended docking the monthly pay of lawmakers and banning them from plenum or committee meetings for up to six months if they are found to have violated the proposed code.
Press freedom is respected in Israel, and the country enjoys 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.
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 aimed at upholding 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 that some Palestinians posing as journalists used the cards to gain entry into Israel to carry out or abet terrorist attacks.
While the basic laws and the Declaration of Independence designate Israel as 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, an arrangement that dates to Israel’s earliest days, when then–prime minister David Ben-Gurion found the concession necessary to guarantee support for statehood among members of the religious community. As a result, civil marriages as well as marriages between Jews and non-Jews are not recognized by the state unless conducted abroad. 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 whether immigrants are eligible for the citizenship and residency rights awarded to Jews under the Law of Return. However, the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious affairs has eroded steadily in recent years. In 2004, the 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, non-Orthodox conversions were recognized only if they were conducted entirely abroad. In addition, the courts in recent years have been solicitous of property and child-custody claims by same-sex couples. Muslim and Christian communities occasionally accuse the government of discrimination in resource allocation and upkeep of religious sites, though the official budget allocates funds according to need, regardless of faith or denomination.
K-12 education is universal, with instruction for the Arab minority based on the common curriculum used by the Jewish majority, but conducted in Arabic. Israel’s universities are open to all students based on merit. Professors are appointed and curriculum is developed in universities generally free from government influence. Israel’s universities have been centers for dissent and criticism of the government since the earliest days of the state. In recent years, international bodies of scholars have made several efforts to cut ties with their counterparts in Israel because of perceived human rights abuses by the Israeli government; many have charged that such efforts have curtailed academic freedom. Periodic road closures and other security measures in recent years have made it difficult for residents of the West Bank and Gaza to reach universities in Israel, particularly the high number of West Bank Palestinians who are enrolled at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Israel hosts an active civil society that includes an array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and demonstrations are widely permitted. In the run-up to the implementation of the disengagement plan in 2005, both opponents and supporters staged large demonstrations. In 2006, there were demonstrations against the military campaign in Lebanon, most notably on August 5, when an estimated 10,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the war. The action was organized by a coalition of Jewish and Arab peace groups and included several organizations made up of current and former Israeli soldiers and officers opposed to the fighting. While Olmert initially refused to appoint a state commission to investigate the war, public pressure is credited with changing his mind. Olmert has since named retired Supreme Court justice Eliyahu Winograd to head an official committee of inquiry.
Workers may join unions of their choice and enjoy the right to strike and bargain collectively. Three-quarters of the workforce either belong to unions affiliated with Histadrut (the national labor federation) or are covered under its social programs and collective bargaining agreements. Cuts to government offices in the proposed 2007 budget have prompted the Histadrut to threaten a nationwide strike in the coming months. Legal foreign workers in the country 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 government has come under increasing pressure from civil society to better regulate the status of foreign workers in Israel.
The judiciary is independent and regularly rules against the government. Israel’s Supreme Court hears direct petitions from Israeli citizens, as well as from non-Israeli Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most notably in recent years, the Supreme Court has ordered on numerous occasions that the proposed route of the security barrier under construction between Israel and the West Bank be changed to decrease its impact on Palestinian residents. In 2006 alone, the Supreme Court heard over 100 petitions filed by NGOs and Palestinian civilians alleging hardship resulting from the route of the barrier. The Ministry of Defense continues to alter the route of the barrier in response to Supreme Court rulings.
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 2006, there were credible reports that Palestinian detainees were subject to abuse and torture.
While extended full political rights, the roughly one million Arab citizens of Israel (about 19 percent of the population) receive inferior education, housing, and social services relative to the Jewish population. Arab Israelis, except for the Druze minority, 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. An official body of inquiry called the Orr Commission was established to investigate a brief outbreak of violence among the Israeli Arab community in the initial days of the Palestinian uprising in 2000. The commission's report cited "neglectful and discriminatory" government handling of the Arab sector, which over the course of decades led to "poverty, unemployment, a shortage of land, serious problems in the education system and substantially defective infrastructure." The commission also stressed the need on the part of the Jewish majority to "respect the identity, culture and language" of the Arab minority, and reaffirmed the constitution's emphasis on equality and the prohibition against discrimination for all citizens of the state.
In January 2004, then–prime minister Ariel 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, a Druze Arab Israeli, was a member of Sharon’s cabinet. Twelve members of the current Knesset are Arab Israeli, most representing majority-Arab political parties. An Arab Israeli judge also sits on the Supreme Court. While the Arab population votes heavily for Arab-oriented parties, the left-leaning and centrist Zionist parties also count on strong support from the Arab community. Arab members of the Knesset have occasionally voiced support for anti-Israel factions in the Palestinian territories and abroad, including Hamas and Hezbollah. While such statements are sometimes the subject of investigation by the attorney general, they have rarely been grounds for sanction.
Some Israeli analysts, including supporters of Arab minority rights, have cautioned against the radicalization of segments of Israel’s Arab population and of Arab residents of East Jerusalem. Polls conducted among Israel’s Arab citizens during the Lebanon war revealed low levels of support for the Israeli military effort, with significant levels of support for Hezbollah. These results are especially notable in light of the fact that many Arab and mixed Arab/Jewish towns and villages were struck by Hezbollah rocket fire, and fully one-third of those killed by Katyusha fire during the course of the fighting were Arab Israelis. By contrast, the Bedouin and Druze minorities within the Arab Israeli community showed strong support for the war.
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 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 it as racist. Israel maintained that the law was necessary because some Palestinians have opportunistically married Arab citizens of Israel so that they could more easily carry out terrorist attacks or slowly shift Israeli demographics in their favor. A controversial 5–6 Supreme Court decision upheld the law as constitutional in May 2006. The justices in the majority cited the unique security concerns currently prevailing, as well as the desire to maintain Israel’s Jewish character in a democratic way.
Most Bedouin housing settlements are not recognized by the government and are not provided with basic infrastructure and essential services.
Freedom of movement is affected by security alerts and emergency measures that can subject Israelis to delays at roadblocks and in public places. Israeli security forces and police sometimes carry out random identity checks of civilians. By law, all citizens must carry national identification cards. The security barrier restricts freedom of movement for some East Jerusalem residents.
Women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society. They are somewhat underrepresented in public affairs; 17 women currently sit in the 120-seat Knesset, and two women, Ministers Tzipi Livni and Yuli Tamir, are members of Prime Minister Olmert’s current cabinet. In the May 1999 elections, an Arab Israeli woman, Husaina Jabara, was elected to the Knesset for the first time. The current Knesset also includes an Arab woman, Nadia Hilou. 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. In response to the growing problem, the Knesset passed a law in October 2006 mandating prison terms of up to 20 years for human trafficking.
Sexual minorities have made significant strides in recent years. A 2005 Supreme Court decision granted guardianship rights to nonbiological parents in same-sex partnerships, and a lesbian couple was granted permission to legally adopt each other’s biological children in February 2006. Openly gay Israelis are permitted to serve in the armed forces. In recognition of the significant rights enjoyed by gays and lesbians in Israel, Jerusalem was selected as the site for the 2006 World Pride events, despite opposition from conservative Muslims and Jews within Israel. The events were postponed because of the Lebanon conflict, but went forward in November.
The numerical ratings 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.