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Freedom in the World 2004 - Israel

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Israel, 18 December 2003, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Free
Population: 6,700,000
GNI/Capita: $16,750
Life Expectancy: 79
Religious Groups: Jewish (80.1 percent), Muslim [mostly Sunni] (14.6 percent), Christian (2.1 percent), other (3.2 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Jewish (80 percent), non-Jewish [mostly Arab] (20 percent)
Capital: Jerusalem


Israelis suffered greatly from Palestinian terrorism in 2003, even with a nearly two-month ceasefire. Several suicide bombings killed over 200 Israelis, eroding public security. The attacks elicited powerful Israeli reprisals against targets in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and, for the first time in 30 years, Syria. Notwithstanding the crisis atmosphere, Israelis strived in 2003 to lead normal lives; they enjoyed and exercised substantial political freedom, and most Israelis – with the exception of the country's 20 percent Arab minority – enjoyed full civil rights. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of the Likud Party, after winning a landslide election early in the year, pushed ahead with construction of a controversial security barrier in the West Bank. The police launched investigations in response to an official inquiry into the shooting deaths of 13 Arab-Israeli citizens by Israeli police officers in 2000. Several Arab citizens and Arab residents of East Jerusalem were charged during the year with aiding and abetting radical Palestinian groups in suicide bomb attacks in Israel. Two joint Israeli-Palestinian nongovernmental peace initiatives garnered limited domestic support on both sides. In November, four former heads of Israel's internal security service warned that the government's strong-arm tactics against the Palestinians were endangering Israelis. Municipal elections in October were marred by hundreds of criminal investigations of local political activists. The government dismantled the Religious Affairs Ministry, further eroding the near-monopolistic control over religious life by the Orthodox establishment. The Israeli economy continued to suffer under the strain of combating terrorism; state subsidies for social programs were slashed, and workers staged several large-scale strikes.

Israel was formed in 1948 from less than one-fifh of the original British Palestine Mandate. Arab nations rejected a UN partition plan that would also have created a Palestinian state. Immediately following Israel's declaration of independence, its neighbors attacked. While Israel maintained its sovereignty, Jordan seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Egypt took control of the Gaza Strip. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel came to occupy Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza, 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.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led coalition government secured a breakthrough agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993. 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 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. For the first time, Israel discussed compromise solutions on Jerusalem, agreeing to some form of Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City. Israel also offered all of the Gaza Strip and more than 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. However, the Palestinian leadership rejected the Israeli offers. Some analysts suggested that Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, was not satisfied that Palestinian territory in the West Bank would be contiguous and that Israel would recognize a "right of return," which would allow Palestinian refugees to live in Israel. Following a controversial visit by Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September 2000, the Palestinians launched an armed uprising. Snap Israeli elections in February 2001 took place against the backdrop of continuing Palestinian violence. Sharon, promising Israelis both peace and security from terrorism, trounced Barak at the polls.

As Israelis prepared to go the polls for national elections in January 2003, two Arab members of the Knesset (parliament) – Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara – were banned by Israel's Central Election Committee from running. Both were accused of opposing the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and encouraging Palestinian violence against Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court subsequently overturned the ban, allowing the two to run in the elections.

In late January, voters handed Sharon's Likud Party a landslide victory over the leading opposition Labor Party. Likud gained 37 seats, while Labor picked up only 19. Likud joined forces with the centrist Shinui Party, which gained 15 seats, and with two right-wing parties – the National Religious Party and the National Union Party – forming a comfortable coalition government with a total of 68 out of 120 Knesset seats. For the first time in Israel's history, an Arab citizen, Salah Tarif, was accorded a full cabinet portfolio.

Sharon's security platform helped divert voter attention from corruption scandals revealed on the eve of elections. Sharon was accused of conspiring with his sons to hide an illegal foreign loan to pay back an illegal foreign donation made to Sharon's campaign coffers. A vote-buying scandal implicating the Likud Party also failed to dissuade voters.

Palestinians carried out several devastating suicide bomb attacks inside Israel in 2003. The attacks, which took place inside buses, cafes, restaurants, bars, markets, shopping malls, and private homes, were random, occurring in large cities, smaller towns, and on kibbutzim. A suicide bombing by Hamas, a radical Palestinian group, aboard a Jerusalem bus in August killed 18 civilians, mostly Orthodox Jews returning from prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. That attack violated a seven-week cease-fire arranged by radical Palestinian groups and the Palestinian Authority. After Israel retaliated by assassinating Hamas leaders, Hamas and Islamic Jihad called off the cease-fire, which had provided Israelis with an unusual stretch of relative calm and a return to some normalcy. Despite the attacks, Israelis carried on with their daily lives; citizens continued to ride public buses, eat in restaurants, and participate in public gatherings and events. Several suicide bombings were also prevented, including over 20 in November, according to Israeli security services.

