Freedom in the World 2004 - Israeli-Occupied Territories

Political Rights: 6
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Population: 3,000,000
GNI/Capita: N/A
Life Expectancy: N/A
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: N/A


Despite international efforts to urge Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to pursue peace based on a "road map" toward eventual Palestinian statehood, and a seven-week Palestinian cease-fire, the two parties remained locked in violent conflict throughout 2003. While Israel did not fulfill its obligations under the road map to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank, the PA failed to abide by the demands to crack down on terrorism. Israel maintained its siege of Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah, isolating the Palestinian leader and deciding in principle to "remove" him. Citing the PA's unwillingness to confront terrorism, Israel targeted and killed several operatives and political leaders of radical Palestinian groups, generally after devastating suicide bombings in Israel; several unarmed Palestinian civilians died in the attacks. Israel also staged several raids into Palestinian-ruled territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an attempt to combat terrorism. Israel continued construction of a controversial security fence in the West Bank designed to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the country. Two joint Israeli-Palestinian nongovernmental peace initiatives garnered limited domestic support on both sides. Approximately 2,500 Palestinians and 900 Israelis have been killed since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

After Palestinian rejection of a UN partition plan in 1947, Israel declared its independence on the portion of land allotted for Jewish settlement. The fledgling state was jointly attacked by neighboring Arab states in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. 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 the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

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 maintains that these settlements are legal since under international law the West Bank and Gaza are in dispute, with their final legal status to be determined through direct bilateral negotiations based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. The settlements have become a major sticking point in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and in relations between Israel and the international community. The PA- and U.S.-backed road map demands a freeze on settlements, something that Israel did not sufficiently honor in 2003.

In what became known as the intifada (uprising), Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza began attacking mainly settlers and Israel Defense Forces troops (IDF) in 1987 to protest Israeli rule. A series of secret negotiations between Israel and Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) conducted mainly in Oslo, Norway, produced an agreement in September 1993. The Declaration of Principles provided for a PLO renunciation of terrorism, PLO recognition of Israel, Israeli troop withdrawals, and gradual Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.

Most of Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho were turned over to the PA in May 1994. Following the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist opposed to the peace process, Israel, under the stewardship of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, began redeploying its forces from six major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza.

The January 1996 elections for the PA's first Legislative Council and for the head of the council's executive authority were considered to be generally free and fair. Independents won 35 of the 88 council seats, while Arafat's Fatah movement won the remainder. Arafat became chairman of the executive authority with 88 percent of the vote.

After a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in early 1996, Peres lost a general election to Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who stayed in office until 1999. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak was elected prime minister in May of that year; he immediately pursued negotiations with Syria over the Golan Heights. Intensive peace negotiations between Israel and Syria broke down in January 2000 over disagreements on final borders around the Golan Heights. 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. Prior to losing the Golan in 1967, Syria had used the territory to shell northern Israeli towns.

Under the provisions of Oslo implemented so far, the Palestinians have had full or partial control of up to 40 percent of the territory of the West Bank and 98 percent of the Palestinian population. However, Palestinian jurisdiction has eroded considerably since the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000, when the IDF temporarily re-entered some PA-controlled territory.

At Camp David in July 2000 and at Taba, Egypt, in the fall and in early 2001, Israeli and Palestinian leaders engaged in negotiations under U.S. sponsorship. 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. The Palestinian leadership rejected the Israeli proposals. Some analysts suggested that Arafat was not confident that Israeli offers guaranteed contiguity of Palestinian territory in the West Bank or that Israel would recognize a "right of return," allowing 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. The site, considered the third holiest in Islam, is home to al-Aqsa mosque and was once the site of the Jewish temple. 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. Sharon was reelected in national elections in January 2003.

Violence continued to rage throughout the Israeli-administered territories in 2003. Insisting that the PA was not preventing terrorism, Israel responded to successive waves of Palestinian suicide bombings by staging several incursions into Palestinian-ruled territory, destroying many weapons factories and killing many members of radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as members of the secular Tanzim and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, both offshoots of Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement. Israel ceased to distinguish between militants and so-called political leaders of the groups, insisting that both were directly responsible for terrorism. In September, Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The IDF also staged several raids into the Gaza Strip, especially in response to rocket fire from there into Israel. Israeli troops also tried to destroy arms-smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza, killing civilians and razing many Palestinian homes and farming groves in the process.

While Israeli responses were generally carefully executed, many innocent bystanders were wounded or killed in the raids, which were often carried out by helicopter gunships or undercover units. Israel denied the deliberate targeting of civilians, asserting that Palestinian gunmen and other militants were intentionally positioning themselves among civilian populations, thus placing them in danger.

Israel faced intense international criticism for its handling of the Palestinian uprising. The United Nations condemned Israel for using disproportionate lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators. Although the IDF has disciplined some soldiers for apparent excessive use of force, Israeli human rights organizations have criticized the army for not being more vigilant.

