2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 2.0
Civil Liberties: 3
Political Rights: 1

Ratings Change

Israel's civil liberties rating changed from 2 to 3 because of the October shooting deaths of 13 Arab citizens of Israel at the hands of Israeli soldiers; the unarmed Arab-Israelis were demonstrating in support of widespread and violent Palestinian protests in the West Bank and Gaza.


After withdrawing its troops from southern Lebanon and nearly completing a final-status peace accord with the Palestinians at Camp David in July 2000, Israel faced a renewed Palestinian uprising in the fall. This time Palestinians supplemented stones with guns, as militias and Palestinian security forces carried out attacks against Israelis. By year's end Israel was plunged into a severe political crisis, as the continuing violence claimed hundreds of Palestinian lives, and tens of Israeli lives, including Arab citizens of Israel shot by Israeli troops. Toward the end of the year, with the West Bank and Gaza Strip still percolating with violence, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's once strong majority government was suddenly in the minority. His popularity plummeting, Barak, in a tactical move, resigned late in December. By pre-empting the dissolution of parliament, which would have brought full elections, Barak was able to remain caretaker prime minister and prevent his archrival, Likud Party member and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from running in snap elections called for February 2001. However, public opinion polls showed Barak losing by a landslide to Likud leader Ariel Sharon, a hawkish former general. Decimated in general elections in May 1999, the right-wing Likud Party enjoyed huge popularity gains as the Palestinian uprising wore on. Israeli president Ezer Weizman resigned from his post after becoming the subject of a corruption probe.

Israel was formed in 1948 from less than one-fifth of the original British Palestine Mandate. Its neighbors, rejecting a United Nations partition plan that would have also created a Palestinian state, attacked immediately following independence in the first of several Arab-Israeli conflicts. Israel has functioned as a parliamentary democracy since independence. Since 1977, the conservative Likud and the center-left Labor Party have shared or alternated power.

Following June 1992 Knesset (parliament) elections, Yitzhak Rabin's Labor-led coalition government secured a breakthrough agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993. The Declaration of Principles, negotiated secretly between Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Oslo, Norway, provides for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and for limited Palestinian autonomy in those areas. Negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, refugees, and Israel's borders began in November 1999.

On November 4, 1995, a right-wing Jewish extremist, opposed to the peace process on the grounds that it would lead to a Palestinian state in the West Bank, assassinated Rabin in Tel Aviv. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres became acting prime minister and served until the 1996 elections, when, after a wave of suicide bombings carried out in Israel by Islamic radicals, Netanyahu, the right-wing Likud Party leader, was elected.

After winning a landslide election in 1999 on an ambitious peace-making platform, Prime Minister Ehud Barak saw his majority Labor Party-led coalition government turn to ruins by the middle of 2000. Central to Barak's political misfortunes was the loss of confidence in the government by key coalition members as the prime minister engaged the Palestinian leadership in the most far-reaching negotiations ever at Camp David in July. Israelis for the first time seriously considered substantive compromise proposals on Jerusalem and the future status of Palestinian refugees that had previously been considered taboo. On the eve of the talks, Barak's multiparty coalition had all but fallen apart; it was down from 75 to 40 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Foreign Minister David Levy resigned in protest. Barak's determination to address all the final-status issues with the Palestinians at once, rather than in incremental steps, as proscribed by the Oslo process, was seen as dangerous by some members of his own cabinet. A former general and chief of staff, Barak's proclivity to strategize and make decisions in a solitary fashion rankled many in the Labor party leadership, who felt cut out of the process. Much of the public too became disillusioned with the prime minister, feeling he was insufficiently informing them about the compromise solutions he was proposing.

Part of the coalition's undoing was also the result of pure politics; the left-wing Meretz party pulled out of the government in protest against its ultra-orthodox, right-wing fellow coalition member, the Shas Party. The two parties had fought all year over an order by the Meretz leader, Education Minister Yossi Sarid, to close several parochial schools operated by Shas because of the schools' deep indebtedness. Sarid's order led to denunciatory attacks by Israeli chief Sephardic rabbi and Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, who called for Sarid to be "extirpated from earth." An investigation was ordered – and later dropped – to determine whether Yosef should be charged with incitement. Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri began serving a three-year prison term during the year after being convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for directing state funds to religious schools while he ran the interior ministry. His case further pitted the largely disenfranchised Sephardic community against Israel's Ashkenazic establishment.

