Israel, West Bank, and Gaza
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Israel is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. Although it has no constitution, parliament, the unicameral 120-member Knesset, has enacted a series of “Basic Laws” that enumerate fundamental rights. Certain fundamental laws, orders, and regulations legally depend on the existence of a “state of emergency,” which has been in effect since 1948. Under the Basic Laws, the Knesset has the power to dissolve the government and mandate elections. Following the nationwide Knesset elections in April and September, which were generally considered free and fair, Israeli political parties failed to form a coalition government. Therefore, the Knesset voted on December 11 to dissolve itself and set March 2, 2020, as the date for a third general election within a year.
Under the authority of the prime minister, the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) combats terrorism and espionage in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. The national police, including the border police and the immigration police, are under the authority of the Ministry of Public Security. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities and reports to the Ministry of Defense. ISA forces operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem fall under the IDF for operations and operational debriefing. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security services.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including targeted killings of Israeli civilians and soldiers; arbitrary detention; restrictions on non-Israelis residing in Jerusalem including arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, and home; and significant restrictions on freedom of movement.
The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses within Israel regardless of rank or seniority.
This section includes Israel, including Jerusalem. The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March 2019. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority exercises no authority over Jerusalem.
As stated in Appendix A, this report contains data drawn from foreign government officials; victims of alleged human rights violations and abuses; academic and congressional studies; and reports from the press, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with human rights. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations. The Department of State assesses external reporting carefully but does not conduct independent investigations in all cases. We have sought and received input from the government of Israel and we have noted responses where applicable.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law generally provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
The law imposes tort liability on any person who knowingly issues a public call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the State of Israel or of institutions or entities in areas under its control in the West Bank. Plaintiffs must prove direct economic harm to claim damages under the “anti-boycott” legislation. The law also permits the finance minister to impose administrative sanctions on those calling for such a boycott, including restrictions on participating in tenders for contracts with the government and denial of government benefits.
In 2017 the Knesset passed an amendment barring entry to the country of visitors who called for boycotts, and in January 2018 the Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of 20 organizations whose members would be refused entry to Israel. The government also used this law to deport Human Rights Watch director of Israel and Palestine Omar Shakir (see section 5).
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech and content liable to incite to violence or discrimination on grounds of race, origin, religion, nationality, and gender.
The maximum penalty for desecrating the Israeli flag is three years in prison and a fine of 58,400 shekels ($16,900).
In cases of speech that are defined as incitement to violence or hate speech, the law empowers police to limit freedom of expression.
A 2018 law “prohibit[s] individuals or organizations that are not part of the education system from engaging in activities within an educational institution when the nature of the activity undermines the goals of state education.” Both supporters and opponents of the bill said it targeted the NGO Breaking the Silence, which described its activities as collecting and publishing “the testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories in order to generate public discourse on the reality of the occupation, with the aim of bringing it to an end.” Breaking the Silence criticized the law as a violation of freedom of political expression. As of year’s end, the Ministry of Education had not issued regulations necessary to implement the law.
Security officials prohibited groups affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or Palestinian Authority (PA) from meeting in Jerusalem based on a 1995 law banning the PA from engaging in political, diplomatic, security, or security-related activities in Israel, including Jerusalem.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with a few exceptions.
In October 2018 police issued a new regulation regarding the work of journalists in areas experiencing clashes, which authorities claimed balanced freedom of the press and security requirements. According to the Seventh Eye media watchdog group, the regulation grants police broad authorities to prevent journalists’ access to public incidents involving violence (i.e., riots, demonstrations, protests) if there exists a concern that the entry of journalists would lead to “special circumstances,” such as injury or the loss of life, further violence, disrupting investigative procedures, serious violation of privacy, or violation of a closure order. According to the regulation, however, police must also consider alternatives to minimize the violation of press freedom, for instance by escorting journalists in and out of dangerous situations.
Violence and Harassment: Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain entry permits, as well as Jerusalem-based Arab journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. According to a January 23 Foreign Press Association statement, “Arab journalists [are] needlessly hassled by Israeli security in what we believe is clear ethnic profiling.” This included reports of alleged harassment by Israeli soldiers and acts of violence against Palestinian and Arab-Israeli journalists that prevented them from covering news stories. According to the Journalists Support Committee, 26 Palestinian journalists were detained in Israeli prisons as of August. In April the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement criticizing the government for holding Palestinian journalists in its jails, noting “Israel’s use of administrative detention to hold journalists without charge runs completely contrary to its professed values of democracy and rule of law.”
The Ministry of Interior sought to deport stateless photojournalist Mustafa al-Haruf from East Jerusalem to Jordan, after he was unable to obtain residency status in Jerusalem, and held him in administrative detention between January and October. In March the Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities to either clarify the reasons for al-Haruf’s detention and deportation order or release him immediately. After Jordan refused to accept al-Haruf, on October 24, a court reviewing border-control decisions released him, due to the Ministry of Interior’s inability to deport him. The court ordered al-Haruf to regularize his status by February 12, 2020. While the government classified the reasons for the denial of al-Haruf’s status for security reasons, in an appeal of his deportation a Supreme Court justice stated al-Haruf “crossed the line between his journalistic work and assisting terrorist organizations” but also mentioned “reports that are not sympathetic to the State of Israel,” according to +972 Magazine.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters criticized journalists, media channels, and media owners for reporting on investigations into a series of allegations (see section 4) involving the prime minister, for which the attorney general decided to indict him. In January the Likud Party published billboards with photographs of four journalists saying, “they will not decide,” according to media reports. Following attacks in media and social media by the prime minister and his son, Yair Netanyahu, against Channel 12 News legal correspondent Guy Peleg, who covered the Netanyahu investigations, Peleg received a series of threats on WhatsApp and social media, which led the channel to provide him with a private security guard on August 30. On August 31, Netanyahu criticized the heads of Channel 12 News for their coverage of his office, called for a boycott of the channel, and said they were carrying out a “terror attack against democracy,” while treating rival political parties more gently than Likud. Netanyahu argued that he was working to increase competition in the domestic television market.
On October 26, a group of ultra-Orthodox men physically attacked an Israel Hayom reporter near Haifa. The attackers severely assaulted the journalist, breaking his nose and resulting in a concussion. The attackers called him a “traitor” and a “leftist” after confirming he was a journalist. On October 31, police arrested a suspect in the attack, and the investigation of the case was pending as of December.
On September 2, the state attorney issued a directive instructing prosecutors to consider requesting increased sentences of three to five years’ imprisonment for violent offenses committed against journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: All media organizations must submit to military censors any material relating to specific military issues or strategic infrastructure problems, such as oil and water supplies. Organizations may appeal the censor’s decisions to the Supreme Court, and the censor may not appeal a court judgment.
News printed or broadcast abroad is subject to security censorship. The government regularly enacted restrictive orders on sensitive security information and continuing investigations and required foreign correspondents, as well as local media, to abide by these orders. According to data provided by the armed forces through a Freedom of Information Act request by +972 Magazine, in 2018 the censor intervened in 2,721 articles of 10,938 submitted to it and banned 363 articles.
While the government retained the authority to censor the printing of publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.
National Security: The law criminalizes as “terrorist acts” speech supporting terrorism, including public praise of a terrorist organization, display of symbols, expression of slogans, and “incitement.” In 2018 the Knesset amended the law to authorize restrictions on the release of bodies of terrorists and their funerals to prevent “incitement to terror or identification with a terrorist organization or an act of terror.” The government issued 53 indictments and courts convicted 39 persons under the law during the year. On May 16, the Nazareth District Court partially accepted the appeal of Dareen Tatour, who was convicted by the local magistrate’s court due to poems, pictures, and other media content she posted online in 2015. The court reversed lower court verdicts on charges of “incitement to violence” and “support of a terrorist organization” related to her poetry, but it upheld convictions related to her other publications. The ruling stated that when examining freedom of expression, the fact that Tatour’s words were part of an artistic piece had to be taken into consideration.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights for citizens.
In-country Movement: The security barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. For example, restrictions on access in Jerusalem had a negative effect on residents who were patients and medical staff trying to reach the six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care, including delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. Authorities sometimes restricted movement within these neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Old City and periodically blocked entrances to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya, Silwan, and Jabal Mukabber. The government stated that restrictions on movement in Jerusalem were temporary and implemented only when necessary for investigative operations, public safety, or public order, and when there was no viable alternative.
Foreign Travel: Citizens generally were free to travel abroad provided they had no outstanding military obligations and no administrative restrictions. The government may bar citizens from leaving the country based on security considerations, due to unpaid debts, or in cases in which a Jewish man refuses to grant his wife a Jewish legal writ of divorce. Authorities do not permit any citizen to travel to any state officially at war with Israel without government permission. This restriction includes travel to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.
