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 the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, increased restrictions on Palestinian economic activity because of the West Bank security barrier, settler attacks on Palestinian civilians, and the Israeli military’s economic blockade and late-December attacks on the Gaza Strip.
Clashes between Israeli forces and Hamas militants continued in and around the Gaza Strip in 2008, leading to hundreds of Palestinian casualties. While violence decreased after Israel and Hamas agreed to a June ceasefire, major fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip erupted in December after the truce expired. Clashes also occurred in the West Bank during the year, where Israeli forces maintained control of about 60 percent of the territory. Construction of new structures in West Bank settlements grew by 60 percent in 2008 (compared with 2007), while settlers also built over 260 unofficial outposts, according to Peace Now.
Israel declared its statehood in 1948 on land allotted for Jewish settlement under a UN partition plan. It gained additional territory in the ensuing conflict with neighboring Arab states. Meanwhile, Jordan captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Egypt took the Gaza Strip. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, as well as the Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt) and the Golan Heights (from Syria). The Sinai was later returned to Egypt.
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 has maintained that the settlements are legal since under international law the West Bank and Gaza are disputed territories. In what became known as the first intifada (uprising), Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza began attacking mainly Israeli settlers and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops in 1987. Israel and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) reached an agreement in 1993 that provided for a PLO renunciation of terrorism and recognition of Israel, Israeli troop withdrawals, and gradual Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.
In subsequent years, the IDF granted the new Palestinian Authority (PA) control over most of Gaza and up to 40 percent of West Bank territory, including 98 percent of the Palestinian population outside of East Jerusalem. However, the IDF reentered most PA areas after the September 2000 eruption of the second intifada.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders engaged in far-reaching negotiations under U.S. sponsorship in 2000 and early 2001, but the talks failed to produce a final settlement. The Palestinians’ armed uprising continued, and violence flared throughout the occupied territories. Meanwhile, Likud party leader Ariel Sharon was elected Israeli prime minister in 2001. Insisting that the PA was not preventing terrorism, Israel responded to Palestinian suicide bombings by staging raids into and reoccupying swaths of PA-ruled territory. The incursions targeted Islamist and secular militant groups but also caused the deaths of many civilians.
In 2003, Israel and the PA agreed to abide by a “road map” to peace put forward by the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union (EU). The plan demanded coordinated Palestinian and Israeli steps toward peace, and the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.
After Arafat’s death in 2004 and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new PA presidentin 2005, violence declined markedly. In February 2005, Sharon and Abbas agreed on a formal truce that lasted through June 2006. Israel unilaterally withdrew all settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, and by September, all IDF troops had pulled out of the territory. However, while Israel handed control of Gaza’s southern border to the PA and the EU (subject to Israeli surveillance), it retained control over the airspace and coastline.
The Islamist faction Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Abbas’s Fatah party won only 45 seats, allowing Hamas to form a government without Fatah support. Israel, the United States, and the EU refused to recognize the Hamas-led government, citing the group’s involvement in terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel or past Israel-PA agreements.
In June 2006, in response to the killing of eight Palestinian civilians by an artillery shell, Hamas declared an end to the 2005 truce with Israel and accelerated the firing of Qassam rockets at Israel from Gaza. The source of the artillery fire remains disputed. Hamas and other militant groups subsequently carried out a raid near Gaza, killing two IDF soldiers and capturing a third, Corporal Gilad Shalit. Israel responded by invading Gaza, where the IDF destroyed Qassam launchers and ammunition sites but failed to locate Shalit. The fighting killed dozens of unarmed civilians. Human rights groups condemned Israel for these deaths and the destruction of a major power plant in Gaza. In November 2006, an Israeli tank patrol missed its target in the Gazan town of Beit Hanoun and hit a row of houses, killing 19 civilians. In September 2008, a UN report on the incident declared that it may have been a war crime. PA-controlled areas of the West Bank also faced Israeli incursions in 2006.
IDF operations in the West Bank dropped precipitously following the fracturing of the PA in June 2007 between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank (see separate report on PA). By contrast, Israel declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” in response to the continued barrage of Qassam rockets and closed down its borders with the territory. It allowed food deliveries for the remainder of the year, but shut off almost all fuel deliveries, leaving most residents with only sporadic electricity. Responding to legal challenges, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government could restrict fuel supplies but had to do more to ensure minimal humanitarian impact. Meanwhile, Israeli forces continued to attack targets in the Gaza Strip and clash with Palestinian militants near the border throughout the year. According to the human rights group B’Tselem, about 350 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in 2007, including many civilians.