In April, President Ezer Weizman became the target of a corruption probe, when he was accused of not declaring hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly given to him by a French businessman. While the inquiry resulted in no charges, Weizman stepped down from his post in July. In his place, the Knesset elected Likud party member Moshe Katzav, dealing a political blow to Prime Minister Barak and his peace policies. Labor Party member and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres seemed certain to capture the presidency. In September, corruption charges were dropped against former Prime Minister Netanyahu. The attorney general claimed lack of evidence in a case alleging Netanyahu had accepted free services from a contractor and kept official gifts after leaving office. His exoneration set the stage for a political comeback.

Intensive peace negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down in January over disagreements on final borders around the Golan Heights. A March summit between U.S. president Bill Clinton and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, designed to sound out the Syrian leader on his peace terms and jump-start negotiations with Israel, failed to produce any forward momentum. The key sticking point centered on which country should control a strip of shoreline along the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee, located below the western slopes of the Golan. The sea serves as Israel's primary fresh water source. Israel has agreed in principle to a return of all of the Golan in return for security guarantees. Prior to losing the Golan in 1967, Syria had used the territory to shell northern Israeli towns. With the June death of Assad, and the ascension to power of his relatively inexperienced son Bashar, the prospect of further talks at best appeared remote.

In June, Israel withdrew from its self-declared "security zone" in southern Lebanon, after occupying the area for 18 years to protect its northern region from attacks by Hezbollah, a radical Shi'ite Muslim group active in Lebanon. Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped three Israeli soldiers after infiltrating the border in a surprise raid in October.

At Camp David in July, Israel and the Palestinians, with President Clinton mediating, spent over two weeks negotiating the key final-status issues of Jerusalem, the size of a Palestinian state, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. For the first time, Israel offered compromise solutions on Jerusalem, agreeing to some form of Palestinian control and quasi-sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which contains Islamic holy sites. Israel also offered 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The Palestinians rejected the Israeli offers, and no agreement was reached.

At the end of September, perhaps in protest to the government's expressed willingness to compromise on Jerusalem, right-wing Likud leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, the site of the Al Aqsa Mosque. A widespread Palestinian uprising erupted, ultimately taking on a life of its own and lasting through the end of year. As the violence intensified, Prime Minister Barak found his political future in jeopardy. Despite attempts to reach ceasefires and restart the peace talks, violence confined largely to the West Bank and Gaza Strip persisted, claiming more than 300 Palestinian lives. The radical Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for separate car and bus bomb attacks in Israel that claimed the lives of four people. Nearly 50 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed by December 31. In one case in October, two Israeli reserve soldiers were dragged from a Palestinian police station in Ramallah and lynched by a mob.

Seemingly unable to contain the violence, Prime Minister Barak resigned in December, calling for snap elections for February 2001. By submitting a formal resignation and scheduling early elections, Barak was able to remain caretaker prime minister. According to Israeli law, only sitting members of parliament may contest the premiership. Barak's move was widely seen as a tactical maneuver to outflank the Likud Party and its resurgent former leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was unable to challenge Barak since he was no longer a member of the Knesset. By the end of the year, however, public opinion polls showed the prime minister trailing significantly behind Ariel Sharon.

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. In August, Prime Minister Barak called for the drafting of a constitution; he proposed a "civil revolution" that would undermine the power of the Orthodox Jewish establishment over most aspects of Jewish Israeli life, such as marriage. Barak also proposed a national service program to end army exemptions of Orthodox Jewish males who may claim that Torah study prevents them from mandatory military service.

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. Members of Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim groups, they are believed to have the most direct knowledge of Israeli airman Ron Arad, believed to be held in Lebanon since his plane was shot down in 1986. In July 1999, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin announced a plan to cancel the legal basis for holding Lebanese detainees for indefinite periods without formal charges. He also announced the eventual canceling of the emergency laws, seen as increasingly irrelevant in an overall climate of peace. In the spring of 2000 Israel did release 13 Lebanese detainees who had been held, some for several years, as "bargaining chips." They were to be used in prisoner exchanges to secure the release of Israeli servicemen.

Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. Newspaper and magazine articles on security matters are subject to a military censor, though the scope of permissible reporting is expanding. 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.

Publishing the praise of violence is prohibited under the Counter-terrorism Ordinance. In November, the Israeli supreme court lowered the standard by which public speech or publications can be deemed inciteful and harmful to the "values of public order," including "social cohesion." Previously, only public statements found to be threatening to the foundations of democratic rule were considered tantamount to sedition and subject to punishment. The ruling followed the passage of legislation in early 1999, which legalized pirate radio stations run by settlers and religious activists who in the past had been accused of inciting hatred through anti-peace broadcasts.

In August, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) criticized Israel for the wounding of two journalists covering demonstrations at Lebanon's border with Israel. Israeli troops shot them while responding to rock throwing at a border fence. In October, Reporters Sans Frontières criticized Israel for not adequately protecting journalists, several of whom had been caught in the crossfire during Palestinian-Israeli clashes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Freedom of religion is respected. Each community has jurisdiction over its own members in matters of marriage, burial, and divorce. In the Jewish community, the Orthodox establishment handles these matters. A heated debate has erupted in recent years over the Orthodox monopoly on conversions, which denies certain rights, such as citizenship and marriage, to Reform and Conservative converts. However, a 1999 lower court ruling rejected the Orthodox hold on conversions, clearing the way for the participation of the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism. The ruling, combined with supreme court decisions early in 1999 that exemption from military service for students in religious schools was illegal, touched off significant religious protests. In May, 2000 the supreme court overruled a ban on women wearing prayer shawls and praying audibly at the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. The ultra-Orthodox establishment condemned the ruling.

Some one million Arab citizens receive inferior education, housing, and social services relative to the Jewish population. Housing restrictions were eased somewhat in March when the Israeli supreme court overturned a 52-year-old policy banning the sale of public land to non-Jews. The court ruled the old law was discriminatory to Israeli's Arab population, and perpetuated inequality among the country's citizens. In November, Chief Justice Aharon Barak publicly called for full equality of Arab citizens, saying there can be no true democracy in Israel without it. Israeli Arabs are not subject to the military draft, though they may serve voluntarily. Those who do not join the army do not enjoy the financial benefits available to Israelis who have served, including scholarships and housing loans.

In October, 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by Israeli troops during demonstrations initially in response to the Palestinian uprising taking place in the West Bank and Gaza. The protests ultimately gave voice to long-held frustrations among Israel's Arab citizens, who have often felt like second-class citizens and who were counting on Prime Minister Barak to fulfill a campaign pledge to improve their lot. The violence gave way to some of the worst civil strife in Israel in decades, with riots sweeping many Arab villages and Jewish towns. Prime Minister Barak, succumbing to growing criticism that his initial launching of an inquiry into the shooting deaths was insufficient, eventually appointed a state commission with wider judicial powers to investigate the killings. He also outlined a $1 billion plan to address road, sewage, housing, and education shortfalls in Arab-Israeli communities.

Women are underrepresented in public affairs; only nine women were elected to the 120-seat Knesset in 1996. In the May 1999 election, an Arab woman, Husaina Jabara, was elected to the Knesset for the first time. However, women continue to face discrimination in many areas, including in military service, where they are barred from combat units, and in religious institutions. In May 2000, Amnesty International criticized Israel for not protecting the rights of foreign women smuggled into the country to work as prostitutes. According to an Amnesty International report, hundreds of women are smuggled in each year with the promise of well-paying jobs, only to be sold into prostitution, raped, and at times tortured.

Most Bedouin housing settlements are not recognized by the government and are not provided with basic infrastructure and essential services. In September, residents of four recognized Bedouin villages in the Negev desert elected their own representatives to local governments for the first time. The interior ministry usually appoints representatives.

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 (General Federation of Labor) or are covered under its social programs and collective bargaining agreements.

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