Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1998.
ISRAEL AND THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES *Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a multiparty system and free elections. There is no constitution; a series of basic laws provide for fundamental rights. The legislature, or Knesset, has the power to dissolve the Government and limit the authority of the executive branch. Likud Party leader Benyamin Netanyahu is Prime Minister and heads a center-right coalition government. The judiciary is legally independent but, in practice, it usually acquiesces with the Government's position in security cases. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has been in a state of war with most of its Arab neighbors. It concluded a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. As a result of the 1967 War, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The international community does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over any part of the occupied territories. Throughout its existence, Israel has experienced numerous terrorist attacks. An historic process of reconciliation between Israel and its neighbors began with the Madrid Conference in 1991 and continued with the September 1993 signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles (DOP). In September 1995, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which provided for the election and establishment of a Palestinian self-governing authority, transfer of civil authority, Israeli redeployment from major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, security arrangements, and cooperation in a variety of areas. In January Israel and the PLO concluded the Hebron Agreement, which established security arrangements for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Palestinian-populated areas of Hebron, and set out a road map for mutual implementation of other Interim Agreement commitments. However, in March Israel began construction in the Har Homa/Jebel Abu Ghanaim neighborhood of east Jerusalem and on March 7 announced a minimal first-phase further redeployment of its forces from the occupied territories. At the same time the Palestinian Authority (PA) slackened security cooperation. A suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on March 21 was followed by two more in Jerusalem on July 30 and September 4; 24 persons were killed and hundreds were injured. As a result of these developments, negotiations on Interim Agreement implementation issues were broken off between March and October, and the two parties had not agreed to resume final status talks at year's end.
Internal security is the responsibility of the General Security Service (GSS)--(Shin Bet, or Shabak), which is under the authority of the Prime Minister's office. The police are under the authority of the Minister of Internal Security. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are under the authority of a civilian Minister of Defense. The IDF includes a significant portion of the adult population on active duty or reserve status and plays a role in maintaining internal security. The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset reviews the activities of the IDF and the GSS. Members of the security forces committed human rights abuses. Israel has an advanced industrial economy, and citizens enjoy a high standard of living, with a per capita income of $17,000. Unemployment among citizens rose to 7.6 percent by mid-1997 but was substantially higher in the country's peripheral regions and among lower-skilled workers. Along with rapid economic growth in recent years, there has been a tendency toward increasing income inequality. The longstanding gap in levels of income between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens continues. Regional income disparities appear to be growing, with unemployment in some areas reaching more than double the national average. Israel's heavy reliance on foreign workers, principally from Asia and Eastern Europe, represents a growing economic and social issue. Such workers are generally employed in agriculture and the construction industry and constitute about 10 percent of the labor force. Since the implementation of an economic stabilization plan in 1985, Israel has moved gradually to reduce state intervention in the economy. The Netanyahu Government is committed to market-oriented structural reforms, especially deregulation and rapid privatization of the economy. In 1997 the Government successfully privatized Israel's largest bank and continued the process of privatizing and deregulating the telecommunications sector. Despite the Government's continued dominant role in the economy, individuals generally are free to invest in private interests and own property. The Government owns 78 percent of the country's land area, and as a matter of policy it does not sell land. The Government, its entities, and the Jewish National Fund, (an organization established in 1897 for the purchase and management of land for the Jewish people) own 93 percent of the country's land area. As a matter of policy, the Government and its entities do not sell land. The Jewish National Fund has a statute prohibiting sale or lease of land to non-Jews (although exceptions are sometimes made), foreigners are allowed freely to purchase or lease land in the remaining 7 percent of Israel. The Government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, who enjoy a wide range of civil and other rights. Israel's main human rights problems have arisen from its policies and practices in the occupied territories and from its fight against terrorism. The redeployment of the IDF from most major Palestinian population areas in the West Bank in December 1995, and its previous withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, have significantly reduced the scope of these problems. Nonetheless, there continued to be problems in some areas. Security forces abused Palestinians suspected of security offenses. During the year, the High Court of Justice heard 46 abuse-related cases (almost all asking for an injunction to halt the torture of a specific individual). In no case did the High Court issue an injunction prohibiting the use of moderate physical pressure. The Government continues to detain without charge numerous Palestinians. Detention and prison conditions, particularly for Palestinian security detainees held in Israel, in some cases do not meet minimum international standards. However, new legislation took effect in May that set tighter limits on the length and grounds for pretrial detention. During the year, discussion continued on proposed legislation to define the basis for and limits of GSS activities after a 1996 version was widely criticized by human rights groups and legal experts because it authorized the Government to use force during interrogation and to issue secret guidelines defining the methods of interrogation. The revised legislation, which had not been formally submitted to the Knesset by year's end, omits this clause. Although there continues to be no explicit legal basis for the use of special measures, i.e., force during interrogation, the Government justifies such practices as necessary in special circumstances when thought necessary to save lives in the fight against terrorism. The Government responded to terrorist and security incidents by periodically tightening existing restrictions on movement across borders with the West Bank and Gaza and between Palestinian Authority-controlled areas inside the West Bank, detaining hundreds of Palestinians without charge and demolishing the homes of some suspected terrorists and their families in the occupied territories. The Government took steps to address discrimination and violence against women, although the Attorney General's decision not to file charges against a Knesset member accused of abusing his wife was widely criticized in the media by women's groups and human rights advocates. Despite government pledges to eliminate the wide social and economic gap between Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens, there was little progress in this direction. Israel's Arab minority continues to suffer from institutionalized discrimination and does not share fully in the rights granted to, and the obligations imposed on, Jewish citizens.