The government requires all citizens to have a special permit to enter Area A in the West Bank (the area, according to the Interim Agreement, in which the PA exercises civil and security responsibility), but the government allowed Arab citizens of Israel access to Area A without permits. The government continued selective revocations of residency permits of some non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem. This meant those residents could not return to reside in Jerusalem. Reasons for revocation included holding residency or citizenship of another country; living in another country, the West Bank, or Gaza for more than seven years; or, most commonly, being unable to prove a “center of life” (interpreted as full-time residency) in Jerusalem. Some non-Israeli citizens who were born in Jerusalem but studied abroad reported losing their Jerusalem residency status, but the government denied revoking residency status of anyone who left for the sole purpose of studying abroad. The government added that the residency of individuals who maintain an “affinity to Israel” will not be revoked and that former residents who wish to return to Israel may receive renewed residency status under certain conditions.
Non-Israeli citizens possessing Jerusalem identity cards issued by the Israeli government needed special documents to travel abroad.
Exile: In 2018 the Knesset passed an amendment to the Entry Into Israel Law granting the minister of interior authority to revoke the permanent resident status of individuals who have committed acts that constitute “breach of trust” or terrorism. On August 22, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri revoked the residency of two East Jerusalemites who were convicted of being involved in terrorist attacks and sentenced to life in prison, based on the amendment. HaMoked appealed against the law and one of the revocations, and the case continued at year’s end.
Citizenship: The law allows revocation of citizenship of a person on grounds of “breach of trust to the State of Israel” or following a conviction for an act of terror.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Communities with large concentrations of African migrants were occasionally targets of violence. Additionally, the nature of government policies on the legality of work forced many refugees to work in “unofficial” positions, making them more susceptible to poor treatment and questionable work practices by their employers. According to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) inspectors used violence against imprisoned migrants during their deportation during the year. According to Hotline, PIBA, unlike police or the IPS, did not have an external body to which migrants could file complaints if subjected to violence.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern, except as noted below.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened and stated its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement.
As of September 30, there were 32,090 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the country, of whom 29,141 were from Eritrea or Sudan, according to PIBA.
In October 2018 PIBA announced the government ended a policy that provided temporary protection for citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and requested those without a visa to depart the country by January 5. The Supreme Court issued an injunction in December 2018 temporarily halting the deportation following a petition by NGOs. On March 7, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri halted the deportation based on a recommendation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs due to “recent developments in the DRC.” According to PIBA, there were 311 asylum seekers from the DRC in the country in 2018.
The government offered irregular migrants incentives to “depart” the country to an unspecified third country in Africa, sometimes including a $3,500 stipend (paid in U.S. dollars). The government claimed the third-country government provided for full rights under secret agreements with Israel. The government provided most returnees with paid tickets, but NGOs and UNHCR confirmed that migrants who arrived at the destination did not receive residency or employment rights. From January 1 until September 30, 2,024 irregular migrants departed the country under pressure, compared with 2,677 in 2018. NGO advocates for irregular migrants claimed many of those who departed to other countries faced abuses in those countries and that this transfer could amount to refoulement.
In February 2018 an administrative appeals tribunal ruled that an Eritrean asylum seeker had a well-founded fear of persecution after he fled military conscription in his home country and that PIBA should not have rejected his asylum application arbitrarily. The Ministry of Interior appealed the ruling to a district court and then requested to reexamine the individual’s request for asylum, but the judge refused. The case continued at year’s end.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, but it rarely did so. In 2008 authorities began giving the majority of asylum seekers a “conditional release visa” that requires frequent renewal. Only two Ministry of the Interior offices in the country, located in Bnei Brak and Eilat, renew such visas. The government provided these individuals with a limited form of group protection regarding freedom of movement, protection against refoulement, and informal access to the labor market. Advocacy groups argued that the policies and legislation adopted in 2011 were aimed at deterring future asylum seekers by making life difficult for those already in the country and that these actions further curtailed the rights of this population and encouraged its departure.
Refugee status determination recognition rates remained extremely low. From 2009 to 2017, the government approved only 52 of 55,433 asylum requests, according to a 2018 report from the State Comptroller’s Office. Of these, 13 were for Eritrean citizens and one was for a Sudanese citizen. The government approved six asylum requests during the year. As of May there were 15,000 asylum applications awaiting examination, according to a government response to a Supreme Court petition.
Irregular migrants subject to deportation, including those claiming but unable to prove citizenship of countries included in Israel’s nonrefoulement policy, were subjected to indefinite detention if they refused to depart after receiving a deportation order. In 2018 at year’s end, there were 165 migrants with undetermined or disputed citizenship in detention.
On January 2, PIBA stopped examining asylum requests of Eritrean citizens following a request by the attorney general in order to reevaluate the criteria for approving asylum requests. In July the government announced it would reexamine all requests from Eritrean asylum seekers, including 3,000 that were previously turned down, based on new criteria that require asylum seekers to prove they would be persecuted if returned home and they did not flee to avoid compulsory military service. On July 9, the government informed the Supreme Court that it stopped examining asylum claims of Sudanese citizens from Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile due to the “dynamic political situation in Sudan.” On July 28, the Supreme Court overturned the revocation of residency permits of three asylum seekers.
Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel; however, many of them resided in Israel without legal status. NGOs stated this situation left persons who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution vulnerable to human traffickers, violence, and exploitation. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex Palestinians were able to obtain a temporary permit allowing them to stay in Israel from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), but without authorization to work. The government stated that COGAT examined the issue on a case-by-case basis.
The government did not accept initial asylum claims at its airports.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: In 2017 PIBA announced a fast-track procedure to reject asylum applications from applicants whose country of citizenship the Ministry of the Interior determined was safe for return and began applying it to Georgian and Ukrainian applicants.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities prohibited asylum seekers released from the closed the Holot detention facility and Saharonim Prison from residing in Eilat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak–cities that already had a high concentration of asylum seekers.
Employment: On July 9, the government informed the Supreme Court that it would remove text from the visas of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers stipulating “this is not a work visa,” a restriction that had not been enforced since 2011 due to a government commitment to the Supreme Court. The government also stated it would grant work permits to 300 asylum seekers from Sudan. According to NGOs, these steps did not change the asylum seekers’ ability to work. According to UNHCR, beginning in October asylum seekers from countries not listed under Israel’s nonrefoulement policy were restricted from working for three to six months after submitting their requests if they did not have a visa before applying. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that asylum seekers are included as “foreign workers,” a category prohibited by Finance Ministry regulations from working on government contracts, including local government contracts for cleaning and maintenance, which often employed irregular migrants.
The law requires employers to deduct 20 percent of irregular migrants’ salaries for deposit in a special fund and adds another 16 percent from the employer’s funds. Some vulnerable populations, including individuals recognized as human trafficking victims, are eligible for a reduced rate of 6 percent, but many of them either still paid the full deduction or did not receive reimbursements for previously paying the full deduction, according to PHRI and UNHCR. On December 8, PIBA announced all recognized victims of trafficking would receive retroactive reimbursements and would pay a deposit of 6 percent without having to declare their status to their employers. Employees can access the funds only upon departure from the country, and the government may deduct a penalty for each day that the employee is in the country without a visa.
NGOs such as Kav LaOved and Hotline for Refugees and Migrants criticized the law for pushing vulnerable workers’ already low incomes below minimum wage, leading employers and employees to judge it to be more profitable to work on the black market, increasing migrants’ vulnerability to trafficking and prostitution. According to government officials and NGOs, some Eritrean women entered prostitution or survival sex arrangements in which a woman lives with several men and receives shelter in exchange for sex. The NGO Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) reported significant increases in homelessness, mental health concerns, and requests for food assistance following implementation of the law. In a June 26 response to a NGO coalition petition against the law to the Supreme Court, the government stated that only 68 asylum seekers received the full amount deducted from their salaries in their deposits, and no money was deposited for 45 percent of the migrants to which the law applied, despite deductions having been taken from their salaries, according to Haaretz. The petition was pending at year’s end.
The law bars migrants from sending money abroad, limits the amount they may take with them when they leave to the minimum wage for the number of months they resided in the country, and defines taking money out of the country as a money-laundering crime.
Access to Basic Services: The few legally recognized refugees received social services, including access to the national health-care system, but the government for the most part did not provide asylum seekers with public social benefits. Asylum seekers who were either unemployed or whose employers did not arrange a private insurance policy for them as required by law had access only to emergency care, either in emergency rooms or in one refugee clinic in south Tel Aviv. The establishment of three additional refugee clinics throughout the country was postponed. The Ministry of Health offered medical insurance for minor children of asylum seekers for 120 shekels ($35) per month, but in September 2018 it began excluding children of undocumented migrants from this program. The ministry stated an interministerial team was assessing this change in response to a Supreme Court petition. The government sponsored a mobile clinic and mother and infant health-care stations in south Tel Aviv, which were accessible to migrants and asylum seekers. Hospitals provided emergency care to migrants but often denied follow-up treatment to those who failed to pay, according to PHRI. Until September the Ministry of Health funded one provider of mental health services for approximately 700 irregular migrants that in the past year was unable to accept new patients due to budget and staffing shortages. On December 9, the Ministry of Welfare stated that local authorities must treat asylum seekers of three groups–women who suffered from domestic violence, persons with disabilities, and the homeless–pending the regularization of insurance issues with the Ministry of Health, which did not take place by year’s end. Asylum seekers who were recognized as victims of trafficking were eligible for rehabilitation and care. The same eligibilities did not apply for victims of torture.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals whom it did not recognize as refugees, or who may not qualify as refugees–primarily to Eritrean and Sudanese irregular migrants, as described above.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally responsive to their views, and parliamentarians routinely invited NGOs critical of the government to participate in Knesset hearings on proposed legislation. The government stated it makes concerted efforts to include civil society in the legislation process, in developing public policy, and in a variety of projects within government ministries, but it did not cooperate with human rights organizations that it deemed “politically affiliated.” Human rights NGOs have standing to petition the Supreme Court directly regarding governmental policies and may appeal individual cases to the Supreme Court.
