Israel | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
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In 2007, the Israeli government survived persistent domestic criticism over its management of the 2006 Lebanon war, though the controversy led to several high-profile resignations. The Knesset elected former prime minister Shimon Peres to the largely ceremonial presidency after former president Moshe Katsav pleaded guilty to sex crimes. Also during the year, the country was hit by a wave of corruption scandals involving high-ranking government officials, and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations accelerated.

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 to the United Nations in 1947; a UN partition plan dividing it into a Jewish and an Arab state was rejected by the Arab Higher Committee and the Arab League, and Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence led to war with 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. 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 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. In 1994, Israel and Jordan agreed to a U.S.-brokered peace agreement. The following year, a right-wing Jewish extremist assassinated Rabin in Tel Aviv.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Labor presided over the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 and renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the contours of a future Palestinian state. However, an extended summit at Camp David with the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian leadership failed to produce a final settlement. 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 September 2000, the Palestinians launched an armed uprising, effectively ending the peace process.

Sharon defeated Barak for the premiership in a 2001 election. In March 2002, after a series of particularly devastating attacks by Palestinian militants, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reoccupied many of the West Bank areas that had been ceded to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel also began the construction of a 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.

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. A verbal ceasefire agreement between Sharon and Abbas led to a general decline in violence on both sides, but did not halt it. In September 2005, Sharon’s government completed a 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. Sharon subsequently left Likud and founded Kadima, a new centrist party. In January 2006, he suffered a massive stroke that left him in a coma. Then deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert became acting prime minister as well as acting Kadima chairman.

In the March 2006 elections, Kadima won 29 of the 120 seats in the 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.

Israeli-Palestinian violence picked up in 2006 after the Islamist group Hamas won elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in January, displacing Abbas’s Fatah party. Israel, the United States, and the European Union (EU) refused to recognize the resulting Hamas-led government, citing the group’s refusal to recognize Israel or past Israel-PA agreements, as well as its involvement in terrorism. The year’s violence included terrorist attacks in Israel; Qassam rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel; destructive IDF incursions into the West Bank; and “targeted” attacks against militant leaders by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), mostly in Gaza. After the firing of an artillery shell that killed eight Palestinian civilians on a Gaza beach, Hamas declared an end to the 2005 truce. Israel denied firing the shell, and the event remains disputed.

In June 2006, Hamas and other militant groups 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. While the IDF forces destroyed a large number of Qassam launchers and ammunition sites, they were unable to locate Shalit. Israel 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 in June, adding to accusations that the true aim of the incursion was to topple the Hamas-led PA government.

The Gaza operation was largely eclipsed by fighting that began on Israel’s northern border in July, 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 naval blockade, aerial bombardment of both Hezbollah and civilian infrastructure, and ground operations aimed at destroying Hezbollah’s military capabilities and forcing the return of the kidnapped soldiers. Meanwhile, Hezbollah kept up a barrage of Katyusha rocket fire into northern Israeli cities and towns; over 4,000 rockets were fired. Israel subsequently opened a wider ground offensive, and IDF forces by mid-August had pushed as far north as the Litani River. Following extensive diplomatic maneuvering by the United States, Britain, and other European governments, a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect on August 14. About 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the conflict, including many civilians; 116 IDF soldiers and 43 Israeli civilians were also killed. Israel was condemned for the disproportionate loss of civilian life on the Lebanese side, as well as its targeting of civilian infrastructure and the large-scale displacement of civilians from southern Lebanon. Israel insisted that Hezbollah’s deliberate use of civilians and residential areas to shield their belligerent activities made civilian casualties inevitable. A July 2007 report by Israel’s state comptroller described the government’s efforts to protect civilians during the conflict as “a grave failure.” In September 2007, Human Rights Watch condemned both Israel and Hezbollah for “indiscriminate” attacks on civilians.

