Freedom in the World 2008

Status Change Explanation: 

The political rights rating for the Palestinian Authority–administered territories declined from 4 to 5, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free, due to the collapse of a unified government after Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, the inability of elected representatives to govern in either Gaza or the West Bank, and the suppression of the political opposition in both areas.

Increased fighting between Hamas and Fatah in 2007 upended a newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) government and led to Hamas’s expulsion of Fatah-aligned political and security forces from the Gaza Strip. PA president and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Hamas-led government and appointed a new, West Bank–based government led by Salam Fayad. This fracturing of the PA was followed by crackdowns on the respective opposition forces in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with more severe restrictions in the former.

In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. It annexed East Jerusalem in that year and the Golan Heights in 1981, though the Sinai was returned to Egypt. In what became known as the intifada (uprising), Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza began attacking mainly military targets in 1987 to protest Israeli rule. Israel and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) reached an agreement in 1993 that provided for Israeli troop withdrawals and gradual Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for recognition of Israel and an end to Palestinian terrorism. The resulting Palestinian Authority (PA) subsequently obtained full or partial control of up to 40 percent of the West Bank, more than 50 percent of the Gaza Strip, and 98 percent of the Palestinian population.

Far-reaching negotiations under U.S. sponsorship in 2000 and early 2001 failed to produce a final settlement on a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, a second intifada had begun in September 2000, and violence flared throughout the occupied territories. Rightist leader Ariel Sharon was elected Israeli prime minister in February 2001. Insisting that the PA was not preventing terrorism, his government responded to Palestinian suicide bombings by staging raids into PA territory. The operations targeted Islamist and secular militant groups but also caused the deaths of many civilians.

In April 2003, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to abide by a “road map” to peace put forward by the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union (EU). The plan called for coordinated Palestinian and Israeli steps toward peace and the eventual creation of an independent Palestinian state.

A PA presidential election was held in January 2005 to replace Arafat, who died in November 2004. The election, repeatedly postponed during Arafat’s rule, was the second in the PA’s history; 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. In a second round of West Bank and Gaza municipal voting in May, Fatah won most municipalities, but Hamas posted impressive gains. Each group accused the other of fraud, and there was some election-related violence. Later that year, Israel unilaterally pulled all Jewish settlers out of Gaza, giving the PA full control within the territory.

PLC elections, which Abbas had postponed in 2005, were held in January 2006. Hamas won 74 of 132 seats, while Fatah won just 45. The results allowed Hamas to form a government without Fatah support. Hamas’s popularity was due in large part to its network of health clinics and schools and its vow to fight corruption; its electoral gains were a significant challenge to the Fatah-dominated PA, which was widely viewed as corrupt. Israel, the United States, and the EU refused to recognize the Hamas-led government, citing the group’s involvement in terrorism and its refusal to recognize Israel or past Israel-PA agreements. The United States and the EU, the largest donors to the PA before the elections, cut off assistance to the government.

After Hamas’s ascent to power, armed clashes frequently broke out between Hamas and Fatah supporters. In February 2007, weeks of fighting between Hamas and Fatah culminated in a major outbreak of violence in Gaza in which 20 people were killed and over 100 wounded within 24 hours. Later that month, Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas agreed to form a “national unity” government in which key ministries were assigned to independent candidates. Nonetheless, Hamas- and Fatah-affiliated militias continued to clash, leaving scores dead in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, the West Bank. In May, the fighting in Gaza increased significantly, with Hamas and Fatah gunmen exchanging fire and staging violent raids on party-affiliated targets; over 50 Palestinians, including civilians, were killed. A cease-fire between the two sides was short-lived, and by early June, Hamas militants had successfully taken over Fatah strongholds—including paramilitary bases and government buildings—in the territory and driven most Fatah militants to the West Bank. Thousands of Gazans, particularly those loyal to Fatah, fled the territory during the fighting. Abbas subsequently dismissed the Hamas-led government, declared a state of emergency, and accused Hamas of staging a coup in Gaza. He appointed an emergency cabinet led by former finance minister Salam Fayad. These events left a bifurcated PA, with Haniya and Hamas governing Gaza and Abbas and Fayad governing the Palestinian-administered areas of the West Bank.

Fayad’s Hamas-free government in the West Bank received widespread support from Western countries and recognition by Israel. The United States and the EU renewed aid flows, while Israel released millions of dollars in PA tax revenues. The Gaza-based institutions controlled by Hamas were excluded from accessing these funds. Moreover, peace negotiations between Israel and Abbas accelerated following the fracturing of the PA. A series of confidence building measures—including the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel—preceded both sides’ participation in a U.S.-brokered peace conference in late November. The conference culminated in a joint pledge by Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to begin final status negotiations on a Palestinian state and try to complete them by the end of 2008. The agreement was immediately rejected by Hamas. In December, Hamas proposed a cease-fire and talks with Israeli officials. Despite the support of some government ministers, Olmert rejected the offer unless Hamas recognized Israel.