Domestic NGOs, particularly those focused on human rights issues, continued to view the law requiring disclosure of support from foreign entities on formal publications and its implementation as an attempt to stigmatize, delegitimize, and silence them. Supporters of the legislation described it as a transparency measure to reveal foreign government influence. Critics noted it targeted only foreign government funding, without requiring organizations to report private funding.
A 2017 law mandates additional scrutiny of requests for National Service volunteers from NGOs that receive more than one-half of their funding from foreign governments. After the National Service Authority rejected the requests of several NGOs, the organizations appealed the decisions, arguing they had complied with the new regulations and that the decision targeted them due to the nature of their work. The cases were pending at year’s end.
The staffs of domestic NGOs, particularly those calling for an end to the country’s military presence in the West Bank and NGOs working for the rights of asylum seekers, stated they received death threats from nongovernmental sources, which spiked during periods in which government officials spoke out against their activities or criticized them as enemies or traitors for opposing government policy. For example, on July 31, unknown individuals vandalized the offices of several NGOs working to advance the rights of asylum seekers, including ASSAF and Amnesty International. On the same day, a package with death threats and a dead mouse was left at the office of Elifelet, Citizens for Refugee Children.
In December 2018 the High Court overturned a Be’er Sheva municipality decision to evict the cultural center of the Negev Coexistence Forum (NCF) from a public shelter due to their engagement in “political activity.” In January the municipality demanded the organization retroactively pay property taxes dating back to 2012, totaling 480,000 shekels ($139,000). The NCF viewed the decision as a tool to “persecute and silence those promoting joint Jewish-Arab activity in the city.” In April the municipality reached an agreement with the NCF, reducing the fine to 30,000 shekels ($8,700), and gave the organization until October 2020 to leave the shelter.
On April 16, a Jerusalem district court upheld a government decision not to renew a work visa for the Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine director, Omar Shakir, on grounds that he called for a boycott of West Bank settlements. (For information about boycotts against Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, see section 2.a.) Human Rights Watch appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. On November 5, the Supreme Court upheld the district court decision and ordered Shakir to depart the country by November 25.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government generally cooperated with the United Nations and other international bodies. The country withdrew from UNESCO in December 2018. The government continued its policy of nonengagement with the UN Human Rights Council’s “special rapporteur on the situation in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.”
Government Human Rights Bodies: The state comptroller also served as ombudsman for human rights problems and in this capacity investigated complaints against statutory bodies subject to audit by the state comptroller, including government ministries, local authorities, government enterprises and institutions, government corporations, and their employees. The ombudsman is entitled to use any relevant means of inquiry and has the authority to order any person or body to assist in the inquiry.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Lebanon is a parliamentary republic based on the 1943 National Pact, which apportions governmental authority among a Maronite Christian president, a Shia speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (parliament), and a Sunni prime minister. Lebanese law officially recognizes 18 religious sects or confessions. In 2016 parliament elected Michel Aoun to the presidency, ending more than two years of political deadlock. Following the 2017 passage of the country’s new electoral law, the government held parliamentary elections in May 2018, after parliament had extended its legal term three times between 2013 and 2017. The elections were peaceful and considered generally free and fair. President Michel Aoun accepted Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on October 29 following almost two weeks of protests starting October 17. As of the end of the year, no new government had been formed.
The Internal Security Forces (ISF), under the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for law enforcement, while the Directorate of General Security (DGS), also under the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for border control but also exercises some domestic security responsibilities. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for external security but authorized to arrest and detain suspects on national security grounds; they also arrested alleged drug traffickers, managed protests, enforced building codes related to refugee shelters, and intervened to prevent violence between rival political factions. The General Directorate of State Security (GDSS), reporting to the prime minister through the Higher Defense Council, is responsible for investigating espionage and other national security issues. Civilian authorities maintained control over the government’s armed forces and other security forces, although Palestinian security and militia forces, the designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) Hizballah, and other extremist elements operated outside the direction or control of government officials.
The Syrian conflict affected the country economically and socially. Over the past several years, the Syrian conflict has generated an influx of more than one million refugees and strained the country’s already weak infrastructure and ability to deliver social services.
Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary or unlawful killings by nonstate actors; allegations of torture by security forces; excessive periods of pretrial detention by security forces; undue and increasing restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, including laws criminalizing libel and a number of forms of expression; high-level and widespread official corruption; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; and forced or compulsory child labor.
Although the legal structure provides for prosecution and punishment of officials who committed human rights abuses, enforcement remained a problem, and government officials enjoyed a measure of impunity for human rights abuses, including evading or influencing judicial processes.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and stipulates that restrictions may be imposed only under exceptional circumstances. The government generally respected this right, but there were some restrictions, particularly regarding political and social issues.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals were generally free to criticize the government and discuss matters of public interest; however, several legal restrictions limited this right. The law prohibits discussing the dignity of the president or insulting him or the president of a foreign country. The military code of justice prohibits insulting the security forces, and the Military Court prosecuted civilians under this statute.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The 1962 Publications Law regulates print media. The law holds journalists responsible for erroneous or false news; threats or blackmail; insult, defamation, and contempt; causing prejudice to the president’s dignity; insulting the president or the president of a foreign country; instigation to commit a crime through a publication; and sectarian provocation. The law further contains detailed rules governing the activities of printing houses, press media, libraries, publishing houses, and distribution companies. This law provides rules and conditions for becoming a journalist and for obtaining licenses for new publications. It also prohibits the press from publishing blasphemous content regarding the country’s officially recognized religions or content that may provoke sectarian feuds.
There was uncertainty regarding which legal framework is applicable to online news sites in the country. No specific laws regulate online speech. The penal code, however, contains a number of speech offenses, such as defamation of public officials, public entities, and individuals. Accordingly, authorities are able to prosecute individuals, journalists, and bloggers for what they express online.
On March 11, the Military Court sentenced al-Jadeed TV correspondent Adam Chamseddine in absentia to three months in prison for criticizing the GDSS in a Facebook post. On April 12, a military judge ruled that, because Chamseddine is a journalist, the Military Court did not have jurisdiction over the case and returned the file to the military prosecutor who subsequently dropped all charges. Authorities heard these cases in both civil and military courts; they generally carried sentences of between one and three years in prison, although typically they resulted in fines.
The law governing audiovisual media bans live broadcasts of unauthorized political gatherings and certain religious events, as well as any broadcast of “any matter of commentary seeking to affect directly or indirectly the well-being of the nation’s economy and finances, material that is propagandistic and promotional, or promotes a relationship with Israel.” Media outlets must receive a license from the Council of Ministers to broadcast any type of political news or programs. The law prohibits broadcasting programs that harm the state or its relations with foreign countries or have an effect on the well-being of such states. The law also prohibits the broadcast of programs that seek to harm public morals, ignite sectarian strife, or insult religious beliefs.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face intimidation and harassment. Political friction and tension led some outlets to fear entering certain “politically affiliated” areas to report without removing brandings and logos identifying the outlets. For example, MTV reporters have been known to remove their outlet’s logo when entering Hizballah-affiliated areas. Outlets that sought to report in areas under control of Hizballah were required to obtain special permission from Hizballah’s media arm.
Authorities continued to prosecute online, print, and television journalists for violations of the country’s publications law. NGOs and media watchdogs claimed such prosecutions were efforts to intimidate critics. Prosecutors sometimes referred these cases to criminal courts based on both private complaints and their own discretion, but more often they referred such cases to the Publications Court. Publications Court cases typically remained open for a year or more and typically ended with fines or dismissal.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities selectively applied elements of the law that permit censorship of pornographic material, political opinion, and religious material considered a threat to national security or offensive to the dignity of the head of state or foreign leaders. The DGS may review and censor all foreign newspapers, magazines, and books to determine admissibility into the country, but these reviews are mostly for explicit, pornographic content. Some journalists reported that political violence and extralegal intimidation led to self-censorship.
On September 18, the president of the Lebanese University, Fouad Ayoub, had the judiciary request on his behalf that at least 20 media outlets remove all news and media reports related to him from their websites in an apparent attempt to edit his appearance on search engines. Media outlets were still determining their responses as of December 19.
The law includes guidelines regarding materials deemed unsuitable for publication in a book, newspaper, or magazine. Any violation of the guidelines could result in the author’s imprisonment or a fine. Authors could publish books without prior permission from the DGS, but if the book contained material that violated the law, including material considered a threat to national security, the DGS could legally confiscate the book and put the author on trial. Publishing without prior approval a book that contained unauthorized material could put the author at risk of a prison sentence, fine, and confiscation of the published materials.