The IDF’s failure to destroy Hezbollah and rescue the kidnapped soldiers, as well as the fact that the ceasefire agreement did not ensure Hezbollah’s disarmament, led to widespread domestic criticism of the government. IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz resigned in January 2007. In April, a government commission accused Olmert and his cabinet of engaging in the conflict without adequate preparation. Despite calls for his resignation, including by members of his own cabinet, Olmert and his government survived a confidence vote in May. In June, defense minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz was displaced from both of his positions by former prime minister Ehud Barak.

Separately, President Moshe Katsav resigned in June 2007 after pleading guilty to several sexual offenses. He had been under investigation for rape following a series of accusations by former female employees. That month, former prime minister Shimon Peres was elected president by the Knesset.

Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations accelerated in 2007, particularly after the fracturing of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in June between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. A series of confidence-building measures between Israel and Abbas’s faction—including the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel—preceded both sides’ participation in a U.S.-brokered peace conference in late November; also attending were representatives nearly every Arab state and the Arab League. The conference culminated in a joint declaration by Olmert and Abbas to begin final status negotiations over a future Palestinian state and to try to complete those negotiations by the end of 2008. The agreement was immediately rejected by Hamas. In December, Hamas proposed a ceasefire and talks with Israeli officials; despite the support of some government ministers, Olmert rejected the offer unless Hamas recognized Israel.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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 is elected by the Knesset for seven-year terms. The prime minister is usually the leader of the largest party or coalition in 120-seat Knesset, members of which 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. In April 2007, Knesset member Azmi Bishara resigned from the Knesset and eventually left Israel for fear of prosecution; Bishara, who expressed support for Hezbollah during visits to Syria and Lebanon, was under investigation for espionage and aiding an enemy during war. In November, the Knesset passed preliminary legislation aimed preventing Israelis who make unauthorized visits to “enemy states” from serving as lawmakers; the bill would require three additional approvals to become law.

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.

Twelve members of the current Knesset are Arab Israelis, most representing majority-Arab political parties; in January 2007, Labor’s Raleb Majadele became the first Arab Muslim to serve as a cabinet minister. 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 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 as well as PA elections and are eligible to apply for Israeli citizenship. The city’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. In October 2007, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit called for reform of the law and a five-year waiting period for new citizens.

Israel was ranked 30 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. A wave of corruption scandals broke in 2007, continuing a recent trend. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remained the focus of the cases. Initially investigated for the purchase of a Jerusalem property at a below-market price, he has also been scrutinized for extending favors during the 2005 privatization of Bank Leumi, when he was finance minister, and during his stint as industry and trade minister between 2003 and 2005. However, due to a lack of evidence, no charges have been filed. In February, Olmert aide Shula Zaken was suspended following allegations of tax-related bribe-taking. Tax authority chief Jackie Matza resigned over similar allegations that month, as did police chief Moshe Karadi. In July, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschon also resigned after police began investigating his role in the embezzlement of union funds.

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. Reporting on an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian military facility in September 2007 was subject to a month-long media blackout. In addition, media access to details of the police investigation of Knesset member Azmi Bishara was similarly restricted until a court partially lifted the blackout in April. Nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu was sent back to jail in July after speaking to international journalists about his case, violating the terms of his release. In December, three journalists faced prosecution for traveling to Syria and Lebanon without official authorization, a move condemned by the International Federation of Journalists.

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. 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 after the 2003 disbandment of the Religious Affairs Ministry, which effectively put rabbinic courts under the control of the Justice Ministry and freed up state resources to be allocated to non-Orthodox religious institutions. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the state must recognize as Jews people who undergo non-Orthodox conversions begun in Israel but formalized abroad. In addition, the courts in recent years have been supportive 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. In 2007, controversy—including riots by Muslim residents—erupted over archaeological excavations and construction work near the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem; the work was delayed to allow for public consultations. Israel, citing security concerns, occasionally restricts Muslim worshippers’ access to the Haram al-Sharif.

