Freedom in the World
Gaza Strip *
Sporadic fighting between Israeli forces and Gazan militants continued during 2010, but Israel eased its blockade somewhat after a May incident in which several activists attempting to reach the territory by sea were killed by Israeli forces. Also in 2010, Hamas officials pursued their crackdown on independent journalism, perceived public immorality, and suspected Israeli spies. No new election dates were set despite the recent expiration of the terms of the Palestinian Authority’s executive and legislative bodies.
The Gaza Strip was demarcated as part of a 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Egypt following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Populated mostly by Palestinian Arab refugees of that war, the territory was occupied by Egypt until 1967. Israel conquered Gaza, along with the West Bank and other territories, in the 1967 Six-Day War, and ruled it thereafter through a military administration.
In 1968, Israel began establishing Jewish settlements in Gaza, a process regarded as illegal by most of the international community. Israel maintained that the settlements were legal since under international law Gaza was a disputed territory. In what became known as the first intifada (uprising), in 1987, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza staged massive demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, and attacks against Israeli settlers and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops in the territories, as well as attacks within Israel proper. 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 phased Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank. In 1994, the newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) took control of most of the Gaza Strip; the PA also came to control about 40 percent of the West Bank.
As negotiations on a final settlement and the creation of a Palestinian state headed toward collapse, a second intifada began in September 2000, and the Israeli government responded by staging deadly raids into PA territory.
After Arafat died in November 2004, the PA in January 2005 held its second-ever presidential election, which had been repeatedly postponed; the first voting for president and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) had taken place in 1996. Mahmoud Abbas of Arafat’s Fatah faction won the 2005 contest with 62 percent of the vote. In subsequent municipal voting in Gaza, the Islamist group Hamas won 77 out of 118 seats in 10 districts, to Fatah’s 26 seats. Each group accused the other of fraud, and there was some election-related violence.
In February 2005, Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed on a formal truce that lasted through June 2006. In August 2005, Israel unilaterally “disengaged” from Gaza, withdrawing all settlers and military personnel. However, it retained control of the territory’s airspace, its coastline, and most of its land border, including the passage of goods and people.
Hamas won the January 2006 elections for the PLC, securing 74 of 132 seats, while Fatah took just 45; Hamas was particularly dominant in Gazan districts. Subsequently, Fatah and Hamas formed a unity government headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas. Israel, the United States, and the European Union (EU) refused to recognize the new government, citing Hamas’s involvement in terrorism and its refusal to recognize Israel or past Israel-PA agreements. The United States and the EU, then the largest donors to the PA, cut off assistance to the government.
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.
Armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters in Gaza escalated in 2007, and in June Hamas militants successfully took over Fatah-controlled institutions in the territory. Some 600 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, and thousands of Gazans fled—along with most Fatah militants—to the West Bank. Abbas accused Hamas of staging a coup in Gaza, dismissed the Hamas-led government, and appointed an emergency cabinet led by former finance minister Salam Fayad. This resulted in a bifurcated PA, with Hamas governing Gaza and Abbas and Fayad governing the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank not directly administered by Israel. Hamas security forces and militants subsequently pursued a major crackdown on Fatah in Gaza, closing down Fatah-affiliated civic organizations and media outlets, and allegedly torturing detainees.
Meanwhile, Israel declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” in response to ongoing rocket attacks, and imposed an economic blockade on the territory, granting passage only to food and certain other humanitarian supplies. However, arms and goods were regularly smuggled through a developing tunnel network between Egypt and Gaza. The blockade was eased after Hamas and Israel declared a six-monthtruce in June 2008.
War erupted between Hamas and Israeli forces in December 2008, after the truce expired and Hamas ramped up its rocket bombardment of Israeli towns near the Gaza border. The IDF launched near-daily air strikes and an almost three-week ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire in late January 2009, and Hamas soon did the same. During the conflict, Israeli forces damaged or destroyed large portions of Gaza’s military, government, and civilian infrastructure. According to the United Nations, some 50,000 homes, 800 industrial properties, 200 schools, and 39 mosques or churches were damaged or destroyed. For its part, Hamas launched over 700 rockets and mortars into Israeli civilian areas, often from civilian areas in Gaza. Tens of thousands of Gazans were left homeless by the fighting, and shortages of water, food, and medicine were acute. 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 September 2009, a UN-commissioned investigation into the war led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes, charges that were echoed by an array of international human rights organizations. Israel subsequently announced investigations into 150 allegations from the report: 36 were transferred to criminal investigations, 48 were closed, and the rest were pending at the end of 2010. In February 2010, two IDF officers were reprimanded for an artillery attack on a UN compound in Gaza that included white phosphorus munitions, and Israel agreed to pay the United Nations $10 million in compensation. In October, an IDF military court found two soldiers guilty of using a young boy as a human shield to check for booby traps in Tel al-Hawa; they were sentenced to two years probation.The UN Human Rights Council and nongovernmental human rights organizations accused Israel of investigating only a portion of the allegations, with a focus on low-ranking officers; Hamas was criticized for failing to launch a serious investigation at all.
Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza during the war, allowing only humanitarian goods into the territory. Following the ceasefire, the restrictions were eased somewhat to allow the transfer of other authorized goods, as well as international aid workers and individuals with specified medical and humanitarian needs. Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt opened on an ad hoc basis.
In 2010, a series of private ships carrying food and other goods attempted to break Israel’s coastal blockade of Gaza. In May, Israeli soldiers intercepted a six-ship flotilla from Turkey and killed nine activists on one of the ships—the Mavi Marmara—in an ensuing confrontation; a total of 632 activists were arrested and detained in Israel. The Israeli government was widely condemned internationally for the incident, but claimed its soldiers were acting in self-defense. Israel later eased the blockade substantially, allowing in virtually all consumer goods while continuing to ban weapons, fertilizer, gas tanks, drilling equipment, and water disinfectant, as well as all exports and almost all travel; prohibitions on construction materials were also slightly loosened. Nevertheless, in November, a report published by twenty-one aid groups—including Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Save the Children—stated that there had been “little improvement” in economic conditions in Gaza since the easing of the blockade, citing in particular continued restrictions on exports and construction materials.
Sporadic fighting continued between Israel and Gazan militants in 2010. Incidents of rocket and mortar fire into Israel from Gaza prompted a series of Israeli air strikes and artillery bombardments, killing both combatants and civilians. Most severely, in April, Israel staged over a dozen air strikes and a brief ground incursion into Gaza after some 20 rockets and mortar shells were fired from the territory in March, while December saw an increase in cross-border skirmishes, Palestinian rocket fire, and Israel airstrikes. According to the United Nations, 55 Palestinians were killed by the IDF in Gaza in 2010, including 22 civilians.
Residents of Gaza were never granted citizenship by either Egypt or Israel, and are mostly citizens of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The current Hamas-controlled government in the territory claims to be the legitimate leadership of the PA. However, the authority—a quasi-sovereign entity created by the 1993 Oslo Accords—is effectively fractured, and the Hamas government implements PA law selectively.
Whereas previous editions of Freedom in the World featured one report for Israeli-occupied portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and another for Palestinian-administered portions, the present edition divides the territories based on geography, with one report for the West Bank and another for the Gaza Strip. As in previous years, Israel is examined in a separate report.