Authorities from any of the recognized religious groups could request that the DGS ban a book. The government could prosecute offending journalists and publications in the publications court. According to NGOs, as of September each of the 30 book-banning cases the government registered in the publications court in 2017–mainly from libel suits filed by politicians, political parties, and private citizens–was in the process of being resolved. Authorities occasionally also referred such cases to criminal courts, a process not established in law.
Libel/Slander Laws: In most cases criminal courts heard libel and defamation complaints, which can carry sentences of one to three years but typically resulted in fines or a promise to remove offending material from the internet. NGOs and activists reported increased prosecutions under such laws, and political figures or their representatives filed several complaints against critics throughout the year. Human rights NGO ALEF (Association Libanaise pour l’Education et la Formation) reported that in several dozen cases this year, criminal defamation suits were filed against journalists, bloggers, political activists, and private citizens, including for posting their opinions in WhatsApp groups or on Facebook. While these cases rarely, if ever, resulted in prolonged detentions or jail sentences, interrogations by police and lengthy, expensive trials created a chilling effect on political speech.
Following publication of intentionally provocative articles on September 12 that criticized President Aoun and sarcastically suggested that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the true leader of Lebanon, editors of the newspaper Nidaa al-Watan were summoned to appear before the Office of the Prosecutor General for the State on charges of defamation of the president. On September 20, the case was referred to the Publications Court. On November 21, the editor was found not guilty.
Private citizens may file criminal complaints, which the law requires an investigating judge to consider, and many defamation cases were initiated via the allegations of private citizens. Politicians at times responded to allegations of wrongdoing leveled at them by filing criminal complaints alleging defamation. The military justice code also prohibits defamation of the army.
The ISF Cybercrimes Bureau reported that, as of May 15, they had received referrals of 432 defamation cases for investigation. The Cybercrimes Bureau reportedly investigated 1,451 defamation cases in 2018, an increase of 81 percent from 2017. In November Human Rights Watch reported a 325 percent increase in the number defamation cases investigated by authorities and noted prison sentences against at least three individuals in defamation cases between 2015 and 2019. On October 5, four lawyers filed a complaint against the Economist, accusing the magazine of damaging the country’s reputation and insulting the Lebanese flag in its article reporting on the country’s dollar shortage that was published the same day.
On May 13, the GDSS arrested social media activist Rasheed Jumblatt and detained him for four days over a Facebook video post that allegedly included provocative and sectarian comments and insults against Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Jumblatt was subsequently released after charges were dropped.
Nongovernmental Impact: Political and religious figures sometimes sought to rally public outcry aimed at inhibiting freedom of expression and the press, including through coercion and threats of violence. This included public statements by some political and religious figures calling for the cancellation of a concert by local indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila due to threats of violence or content of the band’s music they perceived as offensive (see Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these freedoms.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights for citizens but placed extensive limitations on the rights of refugee populations and asylum seekers, most of whom were from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq (see section 2.f. Protection of Refugees).
In-country Movement: Armed nonstate actors hindered or prevented movement in areas they controlled. Armed Hizballah members controlled access to some areas under Hizballah’s control, and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine prevented access to a border area under its control, according to the security services. Armed supporters of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt sought to block the motorcades of the foreign minister and of a rival Druze minister on June 30, the latter blockade resulting in a shootout and two deaths. Within families, men sometimes exercised considerable control over female relatives, restricting their activities outside the home or their contact with friends and relatives.
Citizenship: Citizenship is derived exclusively from the father. A citizen mother married to a noncitizen father cannot transmit Lebanese citizenship to her children (see section 2.g. Stateless Persons).
f. Protection of Refugees
As of October there were nearly 920,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since the government instructed UNHCR to stop registering Syrian refugees in early 2015, this total did not include Syrian refugees who arrived after that time. There were no formal refugee camps in the country for Syrians. Most Syrian refugees resided in urban areas, many in unfinished, substandard, or nonresidential buildings. Approximately 20 percent lived in informal tented settlements, often adjacent to agricultural land, according to an October UN assessment. According to a UN study, refugees often took loans to cover even their most basic needs, including rent, food, and health care, putting nearly 90 percent of them in debt and leaving them food insecure.
In early 2015 the government banned the entry of all Syrian refugees except for undefined “humanitarian exceptions.” During the year the Ministry of Social Affairs approved a limited number of Syrian asylum cases, including unaccompanied and separated children, persons with disabilities, medical cases, and resettlement cases under extreme humanitarian criteria.
In addition to nearly 14,000 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees residing in the country, a limited number of additional Iraqis entered during the year to escape violence. As of June 30, UNHCR also registered more than 4,200 refugees or asylum seekers from Sudan and other countries.
During the year the government launched campaigns which limited refugees’ ability to reside or work in the country. These included forced compliance with building codes limiting the use of concrete and hardened materials in refugee shelters, increased arrests for residency-related offenses, and stepped-up enforcement of labor laws that targeted businesses employing refugees–which affected more than 6,600 refugees.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In April the Higher Defense Council (HDC), a body chaired by the president that includes cabinet ministers and security service heads, issued guidance to the security services to increase enforcement of building codes. This resulted in the destruction of thousands of refugee shelters. Security services forced refugees to destroy and replace hardened walls and roofs; alternatively security services did so themselves or entirely demolished noncompliant shelters. Although authorities generally cited violations of building, environmental codes, or both, there was insufficient judicial review or opportunity to legally challenge eviction or demolition actions.
On June 5, residents of an informal refugee settlement in Deir El Ahmar in Northwest Baalbek claimed that a Civil Defense member, responding to a fire in the camp, recklessly drove into the camp putting children’s lives at risk, which resulted in an altercation between camp residents and the driver, who ended up in the hospital. Following the incident, a group of approximately 50 local men, who had previously posted threats against refugees on social media, purportedly to protect the local population, returned to the camp and verbally threatened residents. Later that night the same group entered the camp and set fire to multiple refugee shelters, prompting local authorities to evacuate all 88 refugee families for their safety.
Labor laws were also enforced more strictly to fine employers who employed Syrians or Palestinians and to close illegal refugee-run businesses. Environmental regulations were cited more frequently in the eviction of refugees and bulldozing of dwellings in some locations. Refugee arrests and detentions also increased, and some NGOs funded by international donors to provide water and sanitation services to refugee settlements were sued by the government and fined for allegedly contributing to the pollution of the Litani River.
Multiple NGOs and UN agencies shared reports of sexual harassment and exploitation of refugees by employers and landlords, including paying workers below the minimum wage, working excessive hours, debt bondage, and pressuring families into early marriage for their daughters to relieve economic hardship. There were multiple reports of foreign migrant domestic workers (mainly from East Africa and Southeast Asia) tied to their employers through legal sponsorship, known as the kafala system, who faced physical, mental, and sexual abuse, unsafe working conditions, and nonpayment of wages. According to NGOs who assisted migrant workers in reporting these abuses to authorities, security forces and judges did not always adequately investigate these crimes; victims sometimes refused to file complaints or retracted testimony due to threats and fear of reprisals or deportation.
Refoulement: The government reaffirmed its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement with respect to Syrians. Some political party representatives, however, employed antirefugee rhetoric, stating assistance to Syrian refugees in particular placed additional burden on the state already facing an economic crisis. The DGS coordinated with Syrian government officials to facilitate the voluntary return of approximately 16,000 refugees from 2017 to September 1, 2019. UNHCR did not organize these group returns but was present at departure points and found no evidence that returns were involuntary or coerced in the cases of those refugees whom they interviewed. Human rights groups including Amnesty International questioned government claims that refugee returns were entirely voluntary, calling the environment “coercive” and citing credible risk of persecution or other human rights abuses upon return to areas controlled by the Syrian regime.
An HDC decision in April required the deportation of anyone arrested and found to have entered the country illegally after April 24. As of September the DGS reported it had deported 2,731 individuals under this order. UN officials considered the government’s new deportation policy as creating a high risk of refoulement given the lack of a formal review process to assess credible fear of persecution or torture. Specifically, the HDC decision requiring the deportation of anyone arrested and found to have entered the country illegally after April 24 elevated the risk of refoulement. Human rights groups and the international community all raised concerns about the risk of turning over refugees to Syrian authorities. There were several anecdotal reports of Syrian refugees who were subsequently abused in detention after being turned over to Syrian authorities by Lebanese officials. Government officials maintained their policy only applied to illegal migrants, not refugees, although it did not appear there was sufficient due process to make such a determination. UNHCR and international donors urged the government to provide for a judicial or independent administrative review before carrying out deportations. The government maintained that while the law requires a court hearing on all deportation cases, it did not have the bandwidth to process the existing caseload.