In January 2008, Hamas militants blasted gaps in the border barrier between Egypt and Gaza, leading hundreds of thousands of Gazans to cross into Egypt to buy supplies. Arms and goods were also regularly smuggled through a tunnel network dug between Egypt and Gaza. Fighting between the IDF and Gaza militants also continued in early 2008. B’Tselem reported that during the particularly violent week of Februrary 27 to March 3, 106 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, including 54 civilians (25 of whom were minors). In June, Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-monthceasefire, leading to a significant drop in Gaza-related violence and an easing of the blockade.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops staged a number of raids into Palestinian towns in the West Bank during the year, in addition to regular patrols. The IDF reportedly controlled about 60 percent of the West Bank, and construction continued on a controversial security barrier running roughly along the West Bank side of the 1949 armistice line (Green Line). In some areas, it jutted farther into the West Bank and restricted Palestinian access to agricultural property, schools, and jobs. Palestinians complained that the barrier, which by the end of 2008 was about 65 percent complete, expropriated West Bank land and collectively punished ordinary Palestinians for acts committed by terrorists. Frequent protests against the barrier often turned violent. In a high-profile August incident, an Israeli commander and sergeant were put on trial for “unworthy conduct” after footage emerged showing the sergeant shooting a rubber bullet at the feet of a bound Palestinian prisoner. B’Tselem called for criminal charges and released a report accusing the IDF and border police of excessive use of rubber bullets.
The 2007 split between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank led to accelerated peace negotiations between Israel and Abbas’s Fatah-led government. However, despite a series of confidence-building measures—including the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel and the wider deployment of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank—the parties remained far from completing final-status negotiations by the end of 2008 (the deadline set at a U.S.-backed conference in 2007).
A major sticking point in the talks was Israel’s general failure to honor past agreements calling for a freeze in West Bank settlement construction. In August, the Israeli antisettlement group Peace Now claimed that, in 2008, Israel had built 60 percent more structures in existing West Bank settlements than in 2007, including 748 permanent buildings and 509 caravans. The report also documented the construction of 261 unofficial outposts by settlers. In an earlier report, the group accused the government of passing fewer than 6 percent of Palestinian building requests and demolishing 33 percent of illegal Palestinian-builtstructures, compared with 7 percent of illegal Jewish-built structures. In March, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and settler leaders agreed to dismantle 26 outposts built on private Palestinian land, though only a few were actually dismantled by year’s end.
In late 2008, the truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip began to break down. Israeli forces mounted a raid into Gaza in early November, touching off a clash with Palestinian militants. The expiration of the truce in December saw major fighting erupt between Hamas and Israel. Hamas resumed and ramped up its rocket bombardment of Israel, and the IDF launched a major campaign of airstrikes in Gaza, preparing the way for a possible ground invasion. While Hamas’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets were condemned by human rights groups and other observers, the IDF bombing revived long-standing complaints that Israel’s tactics caused many Palestinian civilian casualties, destroyed civilian infrastructure, and inflicted “collective punishment” on Gazans; according to the BBC, over 350 Palestinians had been killed in the fighting by year’s end, along with four Israelis. Israeli authorities argued that their actions were necessary to protect Israeli civilians, and that Palestinian civilian casualties were caused by Hamas and other militant groups’ use of civilian areas to stage and prepare attacks.
Since they are not citizens of Israel, Palestinians under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza cannot vote in Israeli elections. They are permitted to vote in elections organized by the PA. Israel was generally credited with allowing relatively free movement during the 2005 presidential and 2006 legislative elections for the PA, although some problems during the campaign, with electoral preparations, and with Israeli roadblocks were reported.
After Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, Arab residents 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. Those 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 Jerusalemhave the right to vote in PA elections, but are subject to restrictions imposed by the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem. In the 2006 PLC elections, Israel barred Hamas from campaigning in the city.
Druze and Arabs in the Golan Heights cannot vote in Israeli national elections, but they are represented at the municipal level.
International press freedom groups regularly criticize Israel for blocking journalists’ access to conflict zones, harming and sometimes killing reporters during battles, and harassing Palestinian journalists. Israel insists that reporters risk getting caught in crossfire but are not targeted deliberately. In March 2008, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reported that eight Palestinian journalists were being detained by Israel. The following month, Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana and eight other civilians were killed by Israeli tank fire in Gaza; an IDF investigation cleared the soldiers, finding that they had mistaken the cameraman’s tripod for an antitank weapon, but press freedom organizations rejected the report, noting that Shana’s car was marked as a press vehicle and that no warning shots were fired. Israeli forces were accused of abusing and improperly detaining Palestinian journalists in the West Bank during the year, and Israeli authorities shut down Afaq TV in Nablus for one year in July, citing the station’s affiliation with Hamas; three Hebron-based radio stations were raided and shut down in August. In October, the IFJ called on Israeli authorities to protect Palestinian journalists covering clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinian olive harvesters from settler attacks.