Following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, Israel closed down its borders with the territory. Food deliveries were permitted for the remainder of the year, but Israel shut off almost all fuel deliveries, leaving most Gazans with only sporadic electricity. In August, the EU similarly halted fuel aid to Gaza, citing Hamas’s plans to generate revenue by taxing electricity bills. The following month, Israel declared the Gaza Strip a “hostile entity” in response to the continued barrage of Qassam rockets from the area. The classification would have allowed Israel to cut off all utility supplies to Gaza short of causing a humanitarian crisis; however, the declaration was suspended by the Israeli attorney general on legal grounds. In November, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the government could continue to restrict fuel supplies as a legal economic sanction against Hamas, but found that the government’s plans for electricity cutbacks were too vague to ensure minimal humanitarian impact. In August, the United Nations warned that Israeli border restrictions had almost completely stalled Gaza’s economy, leaving the territory dependant on international aid.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Palestinian Authority (PA) president is elected to five-year terms, and international observers judged the 2005 presidential election to be generally free and fair. The unicameral Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was expanded from 88 to 132 representatives ahead of the legislative elections in 2006. The prime minister is nominated by the president. Under agreements with Israel, the PLC has no real authority over borders or defense policy. Laws governing Palestinians in the occupied territories derive from Ottoman, British Mandate, Jordanian, Egyptian, and PA law, as well as Israeli military orders.

In the January 2006 PLC elections, at least five parties competed in addition to the dominant Hamas and Fatah. The armed faction Islamic Jihad did not participate and urged its followers to boycott the vote. While the elections were deemed largely fair by international observers, there were credible reports of the use of PA resources for the benefit of Fatah candidates, as well as campaigning by Hamas candidates in mosques, in violation of the PA’s electoral rules. Some voters reported encountering difficulty in reaching polling stations because of Israeli roadblocks, though Israel was generally credited with allowing relatively free access during the elections.

The fracturing of the PA between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah-controlled West Bank in 2007 resulted in a decline in political rights, as elected officials on both sides were prevented from holding office and performing related duties. Hamas forcibly expelled Fatah officials from the Gaza Strip, while President Mahmoud Abbas appointed a new PA cabinet in the West Bank, creating an unelected authority in that territory. Abbas’s calls for new PLC elections were rejected by Hamas throughout 2007.

Palestinian residents of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem do not have the right to vote in national elections in Israel. Arabs in East Jerusalem who hold Israeli identity cards can vote in the city’s municipal elections and in PA elections. However, Israeli authorities restricted PLC campaigning in East Jerusalem to parties that registered with the Israeli police, effectively excluding Hamas.

Transparency and the consolidation of PA finances became priorities in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, due to rampant corruption during his presidency. Abbas instituted budget controls, ended the old system of cash handouts to political loyalists and members of security services, and launched a widespread corruption probe in 2005. While the Hamas-led government that took control following the 2006 PLC elections expressed a willingness to subject itself to budgetary oversight, many foreign governments were nonetheless reluctant to contribute money out of concern that it would be used for terrorist operations. Prime Minister Salam Fayad, who was appointed by Abbas after the PA schism in 2007, is highly regarded for his commitment to transparent government. Transparency International did not rank Palestine in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

A 1996 law passed by the PLC that guarantees freedom of expression has yet to be ratified. The media are not free in the West Bank and Gaza, and press freedom continued to suffer in 2007. Under a 1995 press law, journalists may be fined and jailed, and newspapers closed, for publishing “secret information” on PA security forces or news that might harm national unity or incite violence. However, another press law stipulates that intelligence services do not reserve the right to interrogate, detain, or arrest journalists on the basis of their work. Several small media outlets are routinely pressured to provide favorable coverage of the PA, Fatah, or Hamas. Arbitrary arrests, threats, and the physical abuse of journalists critical of the PA or the dominant factions are routine. In January 2007, the Gaza offices of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite television channel were bombed after a controversial report on Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas. Official PA radio and television have been considered government mouthpieces, though Hamas-Fatah infighting has made the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation an occasional target of Hamas gunmen. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 160,000 Palestinians had access to the internet as of 2004.

Several journalists have been kidnapped by militants over the course of the current intifada, including three in 2007. Most notably, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent Alan Johnston was captured in March near the Karni crossing in Gaza by Army of Islam gunmen; following a number of international and Palestinian interventions, Johnston was released in July. The upsurge in fighting between Hamas and Fatah featured increased attacks on journalists in PA-controlled areas. Hamas gunmen attacked Fatah-affiliated and PA broadcast stations in Gaza, while Hamas-affiliated stations were threatened by Fatah gunmen in the West Bank. Eight news outlets and 15 journalists were reportedly attacked—and two journalists were killed—during the fighting. In June, Hamas gunmen raided the Gaza? office of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate; the union was subsequently dissolved in the territory. Hamas later banned all journalists not accredited by the Information Ministry, closed down Gaza outlets that were not affiliated with Hamas, and began enforcing the restrictive 1995 PA press law. Several journalists were arrested in Gaza during Hamas crackdowns on Fatah rallies in the second half of the year; meanwhile, Fatah forces continued to harass and attack Hamas-affiliated media in the West Bank.