The conflict in the territories resembled guerrilla warfare as Palestinians adopted more sophisticated tactics. Successful attacks were carried out against Israeli tanks in the Gaza Strip, a tactic used widely by Hezbollah against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon throughout the 1990s. Several analysts concluded that Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah cells in the West Bank and Gaza train Palestinians.

Israel and the PA took some steps toward implementing a road map to peace put forward in April 2003 by the United States, Russia, the UN, and the European Union (EU). The multi-stage, performance-based plan demanded concrete Palestinian moves against terrorist groups, to be followed by Israeli troop pullbacks and relaxation of curfews and travel restrictions. The plan also called for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity. Progress toward these goals was conditioned on the PA's first implementing sweeping political and economic reforms and establishing an "empowered prime minister" who would replace Arafat as lead Palestinian negotiator and as head of Palestinian security services.

In April, in accordance with the road map, Yasser Arafat appointed Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian prime minister. Abbas negotiated a three-month cease-fire (Hudna) among Palestinian radical groups at the end of June. While attacks against Israel markedly decreased, isolated attacks, including a suicide bombing, did take place. The PA continued to refuse to dismantle the groups. Hamas and Islamic Jihad called off the cease-fire in August after Israel assassinated Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas official in Gaza. The assassination came 48 hours after 18 people were killed by a Hamas suicide bombing aboard a bus in Jerusalem. The bombing violated the Palestinians' own cease-fire, to which Israel was not a party. Shortly after, Israel resumed operations in the West Bank and Gaza, reimposing roadblocks and sending troops back into Palestinian areas from which it had withdrawn during the lull in the violence.

Prime Minister Abbas resigned in September in protest over Yasser Arafat's refusal to allow him control of the various Palestinian security services, a key demand in the road map. He was replaced by Ahmed Qureia, who soon after his appointment similarly clashed with the Palestinian president. However, in the end, Qureia acquiesced to Arafat's dominance, as reflected in the creation of a Palestinian national security council, responsible for all security affairs and answerable solely to Arafat.

Israel continued construction of a controversial security fence along the West Bank side of the 1967 armistice line. Composed of high-wire fencing, ditches, security sensors, watchtowers, and in some parts concrete slabs, the fence is designed to prevent terrorists from infiltrating Israel. However, it is seen by Palestinians as a means to expropriate West Bank land and collectively punish ordinary Palestinians for atrocities committed by terrorists.

During the year, in partial accordance with the road map, Israel dismantled some illegal West Bank settlement outposts built without permits. Outposts normally consist of a handful of trailer homes placed mainly by religious Jews on uninhabited land. In October, the government announced plans to extend municipal services and security protection to some settlement outposts in the West Bank and Gaza and also issued new housing tenders for several hundred new apartment units in existing settlements, despite the road map's call for a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the territories. In November, Prime Minister Sharon told a gathering of his Likud party that Israel would have to give up some settlements as part of a peace arrangement with the Palestinians.

Earlier in the fall, after devastating suicide bomb attacks in Israel, the Israeli cabinet decided in principle to "remove" Yasser Arafat from power at a time of its choosing, stating that he was the chief impediment to peace and that no progress could take place as long as he maintained political control over Palestinian affairs. However, in October, Sharon publicly ruled out killing Arafat as a policy option.

In November, the IDF's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, publicly criticized Sharon's policies, saying they were strengthening terrorist organizations and undermining moderate Palestinian politicians. General Yaalon'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."

A group of former Israeli and Palestinian politicians put forward in the fall of 2003 a private peace initiative negotiated in secret in Geneva, Switzerland. Premised on terms discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at Taba, Egypt, from December 2000 to January 2001, the nongovernmental "Geneva accord" called for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the removal 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. The accord drew some limited support in the Israeli and Palestinian communities, but their respective leaders paid it little attention. An additional plan, proposed by former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian academic and peace activist Sari Nusseibeh also achieved limited support.

Peace talks with Syria did not take place during the year.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

After Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Arab residents there 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. Arab residents 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 Jerusalem have the right to vote in Palestinian elections.

Druze and Arabs in the Golan Heights, who were formerly under Syrian rule, possess similar status to Arab residents of East Jerusalem. They cannot vote in Israeli national elections, but they are represented at municipal levels.

International press freedom groups criticized Israel for preventing journalists from accessing conflict zones in the West Bank and for harassing Palestinian journalists. In January, the IDF closed two TV stations and one radio station in Hebron during antiterrorism operations. In April, Israeli troops shot and killed Nazih Darwazeh, an Associated Press Television News cameraman filming clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus. Israel denied deliberately targeting Darwazeh. In May, James Miller, a British cameraman, was killed after being shot in apparent crossfire between IDF troops and Palestinian gunmen in Gaza. He was filming a documentary about arms smuggling in the Rafah refugee camp. The same month, British photojournalist Tom Hurndall was shot in the head by IDF troops as they battled gunmen in the West Bank. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that several journalists have suffered gunshot wounds since 2000.