Israel generally recognizes the right to freedom of worship and religion. On several occasions since 2000, Israel has restricted Muslim men under 45 from praying at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem for fear of violent confrontations. While academic freedom is generally respected, IDF-imposed closures and curfews in the West Bank, and the growing security barrier, have crippled the ability of many Palestinian academic institutions to operate. Schools have sometimes been damaged during military operations, and student travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has been limited. Schoolchildren have been injured or killed during fighting. Israel’s tight border restrictions on Gaza have prevented Palestinian students from leaving to study abroad. In June 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a nonbinding ruling calling on the government to allow Gazan students to study abroad.
While freedom of assembly is sometimes respected, demonstrations often turn violent and are forcibly dispersed, resulting in deaths on some occasions. Israel has imposed strict curfews in the West Bank at various times since 2000. In 2008, Israeli police broke up frequent demonstrations in opposition to the security barrier in the West Bank. In one such incident in July, a Palestinian boy was killed by an Israeli soldier in the village of Ni’lin; the soldier was placed under house arrest and is being investigated. During the boy’s funeral procession the following day, an 18-year-old man was mortally wounded by rubber bullets after troops and protesters clashed.
There are many Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civic groups, and their activities are generally not restricted by Israel. Associations that espouse violence enjoy significantly less freedom. 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.
Israel’s Supreme Court hears petitions from non-Israeli residents of the occupied territories regarding home demolitions, outposts on confiscated land, and IDF tactics. Decisions in favor of Palestinian petitioners are rare. Rights groups often charge that such petitions are not adjudicated in a timely fashion and are sometimes dismissed without sufficient cause. The Israeli Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered changes in the route of the West Bank security barrier after hearing NGO and Palestinian petitions. By the end of 2008, the Ministry of Defense had altered or pledged to alter the route in response to three of six rulings.
Palestinians accused of broadly defined security offenses are tried in Israeli military courts, which grant some due process protections but limit rights to counsel, bail, and appeal. Administrative detention without charge or trial is widely used. Most convictions in Israeli military courts are based on confessions, sometimes obtained through coercion. In 2000, Israel outlawed the use of torture to extract security information, but milder forms of coercion are permissible when the prisoner is believed to have vital information about impending terrorist attacks. Human rights groups criticize Israel for continuing to engage in what they consider torture. In 2007, human rights groups B’Tselem and the HaMoked Center reported that Palestinian prisoners are held in terrible conditions and are subject to abusive interrogation techniques. The government disputed the accuracy of the report.
Israel holds approximately 9,800 Palestinians in jail. It frequently releases prisoners in the context of peace negotiations or mutual exchanges; in 2007 and 2008, over 1,000 were released, almost all belonging to factions of Fatah. Israel arrested over 30 PA lawmakers in 2007, nearly all of them members of Hamas. In August2008, Hamas leader Omar Abdelrazek—a former PA finance minister—was released from prison after two years in custody.
According to B’Tselem, in November 2008, Israeli security forces had killed more than 4,757 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of the second intifada, about 47 percent of whom were civilians and/or noncombatants and about 20 percent of whom were minors. About 500 Israelis have been killed in the territories during that same period, about 50 percent of whom were civilians. According to the BBC, over 350 Palestinians had been killed in the renewed fighting between Hamas and Israel in December 2008, along with four Israelis. Violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers is not uncommon. There was an increase in beatings and other assaults by settlers on Palestinians, Palestinian property, and even Israeli soldiers during 2008, and rights groups accused authorities of failing to adequately prosecute settlers.
Israel continues to man 35 external and 58 internal checkpoints in the West Bank, and has constructed over 460 roadblocks. These measures impose extensive delays on local travel and restrict Palestinian access to jobs, hospitals, and schools. Israel’s security barrier has also cut off many Palestinians from their farms and other parts of the West Bank. All West Bank and Gaza residents must have identification cards to obtain entry permits to Israel, including East Jerusalem. Israel often denies permits without explanation. In September 2008, B’Tselem and HaMoked accused the government of stepping up enforcement of residency-permit requirements in order to deport hundreds of Gazans from the West Bank.
While Palestinian women are underrepresented in most professions and encounter discrimination in employment, they have full access to universities and to many professions. Palestinian societal norms, derived in part from Sharia (Islamic law), put 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; these murders often go unpunished.
The areas and total number of persons under Israeli jurisdiction changed periodically during the year as a result of the fluid nature of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.