Non-Syrian asylum seekers arrested due to irregular entry or residency faced administrative detention without being sentenced by a court. The DGS held these individuals in a migrant retention facility where officials processed their immigration files before making administrative deportation decisions. Most cases resulted in deportation of the detainee, except for some instances where UNHCR secured their resettlement to a third country. During the year two Sudanese asylum seekers and four Iraqis (three refugees and one asylum seeker) were deported. In addition, one Iraqi refugee and her two children were not allowed re-entry into Lebanon after they briefly returned to Iraq to obtain an official document.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status. Nonetheless, the country hosted an estimated 1.5 million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian. In an effort to address the low number of refugees obtaining and renewing legal residency, since 2017 residency fees have been waived for refugees who had registered with UNHCR prior to 2015. This ruling excluded unregistered refugees or those who had renewed on the basis of Lebanese sponsorship. DGS implementation of the waiver continued to be inconsistent, and there was minimal improvement in the percentage of refugees with legal status. According to the United Nations, only 20 percent of the refugee population held legal residency as of September.
Due to the slow pace of implementation of residency determinations, the majority of Syrian refugees were unable to renew their legal documents, which significantly affected their freedom of movement owing to the possibility of arrests at checkpoints, particularly for adult men. While authorities released most detainees within a few days, some of the refugees said authorities required them to pay fines before releasing them or confiscated their identification documents (IDs). Syrian refugees faced barriers to obtaining Syrian ID documentation required to renew their residency permits in Lebanon because of the hostility of the Syrian government to the refugee population and because Syrian government embassies and consulates charge exorbitant fees. Obtaining and maintaining legal residency was also a challenge for refugees of other nationalities, particularly Iraqis, due to high renewal fees and sponsorship requirements. There is no official limitation of movement for Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) in the country; however, PRS without legal status faced limitations on their freedom of movement, mainly due to the threat of arrest at checkpoints.
Since 2014 authorities granted entry visas at the border only to PRS with either a verified embassy appointment in the country or a flight ticket and visa to a third country. Additionally, limited numbers of PRS secured visas to Lebanon by obtaining prior approval from the DGS, which required a sponsor in the country and could not be processed at border posts. UNRWA estimated that only 12 percent of the PRS in the country had arrived after 2016.
In 2017 the DGS issued a circular allowing the free, unlimited renewal of PRS residency for six months, with no fees for delayed submission. This circular has been consistently used since its issuance and applies to PRS who entered the country legally or who regularized their status before September 2016. The circular also granted temporary residency documents to PRS who turned 15 years old in the country, allowing them to use available documents such as an individual civil status card, instead of passports or national identity cards. Previously children were required to have an ID or valid travel document to be able to renew their residency. If they did not have one of these two documents, their legal status was revoked, and they became at risk of arrest and detention if they were stopped at any checkpoint. The circular, issued for residency renewal and not regularization, did not apply to PRS who entered the country through unofficial border crossings. Authorities issued a departure order to PRS who entered the country through official border crossings but who overstayed their temporary transit visa or failed to renew their visa.
Since 2017 the government waived the condition of valid residency for birth and marriage registration for PRS, expanding the application of a previous circular issued in September 2017 applicable to Syrians. Since March 2018 the Ministry of Interior waived the costly court proceedings to obtain birth registration of PRS and Syrian refugee children older than one year who were born in Lebanon between January 2011 and February 2018. The proof of marriage requirement remained in effect during the year.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities imposed curfews in a number of municipalities across the country, allegedly to improve security of all communities. Some international observers raised concerns that these measures may be discriminatory and excessive, since authorities typically enforced them for Syrian refugees, who mostly lack legal residency status and could face greater consequences if detained for a curfew violation. Municipalities and neighborhoods hosting Syrian refugee populations continued to impose movement restrictions through curfews, evictions, and threats of evictions. UN agencies reported that local municipal officials frequently used the threat of evictions to exert control over refugees or to appease host communities competing with refugees for jobs and other resources.
Police checkpoints and curfews imposed by municipalities restricted refugees’ movement. Cases of identity document confiscation and fines for breaking curfews continued, and a few violent incidents against refugees occurred. UNHCR staff reported restrictions on movement increasingly forced families to send children and young women, whom authorities are less likely to stop yet who are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, to perform family errands.
Employment: Authorities continued requiring Syrian refugees who wished to obtain residency permits to pledge to abide by the country’s laws, under which Syrians may work only in agriculture, construction, and cleaning. In July the Ministry of Labor stepped up enforcement and fined employers who hired refugees outside these sectors.
The law allows a special account to provide end-of-service indemnities or severance pay to Palestinian refugees who retire or resign. These benefits were available only to Palestinians working in the legal labor market. Palestinians did not benefit from national sickness and maternity funds or the family allowances fund. UNRWA continued to bear the cost of any medical, maternity, or family health-care expenses (excluding worker’s compensation).
Palestinian refugees received partial access to the benefits of the National Social Security Fund. They may not, however, work in at least 33 professions including medicine, law, and engineering and face informal restrictions on work in other industries. According to UN agencies, government officials, and Palestinian advocacy groups, Palestinian refugees consistently reported discrimination in hiring due to excessive bureaucracy and societal stigma. Lack of written contracts, lack of employment benefits, and insecure job tenure contributed to unstable working conditions.
Palestinian refugees were barred from employment in many fields, making refugees dependent upon UNRWA as the sole provider of education, health care, and social services. A 2010 law expanding employment rights and removing some restrictions on Palestinian refugees was not fully implemented, and Palestinians remained barred from working in most skilled professions, including almost all those that require membership in a professional association. A Ministry of Labor effort to restrict Syrian refugee access to employment led to closure of several businesses employing or owned by Palestinians, triggering three weeks of protests in July and August.
Access to Basic Services: The government did not consider local integration of any refugees a viable solution.
The law considers UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees to be foreigners. UNRWA provides health, education, social services, and emergency assistance to registered Palestinian refugees residing in the country. The amount of land allocated to the 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in the country has changed only marginally since 1948, despite a fourfold increase in the population. Consequently, most Palestinian refugees lived in overpopulated camps, some of which suffered heavy damage in past conflicts. By agreement with the government, Palestinian security committees provided security for refugees in the camps.
A comprehensive, multi-year plan to rebuild the Nahr el-Bared Camp in eight stages began in 2008; the project continued at year’s end and was approximately 75 percent completed. Remaining reconstruction was not fully funded, with a 99 billion LBP ($66 million) shortfall remaining. Of the 27,000 Palestinians originally displaced following the camp’s destruction, UNRWA expected that approximately 21,000 would return. Many moved into completed apartments this year, and the temporary settlements that housed them near Nahr el-Bared Camp were decommissioned. The government did not permit UNRWA to install individual electricity meters in apartments, preferring that UNRWA pay a single bill rather than collecting from thousands of households, which limited access to electricity for residents.
Palestinian refugees typically could not access public health and education services or own land. A 2001 amendment to the law was designed to exclude Palestinians from purchasing or inheriting property. Palestinians who owned and registered property prior to the 2001 law entering into force could bequeath it to their heirs.
Palestinian refugees residing in the country could not obtain citizenship and were not considered citizens of any other country. Palestinian refugee women married to Lebanese citizens were able to obtain citizenship after one year of marriage. According to the country’s nationality law, the father transmits citizenship to children. Palestinian refugees, including children, had limited social and civil rights and no access to government-provided health, education, or other social services. Children of Palestinian refugees faced discrimination in birth registration, and many had to leave school at an early age to earn an income.
Palestinian refugees who fled Syria for Lebanon since 2011 received limited basic support from UNRWA, including food aid, cash assistance, and winter assistance, such as cash to purchase fuel for heating. Authorities permitted children of PRS to enroll in UNRWA schools and access UNRWA health clinics.
The Ministry of Education and Higher Education facilitated the enrollment of more than 200,000 non-Lebanese students, predominantly Syrian refugees, in public schools (basic education from kindergarten to grade nine) in the 2018-19 academic year. Authorities estimated there were almost 338,000 registered Syrians of school age (three to 14 years old) in the country. Donor funding to UN agencies covered school-related expenses, such as school fees, books, and uniforms. Syrian refugees had access to many nonprofit and private health centers and local clinics for primary care services, and UN agencies and NGOs funded the majority of associated costs with international donor support. Syrian refugees had access to a limited number of UNHCR-contracted hospitals for lifesaving and obstetric care.
Iraqi refugees had access to both the public and private education systems. Iraqi refugees also had access to the primary health-care system. UNHCR, through NGOs, provided secondary health care with donor support.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were sometimes responsive to these groups’ views, but there was limited accountability for human rights abuses.
There was no information on reports from previous years of international and local human rights groups being targeted by security services for harassment.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The position of State Minister for Human Rights was eliminated in the new cabinet formed in January. Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights struggled to make legal changes to guide ministries in protecting specific human rights. In March 2018 the cabinet appointed the five members of the National Preventive Mechanism against Torture, a body within the 10-member National Human Rights Institute, but as of October the Institute, which was created in 2016, had no budget and had still not commenced its work (see section 1.c., Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
West Bank and Gaza
Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza
The Palestinian Authority (PA) basic law provides for an elected president and legislative council. There have been no national elections in the West Bank and Gaza since 2006. President Mahmoud Abbas has remained in office despite the expiration of his four-year term in 2009. The Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) has not functioned since 2007, and the PA Constitutional Court dissolved it in 2018. President Abbas called in September for the PA to organize PLC elections within six months, but elections did not take place by year’s end. The PA head of government is Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. President Abbas is also chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and general commander of the Fatah movement.