In October, after an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber murdered 21 Israelis – including several Arabs – at a restaurant in Haifa, Israeli warplanes bombed a purported Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria. The attack marked the first time Israel had struck within Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The air strike increased tensions between the two countries; in late October, Syria's foreign minister threatened to attack Israeli civilian communities on the Golan Heights.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip carried out several rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli town and cities to the north and east of the strip. The rockets were of a longer range than those fired in previous years, suggesting greater sophistication by the attackers and their acquisition of more advanced weaponry.

Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) retaliated for many terrorist attacks throughout the year. The IDF carried out targeted killings of terrorist suspects in the West Bank and Gaza, where it also staged air strikes, demolished private homes, and imposed curfews. The United States and other nations criticized Israel for the killings of innocent Palestinians, during Israeli antiterror operations.

Israeli reprisals for Palestinian attacks led to some divisions within the Israeli military. The air force grounded several active pilots who, concerned about harming innocent Palestinians, refused orders to attack suspects in the West Bank and Gaza.

In November, the IDF's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya'alon publicly criticized Sharon's policies, saying they were strengthening terrorist organizations and undermining moderate Palestinian politicians. General Ya'alon's remarks followed warnings by four former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, that the government's policies were leading the country to "catastrophe." Tensions were high along Israel's northern border with Lebanon during the year. In August, Hezbollah, a radical Shiite Muslim group backed by Iran and Syria and based in southern Lebanon, shelled northern Israel, killing one person. After Israel's air strike against Syria in October, a Hezbollah sniper fired across the border into Israel, killing an IDF soldier. Hezbollah also shelled Israeli positions.

Hezbollah reportedly took delivery of rockets capable of striking Israeli population and industrial centers. The group has in the past attacked Israeli positions patrolling near the Shebba Farms area. Hezbollah considers the area occupied Lebanese territory, despite UN confirmation in June 2000 that Israel had withdrawn fully from the "security zone" in southern Lebanon it had occupied for 18 years. Israel had held the zone to protect its northern flank from attacks, including repeated Hezbollah rocketing of Israeli towns and farms.

Hezbollah continued to hold at least five Israeli hostages. Widely believed to be among them is Israeli airman Ron Arad, thought to be held in Lebanon or Iran since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Hezbollah hinted during the year that it would negotiate for the hostages' release. Israel considered releasing hundreds of Arab prisoners in an exchange deal. There are more than 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Peace talks with Syria did not take place during the year. Intensive negotiations broke down in January 2000 over disagreements on final borders around the Golan Heights.

The initiation of approximately 400 criminal investigations of local political activists on allegations of arson, vandalism, fraud, and other election-related malfeasance tainted municipal elections in October.

In the fall, a group of former Israeli and Palestinian politicians revealed a private peace initiative negotiated in secret in Geneva, Switzerland. Based largely on terms discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at Taba, Egypt, in December 2000-January 2001, the nongovernmental "Geneva accord" envisioned an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the dismantlement of Jewish settlements in those areas, the division of Jerusalem, and sole Palestinian control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City with international monitoring. In return, Palestinians would pledge peace. There was also a vague reference to the Palestinians dropping their demand for a "right of return" of refugees to Israel. While the accord drew some limited support from the Israeli and Palestinian publics, their respective leaders largely ignored it. Another peace plan headed by former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian academic and peace activist Sari Nusseibeh also gathered limited support.

The Israeli economy suffered throughout the year from a drop in tourism and the strain of combating the Palestinian uprising. Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu instituted strict austerity measures, including budget reductions, layoffs, privatization schemes, and cuts in social security payments. A general strike called by Histadrut, the national labor union, paralyzed the country in April. Banks, school, and airports closed in response to the Treasury's plan to slash $2.3 billion from the state budget. In an effort to boost domestic employment, the government deported 30,000 foreign workers during the year.

A report released in October by the National Insurance Institute, a quasi-government agency, showed that 21 percent of Israelis live below the poverty line. Of 1.3 million said to be in poverty, more than 600,000 are children. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews were the most vulnerable segments of the population.

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.

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.

