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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Israel is a parliamentary democracy. Its governmental system is based on several basic laws enacted by its unicameral parliament, the Knesset. The president (chief of state) is elected by the Knesset for a 5-year term.

The prime minister (head of government) exercises executive power and has in the past been selected by the president as the party leader most able to form a government. Between May 1996 and March 2001, Israelis voted for the prime minister directly. (The legislation which required the direct election of the prime minister was rescinded by the Knesset in March 2001.) The members of the cabinet must be collectively approved by the Knesset.

The Knesset's 120 members are elected by secret ballot to 4-year terms, although the prime minister may decide to call for new elections before the end of the 4-year term. Voting is for party lists rather than for individual candidates, and the total number of seats assigned each party reflects that party's percentage of the vote. Successful Knesset candidates are drawn from the lists in order of party-assigned rank. Under the present electoral system, all members of the Knesset are elected at large.

Israel is divided into six districts, administration of which is coordinated by the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for the administration of the occupied territories.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Courts & Judgments

Israeli law provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision. The September 1999 landmark High Court of Justice decision barring the use of torture was a major change from the judiciary's previous practice of acquiescence to the government's position in cases, as did the April 2000 ruling prohibiting the holding of detainees for use as "bargaining chips." The judiciary generally provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. However, in practice, according to some human rights organizations, Arab citizens often receive stiffer punishments than Jewish citizens.

The judicial system is composed of civil, military, religious, labor relations, and administrative courts, with the High Court of Justice as the ultimate judicial authority. The High Court of Justice is both a court of first instance (in cases involving government action) and an appellate court (when it sits as the Supreme Court). All courts in the judicial system, including the High Court of Justice, have appellate courts or jurisdictions.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Human Rights

The Israeli Government generally respects the human rights of its citizens. However, in 2001 there continued to be problems with respect to its treatment of Arab citizens. Historically, Israel's main human rights problems have arisen from its actions in response to the terrorist threat and its policies and practices in the occupied territories. Hostility from states in the region has exacerbated these problems. The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), Hizballah, Islamic Jihad in Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), among others, all committed acts of terrorism in Israel during 2001. Nearly 2,000 terror attacks, including suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, mortar and grenade attacks, and stabbings took place during the year in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel proper. Also during the year, more than 200 Israelis were killed and over 1,500 injured, a sharp increase over the previous year, when 22 Israelis were killed and 244 injured in terrorist incidents. In November 2000, a Legal Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Theodore Or was established to investigate the demonstrations and riots of October 2000, during which police used excessive force and killed 13 Arab citizens. During the first round of testimony, police officers involved in the events admitted that they were underprepared for dealing with potentially violent demonstrations and that, despite initial denials, the police, including snipers, had used live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators. The Commission's work was expected to continue into 2002. A landmark decision by the High Court of Justice in September 1999 prohibited the use of a variety of other abusive practices, including violent shaking, painful shackling in contorted positions, sleep deprivation for extended periods of time, and prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures; however, during the year, human rights organizations, including B'tselem, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI), and the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners reported that there was an increase in the number of allegations that security forces tortured detainees, including using methods prohibited in the High Court decision. There also were numerous allegations that police officers beat detainees. The Government states that the security forces have complied with the High Court's decision and that the Attorney General's office investigates any allegations of mistreatment. Detention and prison conditions for Palestinian security detainees held in Israel were poor and did not meet international standards regarding the provision of sufficient living space, food, and access to medical care. The Government continued to detain without charge Palestinians, some of them for lengthy periods; the number of such detainees increased following the outbreak of violence in September 2000. During the year, the Government held 62 persons without charge in administrative detention. As of early December, 35 individuals were being held in administrative detention. In April 2000, an Israeli High Court ruling declared illegal the holding of Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons as "bargaining chips" to extract concessions or the release of Israeli prisoners held in Lebanon; however, at year's end, there were approximately 19 Lebanese prisoners in custody, two of whom--Sheikh al-Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani--were held without charge. The Government did not comply with High Court decision mandating that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have access to Obeid. One Lebanese prisoner completed his sentence during the year and was released. Following the outbreak of violence in September 2000, and increasingly during the year, the Government detained without charge hundreds of persons in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Some security prisoners are sentenced on the basis of coerced confessions, of both themselves and others. According to human rights organizations, the legal system often imposes more severe punishments on Arab citizens than on Jewish citizens, although such discrepancies are not provided by law. The Government interferes with individual privacy in some instances. The Government imposed severe restrictions on the movement of persons and some restrictions on the movement of goods between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza as well as between cities in the West Bank and Gaza. Also known as "closure," this practice has been in effect to varying extents since 1993. The Government claims that the closures are necessary to prevent terrorism. A number of NGO's claim that these restrictions often exceed those justified by security concerns, and that they are provocative and incite public reaction.

Discrimination and societal violence against women persists, although the Government continued to take steps to address the problems. Discrimination against persons with disabilities persists. The Government made little headway in reducing institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens, who constitute approximately 20 percent of the population but do not share fully the rights provided to, and obligations imposed on, the country's Jewish citizens. Demonstrations and clashes between the police and Israeli Arabs in October 2000 brought renewed attention to the different treatment accorded to the Jewish and Arab sectors of the country. The Government did not take significant, tangible steps to improve the situation of the country's Arab citizens during the year. In October 2000, the Government approved a $975 million economic assistance plan for Arab citizens to be phased in over 4 years; however, some human rights groups criticized the plan as inadequate. No money for the plan was disbursed during the year. There were a number of instances of societal violence between Jewish and Arab citizens during the year. Trafficking in women for the purpose of forced prostitution is a continuing problem.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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The Peace Process

Israel concluded peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994, and a series of agreements with the Palestinians beginning in 1993. As a result of the 1967 war, Israel occupies the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights (the human rights situation in the occupied territories is discussed in the annex appended to this report). The international community does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over any part of the occupied territories.

An historic process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians 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. In January 1997, the parties concluded the Hebron Protocol and in October 1998, Israel and the PLO signed the Wye River Memorandum. In September 1999, the Israeli Government and the PLO signed the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum. The parties held intensive working-level talks between March and June 2000 and met at Camp David in July of that year; however, the Government and the PLO did not reach an agreement. After the outbreak of the Intifada in the fall of 2000, Israeli and Palestinian authorities made several attempts to reduce the level of violence and return to the negotiating process, including during talks in Taba, Egypt, in January. During 2001, both sides attempted to implement recommendations contained in the Tenet Agreement and the Mitchell Report, both of which were designed to reduce the violence and return the parties to negotiations.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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