Six PA security forces (PASF) agencies operate in the West Bank, and the PA maintained effective civilian control. Several are under PA Ministry of Interior operational control and follow the prime minister’s guidance. The Palestinian Civil Police have primary responsibility for civil and community policing. The National Security Force conducts gendarmerie-style security operations in circumstances that exceed the capabilities of the civil police. The Military Intelligence Agency handles intelligence and criminal matters involving PASF personnel, including accusations of abuse and corruption. The General Intelligence Service is responsible for external intelligence gathering and operations. The Preventive Security Organization (PSO) is responsible for internal intelligence gathering and investigations related to internal security cases, including political dissent. The Presidential Guard protects facilities and provides dignitary protection.
In Gaza the terrorist organization Hamas exercised de facto authority. The security apparatus of the Hamas de facto government in Gaza largely mirrored the West Bank. Internal security included civil police, guards and protection security, an internal intelligence-gathering and investigative entity (similar to the PSO in the West Bank), and civil defense. National security included the national security forces, military justice, military police, medical services, and the prison authority. The “Islamic Resistance Movement”–a group with some affiliation to the Hamas political movement–maintained a large military wing in Gaza, named the Izz ad-din al-Qassam Brigades. In some instances the Hamas de facto “civilian” authorities utilized the Hamas movement’s military wing to crack down on internal dissent.
The government of Israel maintained a West Bank security presence through the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), the Israeli Security Agency, the Israeli National Police, and the Border Guard. Israel maintained effective civilian control of its security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
West Bank Palestinian population centers mostly fall into Area A, as defined by the Oslo-era agreements. The PA has formal responsibility for security in Area A, but Israeli security forces (ISF) regularly conducted security operations there, at times without coordinating with the PASF. The PA and Israel maintain joint security control of Area B in the West Bank. Israel retains full security control of Area C and has designated the majority of Area C land as either closed military zones or settlement zoning areas.
Significant human rights issues included:
- With respect to the PA: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, torture, and arbitrary detention by authorities; holding political prisoners and detainees, including as reprisal for participation in foreign investment conferences; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); restrictions on political participation, as the PA has not held a national election since 2006; acts of corruption; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; violence and threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and reports of forced child labor.
- With respect to Israeli authorities: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, including allegations that deaths of Palestinians in the course of Israeli military operations were due to unnecessary or disproportionate use of force; reports of torture; reports of arbitrary detention; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including harassment of NGOs; and significant restrictions on freedom of movement, including the requirement of exit permits.
- With respect to Hamas: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, systematic torture, and arbitrary detention by Hamas officials; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation, as there has been no national election since 2006; acts of corruption; violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers; violence and threats of violence targeting LGBTI persons; the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and forced or compulsory child labor.
- With respect to Palestinian civilians: five reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, and violence and threats of violence motivated by anti-Semitism.
- With respect to Israeli civilians: two reports of unlawful or arbitrary killing of Palestinian residents of the West Bank.
The PA took some steps to address impunity or reduce abuses, but there were criticisms that senior officials made comments glorifying violence in some cases and inappropriately influenced investigations and disciplinary actions related to abuses. Israeli authorities operating in the West Bank took steps to address impunity or reduce abuses, but there were criticisms they did not adequately pursue investigations and disciplinary actions related to abuses. There were no legal or independent institutions capable of holding the Hamas de facto authority in Gaza accountable.
As stated in Appendix A, this report contains data drawn from foreign government officials; victims of alleged human rights violations and abuses; academic and congressional studies; and reports from the press, international organizations, and NGOs concerned with human rights. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some of those sources have been accused of harboring political motivations. The Department of State assesses external reporting carefully but does not conduct independent investigations in all cases. We have sought input from the government of Israel and the PA and have noted responses where applicable.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The PA basic law generally provides for freedom of expression but does not specifically provide for freedom of the press. The PA enforced legislation that NGOs claimed restricted press and media freedom in the West Bank, including through PASF harassment, intimidation, and arrest.
In Gaza, Hamas restricted press freedom through arrests and interrogations of journalists, as well as harassment and limitations on access and movement for some journalists. These restrictions led many journalists to self-censor. During the March Bidna Na’eesh (We Want to Live) protests, Hamas arrested 23 journalists, according to rights groups.
Israeli civil and military law provides limited protections of freedom of expression and press for Palestinian residents of the West Bank. NGOs and Palestinian journalists alleged that Israeli authorities restricted press coverage and placed limits on certain forms of expression–particularly by restricting Palestinian journalists’ movement, as well as through violence, arrests, closure of media outlets, and intimidation, according to media reports and the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms. The Israeli government stated it allows journalists maximum freedom to work and investigates any allegations of mistreatment of journalists.
Freedom of Expression: Although no PA law prohibits criticism of the government, media reports indicated PA authorities arrested West Bank Palestinian journalists and social media activists who criticized or covered events that criticized the PA.
On February 24, the PASF detained photojournalist Mohammad Dweik while he filmed a protest against the National Social Insurance Law, according to media reports; he was later released after deleting the content from his camera.
The law restricts the publication of material that endangers the “integrity of the Palestinian state.” The PA arrested West Bank journalists and blocked websites associated with political rivals, including sites affiliated with political parties and opposition groups critical of the Fatah-controlled PA. Websites blocked during 2018 continued to be blocked throughout the year.
According to HRW, the PA arrested 1,609 individuals between January 2018 and April 2019 for insulting “higher authorities” and creating “sectarian strife.” HRW stated these charges “criminalize peaceful dissent.” The PA arrested more than 750 persons during this period for social media posts, according to data provided to HRW.
In Gaza, Hamas authorities arrested, interrogated, seized property from, and harassed Palestinians who publicly criticized them. Media practitioners accused of publicly criticizing Hamas, including civil society and youth activists, social media advocates, and journalists, faced punitive measures, including raids on their facilities and residences, arbitrary detention, and denial of permission to travel outside Gaza. In January, Hamas arrested the Palestinian comedian Ali Nassman after he released a song on YouTube mocking a Hamas policy, according to media. He was released later that day. In April, Hamas arrested Palestinian comedian Hussam Khalaf for mocking the same Hamas policy, and he was released the next day.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent Palestinian media operated under restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza. The PA Ministry of Information requested that Israeli reporters covering events in the West Bank register with the ministry. According to the PA deputy minister of information, the ministry provides permits to Israeli journalists only if they do not live in a settlement. While officially the PA was open to Israeli reporters covering events in the West Bank, at times Palestinian journalists reportedly pressured Israeli journalists not to attend PA events.
Hamas de facto authorities permitted broadcasts within Gaza of reporting and interviews featuring PA officials. Hamas allowed, with some restrictions, the operation of non-Hamas-affiliated broadcast media in Gaza. For example, the PA-supported Palestine TV continued to operate in Gaza.
On May 26, the Hamas de facto government Ministries of Interior and Information in Gaza prevented PA-owned newspaper Al Hayat Al Jadida from distributing its paper based on the claim that the outlet published provocative material that incited violence and disrupted the civil peace.
In March, Hamas security arrested Rafat al-Qedra, the general manager of Palestine TV in Gaza. According to media outlets, they confiscated his mobile telephone and personal laptop before releasing him.
In areas of the West Bank to which Israel controls access, Palestinian journalists claimed Israeli authorities restricted their freedom of movement and ability to cover stories. The ISF does not recognize Palestinian press credentials or credentials from the International Federation of Journalists. Few Palestinians held Israeli press credentials.
There were reports of Israeli forces detaining journalists in the West Bank, including the August 6 detention in Burqin of Muhammed Ateeq, who was held for 10 days, and the August 29 detention of photojournalist Hasan Dabbous in his village near Ramallah. According to Israeli authorities, Ateeq was arrested on suspicion of endangering the security of the area.
On June 10, an Israeli military court indicted Palestinian journalist Lama Khater, who was arrested alongside five other journalists in July 2018, for incitement to violence through her writing and sentenced her to 13 months in prison, including time already served, according to media reports. She was released on July 26. Khater claimed she was mistreated during interrogation, including being chained to a chair for 10 to 20 hours a day for more than a month, according to media reports. According to Israeli authorities, Khater admitted to membership in Hamas, an illegal organization, and was sentenced as part of a plea bargain.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous reports that the PA harassed, detained (occasionally with violence), prosecuted, and fined journalists in the West Bank during the year based on their reporting.
The PA occasionally obstructed the West Bank activities of media organizations with Hamas sympathies and limited media coverage critical of the PA.
The PA also had an inconsistent record of protecting Israeli and international journalists in the West Bank from harassment by Palestinian civilians or their own personnel.
In Gaza, Hamas at times arrested, harassed, and pressured, sometimes violently, journalists critical of its policies. Hamas reportedly summoned and detained Palestinian journalists for questioning to intimidate them. Hamas also constrained journalists’ freedom of movement within Gaza during the year, attempting to ban access to some official buildings.