Israel generally recognizes the right to freedom of worship and religion. On several occasions during the intifada, Israel has restricted Muslim men under 40 from praying on the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, for fear of violent confrontations. Palestinians have deliberately damaged Jewish shrines and other holy places in the West Bank.

In January, after suicide bombings in Tel Aviv killed 22 people, Israel's Security Cabinet temporarily closed some Palestinian universities and prevented members of a PA delegation from traveling to London for meetings with British officials.

Freedom of assembly is generally respected. However, Israel has imposed strict curfews in the West Bank at various times since September 2000. There are many Palestinian nongovernmental organizations and civic groups. 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 seeking to strike must submit to arbitration by the PA Labor Ministry. No laws in the PA-ruled areas protect the rights of striking workers. Palestinian workers in Jerusalem are subject to Israeli labor law.

Palestinians accused by Israel of security offenses in Israeli-controlled areas are tried in Israeli military courts. Security offenses are broadly defined. Some due process protections exist in these courts, though there are limits on the rights to counsel, bail, and appeal. Administrative detention is widely used. Most convictions in Israeli military courts are based on confessions, sometimes obtained through physical pressure. Israel outlawed the use of torture as a means of extracting vital security information in 2000, but milder forms of physical coercion are permissible in cases where the prisoner is believed to have immediate information about impending terrorist attacks. Human rights groups still criticize Israel for engaging in what they consider torture. Confessions are usually spoken in Arabic and translated into Hebrew for official records.

While Palestinians have recourse to Israel's highest civilian courts to protest home demolitions and Israel's tactics in carrying out targeted assassinations, decisions made in their favor are rare.

In July, Israel released several hundred Palestinian prisoners. While the releases were not required under the road map, they were a key Palestinian demand to build confidence in the peace process. Some of those released went on to carry out attacks against Israelis, including suicide bombings.

During the year, Israel continued its controversial policy of destroying the homes of families of suicide bombers, claiming that the policy serves as a deterrent. Throughout the Palestinian uprising, Israel has also destroyed many homes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the grounds that they provide cover for gunmen and bombers. Additionally, Israel has destroyed some Palestinian structures built without permits, especially in East Jerusalem. Building permits are difficult for West Bank Palestinians to obtain.

In October, the IDF killed several Palestinians and destroyed many homes and much farmland during fighting with gunmen in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Israel was attempting to destroy tunnels originating in Egypt used to smuggle arms to Gaza; many of the tunnels led to private homes in Rafah. In one raid, the IDF destroyed 230 homes, displacing 1,200 people, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Israel claimed it had uncovered 70 tunnels since 2000 and that destroying homes was a necessary part of preventing arms smuggling.

In March, Rachel Corrie, an American peace activist attached to the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) was killed while protesting in a closed military zone in the Gaza Strip. She died after an Israeli army bulldozer crushed her as she protested in front of it. After an extensive inquiry, the incident was ruled an accident by the IDF. Israel, in an attempt to control the movement of international protestors into active combat zones, expelled some ISM members and restricted the movements of other activists into and around the territories.

Violence between Palestinians and settlers is not uncommon. Several Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were ambushed and killed by Palestinian gunmen or attacked with mortar fire. Some were targeted while traveling in cars or buses, and others were attacked while in their homes and schools. Attacks by settlers against Palestinians have also taken place. In September, three settlers were convicted of planning a bomb attack at a Palestinian school in the West Bank.

Construction of Israel's security barrier in the West Bank disconnected hundreds of Palestinians from their farming fields and denied them and others easier access to other parts of the West Bank. The fence cut off one town, Qalqilya, from open access to the farms that normally supply its markets. Some Palestinian buildings, irrigation networks, and fields were destroyed to accommodate construction of the fence. Israel said that it replanted Palestinian trees and crops in areas not affected by the fence. Israel also incorporated access gates for use by Palestinians, but many complained of substantial inconveniences and hardship. Israel insisted that the fence was not a permanent border, that it was a temporary solution to an ongoing terrorist threat. A report issued by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in November said that the barrier would cause serious human suffering once completed, separating nearly 700,000 Palestinians from their farms, jobs, and schools.

All West Bank and Gaza residents must have identification cards in order to obtain entry permits into Israel, including East Jerusalem. Israel often denies permits to applicants with no explanation. Even senior Palestinian officials are subject to long delays and searches at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank.

The Israeli army maintained roadblocks and checkpoints throughout the West Bank in 2003 to prevent terrorists from entering Israel. The measure denied Palestinians easy passage from one town to another, making access to jobs, hospitals, and schools extremely difficult. The restrictions of movement between and among Palestinian towns and cities have been denounced as collective punishment. Travel for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza is extremely difficult. Israel exercises overall military control at border crossings between the West Bank and Jordan and between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

The Palestinian economy has been seriously affected by the intifida and the Israeli closures of the West Bank and Gaza. According to the World Bank, unemployment in Palestinian areas reached 50 percent in 2003. Thousands of Palestinians rely on access to jobs in Israel. At various times during the year, Israel permitted several thousand Palestinian workers to enter the country.

This 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.