The PA generally respects freedom of religion, though no law specifically protects religious expression. The basic law declares Islam to be the official religion of Palestine and also states that “respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions [that is, Judaism and Christianity] shall be maintained.” Personal status law, which governs marriage and divorce, is based on religious law; for Muslims, it is derived from Sharia (Islamic law), and for Christians, from ecclesiastical courts. Some Palestinian Christians have experienced intimidation and harassment by radical Islamist groups and PA officials. Following remarks made in September 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI about Islam and the prophet Muhammad, churches and Christian institutions in the Gaza Strip received bomb threats.

The PA has authority over all levels of education. Some Palestinian schools teach hatred of Israel. Israeli military closures, curfews, and the West Bank security barrier restrict access to Palestinian academic institutions. Israeli authorities have at times shut universities, and schools have been damaged during military operations. Throughout the intifada, schoolchildren have periodically been injured or killed during fighting.

The PA requires permits for rallies and demonstrations and prohibits violence and racist sloganeering. Nevertheless, large rallies, often marked by violent rhetoric, are regular occurrences in Palestinian areas. Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, freedoms of assembly and association were significantly restricted there, with security forces violently dispersing public gatherings of Fatah and other groups, killing a number of people. In August, a protest against Hamas was dispersed and several people arrested after Hamas banned all demonstrations not permitted by the Interior Ministry. Seven people were killed and 80 wounded during a November rally to commemorate the death of Arafat. In December, Hamas banned opposition rallies commemorating the 43rd anniversary of Fatah’s founding. There are a broad range of Palestinian nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, and Hamas itself operates a large network providing social services to certain Palestinians.

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. There are no laws in the PA-ruled areas to protect the rights of striking workers. Palestinian workers in Jerusalem are subject to Israeli labor law.

The judicial system is not independent. While the PA unveiled a draft constitution in April 2003, neither Arafat nor Abbas endorsed it. Palestinian judges lack proper training and experience. Israeli demands for a crackdown on terrorism have given rise to state security courts, which lack almost all due process rights. There are reportedly hundreds of administrative detainees currently in Palestinian jails and detention centers. The same courts are also used to try those suspected of collaborating with Israel or accused of drug trafficking. Defendants are not granted the right to appeal sentences and are often summarily tried and sentenced to death. According to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, alleged collaborators are routinely tortured in Palestinian jails and denied the right to defend themselves in court. These practices are not prohibited under Palestinian law.

Armed factions continued to exercise de facto rule over significant portions of PA-administered areas in 2007. News reports identified at least five autonomous armed militias operating in PA territory; frequent and violent clashes occurred between Hamas and Fatah gunmen. In November, PA security forces began a large-scale crackdown on armed groups in the West Bank, including Hamas-allied groups. Violence between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank is common.

The intifada and Israeli restrictions have exacted a serious toll on the Palestinian economy in recent years. Citing security concerns, Israel barred most Gazan workers from entering Israel beginning in March 2006. Israel has traditionally been the primary market for Gazan goods. The Karni crossing, through which commercial supplies entered Gaza, was often closed in 2007. Following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, Israel sealed its borders with the territory, although food deliveries were allowed for the remainder of the year. The halt to almost all fuel deliveries to Gaza left most residents with only sporadic electricity. As a result of the Fatah-Hamas violence and Israeli closures, thousands of Gazans were stranded outside the territory, mostly in Egypt; they began returning in July.

While Palestinian women are underrepresented in most professions and encounter discrimination in employment, they have fuller access to higher education. A political quota system was instituted in 2005, mandating that women be represented on each party’s list for PLC elections. Personal status law, derived in part from Sharia, puts women at a disadvantage in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Rape, domestic abuse, and “honor killings,” in which women who are raped or engage in extramarital sex are murdered by a relative, are not uncommon. In 2006, 17 women in the PA are reported to have been victims of honor killings; according to a report by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, such killings have risen in Gaza in 2007. These murders often go unpunished. Human Rights Watch released a report in November 2006 citing widespread abuse of women in Palestinian society, with reference to instances of rape victims being forced to marry assailants, and light sentences for honor killings. The report pointed out that women’s treatment in instances of rape or abuse is increasingly determined by tribal leaders or PA-appointed governors, and not by the courts, a situation that Human Rights Watch said leads to arbitrary decisions. The report urged the PA to make the protection of women a top priority; in October 2007, the PA Ministry of Women’s Affairs found that legal options for victims of domestic abuse were extremely limited.

Explanatory Note: 

The areas and total number of persons under Palestinian jurisdiction changed periodically during the year due to the fluid nature of Israel’s military presence and activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

2008 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)