Freedom in the World
Intense fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas in the Gaza Strip ended with a ceasefire in January 2009, but the territory continued to suffer during the year from infrastructural damage, unexploded ordnance, and ongoing Israeli border restrictions. Meanwhile, Israeli authorities continued to break up protests against the growing security barrier in the West Bank, and approved additional construction at existing Jewish settlements near Jerusalem.
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 maintained that the settlements were legal since under international law the West Bank and Gaza were 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. While the Israeli incursions targeted Islamist and secular militant groups, they also caused the deaths of many civilians.
After Arafat’s death in 2004 and the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new PA presidentin 2005, violence declined markedly. In February 2005, Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed on a formal truce that lasted through June 2006. Israel unilaterally withdrew all settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. However, it retained control of Gaza’s airspace, its coastline, and most of its land border.
The Islamist faction Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, allowing it to form a PA government without Abbas’s Fatah party. Israel, the United States, and the European Union (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 and accelerated the firing of Qassam rockets at Israel from Gaza. The source of the artillery fire remained in dispute. 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 civilians. PA-controlled areas of the West Bank also faced Israeli incursions in 2006.
IDF operations in the West Bank dropped significantly following the fracturing of the PA in June 2007 between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. 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, granting passage only to food deliveries and a restricted list other humanitarian supplies. However, arms and goods were regularly smuggled through a tunnel network dug between Egypt and Gaza. Israeli forces continued to attack targets in the Gaza Strip and clash with Palestinian militants near the border for the remainder of the year.
After several more months of fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-monthceasefire in June 2008, leading to an easing of the blockade. Meanwhile, Israeli troops staged a number of raids in the West Bank during 2008, in addition to regular patrols. The IDF reportedly controlled about 60 percent of the West Bank, and construction continued on a security barrier that ran roughly along the West Bank side of the 1949 armistice line (Green Line) and sometimes jutted farther into the West Bank. Palestinians complained that the barrier, which by the end of 2009 was about 70 percent complete, expropriated West Bank land and collectively punished ordinary Palestinians for acts committed by terrorists.
Before his resignation in late 2008, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert sought to finalize peace talks with Abbas’s Fatah-led government that had accelerated after the latter’s 2007 split with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Olmert proposed a plan that involved the return of 93 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, international control of Jerusalem’s “Holy Basin,” and the ceding of the city’s Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians. The plan also called for a land swap whereby Israel would retain three West Bank settlement blocs in exchange for land adjacent to Gaza (in the Negev desert) equal to 5.5 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinians would also receive free crossing between the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas rejected the plan, citing core Palestinian demands for a contiguous state within the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital, and a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
War erupted between Hamas and Israeli forces in December 2008, after the six-month truce expired and Hamas ramped up its rocket bombardment of Israeli towns near the border with Gaza. The IDF launched a campaign of near-daily air strikes and an almost three-week ground invasion of the coastal territory. Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire in late January 2009, and Hamas soon did the same. During the conflict, Israeli forces destroyed large portions of Gaza’s military, government, and civilian infrastructure; according to the British Broadcasting Corporation, more than 4,000 buildings were destroyed, with 20,000 severely damaged. Tens of thousands of Gazans were left homeless by the fighting. While the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported that 1,434 Palestinians were killed, including 960 noncombatants, the IDF reported that 1,166 Palestinians were killed, including 295 to 460 noncombatants. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three noncombatants. In January, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that electricity and water were “severely limited” for two-thirds of Gaza’s population, and vaccinations were in short supply. According to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), some 150,000 Gazans continued to lack access to tap water as of April.
International and domestic human rights organizations accused Israel of using excessive military force in Gaza and imposing collective punishment on its residents. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch argued that Israeli forces had committed war crimes, a charge echoed by an investigation commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council and led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The Israeli government, which did not cooperate with the Goldstone commission, denied the allegations, arguing that the military campaign was necessary to protect Israeli civilians from Hamas rocket attacks; according to the IDF, over 7,500 rockets and mortar shells had been launched at Israel since 2005. Israel also asserted that Palestinian civilian casualties were caused primarily by Hamas and other militant groups’ use of civilian areas to stage and prepare attacks, that Israeli actions—including the use of white phosphorus munitions—fell within the bounds of international law, and that the blockade of Gaza was limited to materials with potential military uses. Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups were also accused of war crimes for indiscriminately firing over 700 rockets into Israeli civilian areas during the war.After the outbreak of hostilities, Israel had tightened its blockade of Gaza to allow only humanitarian goods, and reduced the number of crossing openings. Aid agencies called for a full opening of crossing points; according to the UNRWA, the Israeli authorities in January were permitting only a fraction of the necessary number of trucks to enter Gaza each day. Following the ceasefire, crossings were opened on a limited basis to transfer grains, certain types of fuels, and other authorized goods, as well as international aid workers and individuals with specified medical and humanitarian needs. The Rafah border crossing with Egypt opened on an ad hoc basis. In August, Israel allowed cement and heavy building materials into Gaza for the first time in seven months.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
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 PA elections. 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 size.
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. Israeli journalists have been prohibited from entering the Gaza Strip since 2006 under a military decree that cites their personal safety. A broader ban that also applied to foreign journalists was in place from November 2008 to January 2009, though it was lifted briefly by court order in December. During the war, Israeli forces bombed Hamas-affiliated media stations and destroyed satellite equipment on the roof of a building that housed the local offices of Iran’s English- and Arabic-language television networks. The IDF also interfered with a Gazan radio and television station, broadcasting calls to abandon Hamas. According to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), five Gazan journalists were killed by Israeli forces during the war.