Throughout the year there were reports of Israeli actions that prevented Palestinian or Arab-Israeli journalists from covering news stories in the West Bank and Gaza. These actions included alleged harassment by Israeli soldiers and acts of violence against journalists. Palestinian journalists also claimed that Israeli security forces detained Palestinian journalists and forced them to delete images and videos under threat of violence, arrest, or administrative detention. On August 2, ISF detained AP photojournalist Eyad Hamad for several hours while he was reporting on house demolitions in the Wadi al-Hummous area of East Jerusalem, according to rights groups and media reports. The government of Israel stated it could find no record of this incident.
On July 24, Reporters without Borders alleged the IDF was intentionally targeting the media after five Palestinian journalists were injured in the span of four days while covering events in the West Bank and Gaza. At least two of the injured journalists were wearing vests marked “press” when the IDF allegedly fired at them with live rounds, according to media reports. One of the journalists, Sami Misran of Al-Aqsa TV, allegedly lost the use of an eye, according to the Times of Israel. The IDF stated it does not target journalists. According to the government of Israel, allegations of misconduct regarding the Gaza protests were being examined by the Fact Finding Assessment Mechanism, which will be reviewed by the MAG to determine whether there are reasonable grounds for criminal investigations.
On May 4, the Israeli air force shelled and destroyed a Gazan building that included the offices of local and regional media agencies and institutes, including the Turkish Anadolu Agency, the Prisoners Media Center, the Hala Media Training Center, and the Abdullah Hourani Studies Center, according to media reports. The IDF stated it targeted the building because it housed other offices related to Hamas and that it did not intend to destroy the media offices.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The PA prohibits calls for violence, displays of arms, and racist slogans in PA-funded and -controlled official media. There were no confirmed reports of any legal action against, or prosecution of, any person publishing items counter to these PA rules. Media throughout the West Bank and Gaza reported practicing self-censorship. There were reports of PA authorities seeking to erase images or footage from journalists’ cameras or cell phones.
According to media reports, the PASF confiscated equipment from journalist Thaer Fakhouri in Hebron and arrested him for posting “incitement information” on social media platforms. He was held for four days and obliged to pay a fine before being released.
In Gaza civil society organizations reported Hamas censored television programs and written materials, such as newspapers and books.
The Israeli government raided and closed West Bank Palestinian media sources, primarily on the basis of allegations they incited violence against Israeli civilians or security services. Acts of incitement under military law are punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. NGOs and other observers said Israeli military regulations were vaguely worded and open to interpretation. The ISF generally cited two laws in its military orders when closing Palestinian radio stations–the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations and the 2009 Order Concerning Security Provisions. These laws generally define incitement as an attempt to influence public opinion in a manner that could harm public safety or public order.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were some accusations of slander or libel against journalists and activists in the West Bank and Gaza.
A case continued in Ramallah Magistrate’s Court in which London-based al-Arabi al-Jadeed disputed a 2016 closure order by the PA following an investigative report about torture in PA prisons.
HRW reported that Gazan authorities charged journalist Hajar Harb with slander for an investigative piece she wrote in 2016 accusing doctors in Gaza’s health ministry of writing false reports to allow healthy people to leave Gaza for treatment in return for payment. She was convicted in absentia in 2017. She returned to Gaza in 2018 and was granted a new trial. In March she was acquitted on appeal.
National Security: Human rights NGOs alleged that the PA restricted the activities of journalists on national security grounds.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Authorities in the West Bank and Gaza limited and restricted Palestinian residents’ freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
PA law provides for freedom of internal movement within the West Bank, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions.
Hamas authorities restricted some foreign travel into and out of Gaza and required exit permits for Palestinians departing through the Gaza-Israel Erez crossing. Hamas also prevented some Palestinians from exiting Gaza based on the purpose of their travel or to coerce payment of taxes and fines. There were some reports unmarried women faced restrictions on travel out of Gaza.
Citing security concerns and frequent attempted terrorist attacks, Israel imposed significant restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli authorities often prohibited travel between some or all Palestinian West Bank towns and deployed temporary checkpoints for that purpose. Palestinians who lived in affected villages stated that “internal closures” continued to have negative economic effects, lowering their employment prospects, wages, and days worked per month. During periods of potential unrest, including on some major Israeli, Jewish, and Muslim holidays, Israeli authorities enacted “comprehensive external closures” that prevented Palestinians from leaving the West Bank and Gaza. For example, Israeli authorities enacted a comprehensive closure for the West Bank and Gaza for eight days during Pesach from April 19-26, according to B’Tselem. B’Tselem reported 13 such days in total during the year.
The Israeli travel permit system restricts Palestinians’ ability to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, including travel to pursue higher education opportunities. Palestinian higher education contacts reported that permits for Gazans to attend West Bank universities were seldom granted.
Israel has declared access restricted areas (ARAs) on both the coastal and land borders around Gaza, citing evidence that Hamas exploited these areas at times to conduct attacks or to smuggle weapons and goods into Gaza. The lack of clear information regarding the ARAs created risks for Palestinians in Gaza who lived or worked either on the Mediterranean Coast or near the perimeter fence. No official signage indicating the line of demarcation exists, and official policy changed frequently. Likewise, the permitted maritime activity area for Palestinians along the coastal region of Gaza changed between zero and 15 nautical miles 19 times throughout the year, according to the Gisha, an Israeli organization that focuses on Palestinian freedom of movement. Human rights NGOs asserted this confusion led to multiple instances of Israeli forces firing upon farmers and fishermen. According to the United Nations, regular electrical outages often made it necessary for Gazan farmers to work their fields after dark; in some instances, IDF soldiers shot at farmers near the ARA while they irrigated their fields at night.
On February 20, Israeli naval forces arrested five fishermen and confiscated three boats off the Gaza coast, according to the PCHR. The Israeli forces used live fire during the arrests, damaging one of the boats, and one of the fishermen was injured when an Israeli naval vessel hit him after he jumped off his boat when it was fired on. Also on February 20, Israeli naval forces allegedly shot Gaza fisherman Khader al-Saaidy with rubber-coated bullets in the face and chest at close range, and he lost sight in both eyes as a result. According to the government of Israel, the case was referred to the MAG to determine whether there were reasonable grounds for a criminal investigation.
A key barrier to Palestinian movement was the security barrier that divides the majority of the West Bank from Israel, including Jerusalem, and some parts of the West Bank. Israeli authorities constructed the barrier to prevent attacks by Palestinian terrorists. In some areas it divides Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. At its widest points, the barrier extends 11 miles (18 kilometers) into the West Bank. B’Tselem estimated that 27,000 Palestinians resided in communities west of the barrier who were required to travel through Israeli security checkpoints to reach the remainder of the West Bank. Other significant barriers to Palestinian movement included internal ISF road closures and Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian persons and goods into and out of the West Bank and Gaza. Major checkpoints, such as Container and Za’tara, caused major disruptions in the West Bank when closed, according to media reports. When Container (near Bethlehem) is closed, it cuts off one-third of the West Bank population living in the South, including Bethlehem and Hebron, from Ramallah and the North. Similarly, Za’tara checkpoint blocks traffic in and out of the entire northern part of the West Bank, including Nablus, Tulkarem, and Jenin, according to media reports. UNOCHA reported there were 705 permanent obstacles throughout the West Bank, a 3 percent increase from their previous survey in 2016. Israeli restrictions on movement affected virtually all aspects of Palestinian life, including attendance at weddings and funerals, access to places of worship, employment, access to agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. There were also reports of patients dying in traffic before reaching hospitals and ambulances en route to accidents or scenes of attacks being stopped by the IDF for hours at a time. In October the Israeli government denied a travel request for an Amnesty International employee from the West Bank to accompany his mother to a chemotherapy treatment in Jerusalem citing “security concerns,” according to Amnesty.
Israeli officials imposed restrictions on movement of materials, goods, and persons into and out of Gaza based on security and economic concerns. Amnesty International and HRW reported difficulties by foreign workers in obtaining Israeli visas, which affected the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. Amnesty International and HRW also reported that the Israeli government denied their employees permits to enter Gaza from Israel. The United Nations and several international NGOs reported that the Israeli government denied their local Gazan staff permits to exit Gaza into Israel, and UNOCHA reported that more than 130 local UN staff were under travel bans prohibiting them from exiting Gaza. The Israeli government stated all Gaza exit requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with security considerations arising from Hamas’s de facto control of Gaza.
PA-affiliated prosecutors and judges stated that ISF prohibitions on movement in the West Bank, including Israeli restrictions on the PA’s ability to transport detainees and collect witnesses, hampered their ability to dispense justice.
UNRWA reported its West Bank Headquarters staff lost 79 workdays during the year, mostly due to increased Israeli demands to search UNRWA vehicles at checkpoints between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
In-country Movement: Hamas authorities did not enforce routine restrictions on internal movement within Gaza, although there were some areas of Gaza to which Hamas prohibited access. Pressure to conform to Hamas’s interpretation of Islamic norms generally restricted movement by women.