Primary and secondary education are universal, with instruction for the Arab minority based on the common curriculum used by the Jewish majority, but conducted in Arabic. In July 2007, the government approved a textbook for use in Arab schools that presents the founding of the state from the typical Palestinian—and thus highly critical—perspective. Israel’s universities are open to all students based on merit. The government generally does not interfere in faculty appointments or curriculum development at universities, which have been centers for dissent since the earliest days of the state. In May 2007, the University and College Union of the United Kingdom approved a plan to boycott Israeli academic institutions, accusing them of complicity in the state’s abuse of Palestinians’ human rights; the move was condemned by a wide range of international and Israeli scholars. 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 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. 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 bargaining agreements. Histadrut called two general strikes in 2007; neither lasted longer than 24 hours.

Legal foreign workers 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.

The judiciary is independent and regularly rules against the government. The Supreme Court hears direct petitions from Israeli citizens and 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 negative effects on Palestinian residents. 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. Most administrative detainees are Palestinian; there are approximately 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, though hundreds of prisoners were released in 2007. In May, the human rights groups B’Tselem and HaMoked Center reported that Palestinian prisoners are held in terrible conditions and are subject to abusive interrogation techniques, including instances of torture. The government disputed the accuracy of the report. In October, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Ketziot Prison clashed with guards, resulting in injuries to 15 prisoners and 15 guards; guards used rubber bullets to quell the riot.

While they have 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 military are not eligible for financial benefits, including scholarships and housing loans, that are available to Israelis who have served. The Orr Commission—established to investigate a brief outbreak of violence among the Israeli Arab community in the initial days of the Palestinian uprising in 2000—cited the “neglectful and discriminatory” government handling of the Arab population, which over the course of decades led to “poverty, unemployment, a shortage of land, serious problems in the education system and substantially defective infrastructure.” In 2004, then prime minister Ariel Sharon declared that every state-run company must have at least one Arab Israeli on its board of directors.

Many Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish towns and villages were struck by Hezbollah rocket fire during the 2006 Lebanon conflict, and one-third of those killed by the rockets were Arab Israelis. A July 2007 report by the state comptroller heavily criticized the government for failure to adequately protect Arab-Israeli villages—most of which do not have bomb shelters—during the conflict. In December, a polling study by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel found that anti-Arab sentiments among Israeli Jews had doubled in 2007, and that racist incidents were up 26 percent.

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 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. Separately, in September 2007, the government granted asylum to about 500 refugees from Darfur, Sudan. About 2,800 Africans have crossed into Israel from Egypt in recent years, and many were expelled in 2007.

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. While violence continued to decrease in Israel in 2007, freedom of movement was undermined by rocket attacks and bombings. In January, a suicide bombing in an Eilat bakery killed three people. Hundreds of Qassam rockets were launched into Israel, causing significant damage to border towns such as Sderot and killing one woman in May; rockets were also launched from Lebanon at the northern town of Kiryat Shmona. In September, a Qassam rocket attack injured nearly 70 soldiers stationed near Gaza.

Women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society. However, Arab women and religious Jewish women face some societal pressures and traditions that negatively affect their professional, political, and social lives. The rise of so-called “modesty buses”—on which women are forced to sit at the back, separate from men—in very religious Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem in 2007 fueled heated opposition from women’s groups, some of which filed a brief at the Supreme Court. The trafficking of women for prostitution has become a problem in recent years. In 2005, a parliamentary report claimed that 3,000 to 5,000 women, mostly from the former Soviet Union, had been smuggled into the country as prostitutes over the previous four years. Both the United Nations and the U.S. State Department have named Israel as a top destination for trafficked women. The government has opened shelters for trafficked women and passed more stringent legislation; in 2006, the Knesset passed a law 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 two lesbians were granted permission to legally adopt each other’s biological children in 2006. Openly gay Israelis are permitted to serve in the armed forces.

Explanatory Note: 

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.