Press freedom is respected in Israel. Newspaper and magazine articles on security matters are subject to a military censor, though the scope of permissible reporting is wide. Editors may appeal a censorship decision to a three-member tribunal that includes two civilians. Arabic-language publications are censored more frequently than are Hebrew-language ones. Newspapers are privately owned and freely criticize government policy. In October, a pirate radio station, Arutz Sheva, was forced off the air by the government for operating without a license. The station, supportive of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, broadcast from a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. In November, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld an appeal against a decision by the Israel Film Board to ban the screening of a documentary film critical of Israel's armed forces. Publishing the praise of violence is prohibited under the Counter-terrorism Ordinance. Israeli authorities prohibit expressions of support for groups that call for the destruction of Israel. Internet access is widespread.

Freedom of religion is respected. Each religious community has jurisdiction over its 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 a non-Jew from marrying a Jew. In February 2002, the Supreme Court for the first time formally recognized Jewish conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel. While the ruling allows those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis to be listed as Jews in the official population registry, the Orthodox establishment can still refuse services to Reform and Conservative converts. In March 2003, the government ordered the indefinite suspension of the enforcement of the no-work law during the Jewish Sabbath. While the Orthodox community objected, Israel's large secular establishment celebrated the decision. Christians, Muslims, Bahais, and others enjoy freedom of religion.

In October, the Sharon cabinet disbanded the Religious Affairs Ministry, effectively putting rabbinic courts under control of the Justice Ministry. The decision cleared the way for increased allocations of state resources to non-Orthodox religious institutions, including those attached to the Reform and Conservative movements. The move was seen as a further erosion of the Orthodox monopoly on Israel's religious affairs.

There is widespread academic freedom in Israel, in the midst of which there are trends of growing polarization between right and left academics, including occasional reports of ad hominem attacks on both sides.

Freedom of assembly and association is respected. Demonstrations, including outside government buildings and official residences of the prime minister, are permitted. Israel features a vibrant civic society, which includes many nongovernmental organizations. 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 or are covered under its social programs and collective bargaining agreements. Foreign workers in the country legally enjoy wage protections, medical insurance, and guarantees against employer exploitation. Illegal workers are often at the mercy of employers, and many are exploited.

The judiciary is independent, and procedural safeguards are generally respected. Security trials, however, 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, but there are currently two Lebanese detainees being held on national security grounds. They are believed to have direct knowledge of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad.

In September, an independent commission issued its findings of a public inquiry into the shooting deaths of 13 Arab Israeli citizens by Israeli police in October 2000. The police opened fire on rioters demonstrating in support of the Palestinian uprising. The report focused carefully on discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel, calling it the primary cause of the riots in 2000. The report recommended censuring former Interior Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and barring him from holding high office again. The report led to the initiation of criminal investigations of several of the police officers who had opened fire, labeling them "prejudiced." While the 800-plus-page report was criticized by some for not going far enough – and by others for excusing Arab violence – it was generally regarded as an important breakthrough in addressing the social and economic disparities between Jewish and Arab Israelis. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that more Arab citizens would be integrated into Israel's business community; he appointed several Arab Israelis to the boards of state-owned companies.

Some Israeli analysts, including supporters of Arab minority rights, raised caution about radicalization of segments of Israel's Arab population and of Arab residents of East Jerusalem. Several Arab Israelis and East Jerusalem residents were arrested in 2003 for transporting Palestinian suicide bombers to their targets. Several other Arab Israelis, including the mayor of the Arab town of Uhm al-Fahm, were arrested in May on suspicion of channeling money to the radical Islamist group Hamas. Eight Jerusalem Arabs with suspected ties to Hamas were also arrested in May for planning a bus hijacking.

In July, the government passed a new law barring citizenship to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Arab Israelis. The law, which expires after one year, would ostensibly lead to the separation of families. The law is not retroactive; it would not affect Palestinians previously granted citizenship. Some human rights groups characterized the new law as racist. Israel said the law was necessary because some Palestinians have opportunistically married Arab citizens of Israel so they can move to the country and more easily carry out terrorist attacks.

Some one million Arab citizens (roughly 20 percent of the population) receive inferior education, housing, and social services relative to the Jewish population. Israeli Arabs 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. 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 sometimes by security alerts and emergency measures that can subject Israelis to long waits at roadblocks and at public places. The Israeli government continued construction of a security barrier in the West Bank designed to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel.

Women have achieved substantial parity at almost all levels of Israeli society. Women are somewhat under-represented in public affairs; 18 women sit in the 120-seat Knesset. In the May 1999 election, an Arab woman, Husaina Jabara, was elected to the Knesset for the first time. Arab women face some societal pressures and traditions that negatively affect their professional, political, and social lives. The trafficking of women has become a problem in recent years.

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