Israel generally recognizes the right to freedom of worship and religion. On several occasions since 2000, Israeli authorities have restricted Muslim men under age 45 from praying at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem, citing the possibility of violent confrontations. In October 2009, hundreds of Muslim youths and Israeli police clashed at the site after the youths threw stones and firebombs at police and a tourist group; police responded with rubber bullets and stun grenades. The next day, prayers at the Haram al-Sharif were limited to women and men over age 50.
While academic freedom is generally respected, IDF-imposed closures and curfews in the West Bank, and the growing security barrier, have crippled the operations of many Palestinian academic institutions. Schools have sometimes been damaged during military actions, and student travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has been limited. Schoolchildren have been injured or killed during fighting. In September 2009, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that at least 280 of Gaza’s 641 schools were damaged and 18 were destroyed during the fighting that ended in January, and that many schools lacked essential materials in the aftermath. Despite a nonbinding 2008 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court calling on the government to allow Gazan students to study abroad, Israel’s border restrictions have prevented them from doing so. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), East Jerusalem’s schools are badly underfunded compared with schools in West Jerusalem.
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 2009, Israeli police continued to break up frequent demonstrations in opposition to the security barrier in the West Bank. An American protestor, Tristan Anderson, was critically injured in March after being hit by an IDF tear-gas canister. In a similar incident in April, a protestor, Bassem Ibrahim Abu-Rahma, was killed at a protest near Bil’in. The Israeli Supreme Court in July ordered the military to impose stronger charges on the officer and soldier filmed shooting a rubber bullet at the feet of a bound Palestinian arrested at a barrier protest in 2008.
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. 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, land confiscations, road closures, and IDF tactics. Decisions in favor of Palestinian petitioners, while rare, have increased in recent years. Rights groups often charge that such petitions are not adjudicated in a timely fashion and are sometimes dismissed without sufficient cause. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered changes to the route of the West Bank security barrier after hearing NGO and Palestinian petitions. By the end of 2009, the Ministry of Defense had altered or pledged to alter the route in response to three of six such 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. According to an October 2009 report by the human rights groups B’Tselem and HaMoked Center, there are about 7,150 Palestinians in Israeli custody: 5,000 serving sentences, 1,569 awaiting trial, and 335 in administrative detention. Most convictions in Israeli military courts are based on confessions, sometimes obtained through coercion. Israel outlawed the use of torture to extract security information in 2000, 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.
Israel frequently releases prisoners in the context of peace negotiations or mutual exchanges. In March 2009, Israel detained 10 senior Hamas leaders in the West Bank after talks over the release of Gilad Shalit collapsed; in September, authorities released 20 Palestinian women in exchange for a video of Shalit. While seven Hamas lawmakers were released in 2009, including parliament speaker Aziz Dweik, 15 remain in prison.
According to B’Tselem, Israeli security forces killed more than 4,790 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza between the beginning of the second intifada and the war in Gaza, about 47 percent of whom were noncombatants and about 20 percent of whom were minors. About 500 Israelis were killed in the territories during the same period, about 50 percent of whom were noncombatants. Following the war in Gaza, approximately 70 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli security forces as of the end of 2009, about 34 percent of whom were non-combatants. Violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers is not uncommon. Settler assaults on Palestinians and their property continued to increase in 2009, particularly after Israeli forces dismantled illegal settler outposts in the West Bank. Rights groups accused the authorities of failing to adequately prosecute settlers for such offenses.
The easing of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank and the wider deployment of PA security forces there led to increased economic activity in 2009, particularly in Nablus, Ramallah, and Jenin. However, despite the removal of six central checkpoints during the year, Israel maintains about 35 external and 50 internal checkpoints in the West Bank, as well as over 450 roadblocks. These measures impose extensive delays on local travel, stunt trade within the territory and with the outside world, 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. While most West Bank roads are open to both Israelis and Palestinians, about 10 roads are restricted to drivers with Israeli documents, ostensibly for security reasons. In October 2009, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the military to open one of these roads to Palestinian traffic. In 2008, B’Tselem and HaMoked accused the government of stepping up enforcement of residency-permit requirements to deport hundreds of Gazans from the West Bank.
The extensive damage in Gaza following Israel’s war with Hamas was a major impediment to freedom of movement in the territory in 2009. In August, the UN Development Programme reported that unexploded ordnance was still a serious hazard in Gaza and had been responsible for at least 17 deaths and 15 injuries, many of them suffered by minors. According to the United Nations, Israel’s campaign destroyed some 1,700 hectares of agricultural land in Gaza, some of which could not be planted in time for the fall harvest.
Israel has not honored past agreements calling for a freeze in West Bank settlement construction. In 2008, the Israeli antisettlement group Peace Now claimed that Israel had built 60 percent more structures in existing West Bank settlements than in 2007; the report also documented the construction of 261 unofficial settler outposts. Peace Now accused the government of approving fewer than 6 percent of Palestinian building requests and demolishing 33 percent of illegal Palestinian-builtstructures in 2008, compared with 7 percent of illegal Jewish-built structures. In January 2009, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported on a censored database of West Bank settlements, suggesting that nearly 75 percent of construction since 1967 had occurred without the correct permits, and that over 30 settlements had constructed at least one building on private Palestinian land. In 2009, Israel approved construction of about 900 new homes in existing settlements near Jerusalem.While Palestinian women are underrepresented in most professions and encounter discrimination in employment, they have full access to universities and to many professions. Palestinian laws and 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 women are murdered by relatives for perceived sexual or moral transgressions, 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.