The ISF routinely detained for several hours Palestinians residing in Gaza who had permits to enter Israel for business and subjected them to interrogations and strip searches at Israeli-controlled checkpoints, according to rights groups. UNOCHA and several NGOs working on freedom of movement issues noted that frequently changing protocols and unofficial, unwritten policies at checkpoints have resulted in the forfeiture of personal property including money, electronics, and clothing of those attempting to exit Gaza with valid travel permits.
Israeli authorities allegedly damaged Palestinian property in the West Bank while conducting raids, sealed off entries and exits to homes and other buildings, and confiscated vehicles and boats. The Israeli government stated that it imposed collective restrictions only if an armed forces commander believed there was a military necessity for the action and that the imposition on the everyday lives of Palestinian civilians was not disproportionate.
Restrictions on access to Jerusalem had a negative effect on Palestinian patients and medical staff trying to reach six hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care unavailable in the West Bank. According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), IDF soldiers at checkpoints at times harassed and delayed ambulances from the West Bank or refused them entry into Jerusalem, even in emergency cases. The PRCS and World Health Organization reported hundreds of such actions impeding humanitarian services during the year. Most included blocking access to those in need, preventing their transport to specialized medical centers, or imposing delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. According to the Israeli government, security considerations and lack of advanced coordination on the part of Palestinian medical teams often caused delays.
Israeli authorities restricted or prohibited Palestinian travel on 29 roads and sections of roads (totaling approximately 36 miles) throughout the West Bank, including many of the main traffic arteries, according to B’Tselem. The ISF also imposed temporary curfews confining Palestinians to their homes during ISF arrest operations. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israeli authorities eased restrictions on Palestinians entering Israel, including Jerusalem, allowing West Bank Palestinians to use Ben Gurion Airport, to visit family, and visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for religious services. Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Palestinians in Gaza to visit Jerusalem.
Israeli authorities extended the security barrier in the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem and began land clearing to extend the barrier through Walajah village, also near Bethlehem. Israel continued to restrict movement and development near the barrier, including access by some international organizations. In response to a freedom of information act request from HaMoked in 2018, the IDF reported that during the year it had denied 72 percent of permit requests by Palestinian farmers to access their land blocked by the security barrier, of which 1 percent of the denials were for security reasons. HaMoked asserted many of these refusals were due to arbitrary claims by Israeli authorities that the farmer’s land was too small to cultivate.
Private security companies employed by the Israeli government controlled many points of access through the security barrier. International organizations and local human rights groups claimed these security companies did not respond to requests to allow movement of goods or NGO representatives through the barrier.
Palestinian farmers continued to report difficulty accessing their lands in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank. NGOs and community advocates reported numerous Palestinian villages owned land rendered inaccessible by the barrier. A complicated Israeli permit regime (requiring more than 10 different permits) prevented these Palestinians from fully using their lands.
Israeli restrictions allowed fishing only within three nautical miles of Gaza land during specific periods. The Israeli government stated these restrictions were necessary for security reasons. Israeli and Egyptian naval forces regularly fired warning shots at Palestinian fishermen entering the restricted sea areas, in some cases directly targeting the fishermen, according to UNOCHA. Israeli armed forces confiscated fishing boats intercepted in these areas and detained the fishermen. In August the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories returned 22 seized fishing boats to their owners; all the boats had holes in them and the fishermen were forced to pay the cost of moving the boats from government of Israel custody back to the docking area, according to the United Nations.
In the West Bank, Israeli military authorities continued to restrict Palestinian vehicular and foot traffic and access to homes and businesses in downtown Hebron, citing a need to protect several hundred Israeli settlers resident in the city center. The ISF continued to occupy rooftops of private Palestinian homes in Hebron as security positions, forcing families to leave their front door open for soldiers to enter. In response to these reports, the Israeli government stated that freedom of movement is not an absolute right but must be balanced with security and public order.
The Israeli government, citing security concerns, continued to impose intermittent restrictions on Palestinian access to certain religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Israeli officials cited security concerns when imposing travel restrictions, including limiting access to Jerusalem during major Jewish holidays as well as continuing construction of Israel’s security barrier, which impeded the movements of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank.
UNOCHA reported Palestinians in Gaza considered areas up to 984 feet (300 meters) from the perimeter fence to be a “no-go” area, and up to 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) to be “high risk,” which discouraged farmers from cultivating their fields. UNOCHA estimates nearly 35 percent of the Gaza Strip’s cultivable land is in these areas.
Foreign Travel: Hamas authorities in Gaza occasionally enforced movement restrictions on Palestinians attempting to exit Gaza to Israel via the Erez Crossing and to Egypt via the Rafah Crossing. Palestinians returning to Gaza were regularly subject to Hamas interrogations about their activities in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad.
Citing security concerns, Israeli authorities often denied or did not respond to Palestinian applications for travel permits through the Erez Crossing. Israel largely limited entry and exit from Gaza at the Erez Crossing to humanitarian cases and limited permits to businesspersons and day laborers working in Israel. These limitations prevented some Palestinians from transiting to Jerusalem for visa interviews; to Jordan (often for onward travel) via the Allenby Bridge; and to the West Bank for work or education. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated there were no new restrictions on items that could be brought through Erez into Israel, but Gazans reported additional restrictions, including not being allowed to carry phone chargers or more than one pair of shoes. Israel approved 40 percent of exit permit requests from Gaza to Jordan, 56 percent from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank, and 50 percent from the West Bank to Israel, according to the Israeli government.
During the year the Israeli Supreme Court continued to uphold with few exceptions the ban imposed in 2000 on students from Gaza attending West Bank universities. Students in Gaza generally did not apply to West Bank universities because they understood Israeli authorities would deny permits.
Delays in permit approvals by Israeli officials caused some Palestinians to miss the travel dates for exchange programs abroad, and for matriculation in foreign universities. In some cases authorities asked students to submit to security interviews prior to receiving permits. Israeli authorities detained some students indefinitely without charge following their security interview, which caused other students to refuse to attend these interviews for fear of detention.
According to Gisha, Israel denied some exit permit applications by residents of Gaza on the grounds that the applicants were “first-degree relative[s] [of] a Hamas operative.” UNOCHA reported that some of their staff members were denied exit permits out of Gaza due to security blocks because UNOCHA coordinates with Hamas as the de facto government in Gaza to facilitate the entry, exit, and transportation of UN personnel.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Israeli security operations in the West Bank led to 11 Palestinian UNRWA beneficiary fatalities, three of whom were killed allegedly while conducting an attack on the ISF or Israeli civilians. Israeli use of live ammunition caused most injuries. There were 62 Palestinians reported injured by Israeli authorities in West Bank refugee camps, according to UNRWA, of whom live ammunition injured 17, including four UNRWA beneficiary minors.
The most recent fatality in Deheisha refugee camp south of Bethlehem was in July, when the ISF fatally shot 14-year-old Arkan Thaer Mizher. According to the Israeli government, the investigation has concluded and the MAG was reviewing the findings.
UNRWA provided education, health care, and social services to areas of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza; however, the agency continued to experience funding shortfalls throughout the year. During the year Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations urged international donors to suspend funding to the agency amid a UN Office of Internal Oversight Services investigation into allegations of corruption and mismanagement by UNRWA’s senior management team. Several international and Israeli NGOs called for the UN to strengthen oversight of UNRWA and improve transparency to address the allegations.
Access to Basic Services: Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza were eligible to access UNRWA schools and primary health care clinics, although in some cases, movement restrictions limited access to UNRWA services and resources in the West Bank (see section 1.d.).
All UNRWA projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip required Israeli government permits, but UNRWA does not apply for permits in refugee camps.
The deterioration of socioeconomic conditions during the year in Gaza severely affected refugees. UNRWA reported that food security continued to be at risk.
Israeli import restrictions on certain commodities considered as dual use continued to impede humanitarian operations in Gaza, including those directed toward refugees. In 2016 Israeli authorities introduced a requirement whereby approval of UNRWA projects remained valid for one year. As project implementation timelines often exceeded one year, this requirement necessitated applications for reapproval of projects, which hampered implementation and increased transaction costs for multiple UNRWA projects.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Palestinian human rights groups and international organizations reported some restrictions on their work in the West Bank. Some of these organizations reported the PASF and PA police harassed their employees and pressured individuals and organizations not to work with them. Several PA security services, including General Intelligence and the Palestinian Civil Police, appointed official liaisons who worked with human rights groups.
Israeli and Palestinian human rights NGOs operating in the West Bank, Gaza, or both, including B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Breaking the Silence, reported harassment from Israeli settlers and anonymous sources. B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, Yesh Din, HRW, and Breaking the Silence reported some of their employees were subjected to intimidation, death threats, or physical assault. NGOs claimed these behaviors increased during periods in which government officials spoke out against their activities or criticized them as enemies or traitors for opposing government policy.
Gaza-based NGOs reported that Hamas representatives appeared at their offices to seek tax payments, demand beneficiary lists and salary information, and summon NGO representatives to police stations for questioning. On March 17, Hamas security forces assaulted and injured Jamil Sarhan, the director of the ICHR Gaza office, and Bakr al-Turkmani, an ICHR employee, while they were performing human rights monitoring duties. Hamas detained other human rights workers in March, prompting Amnesty International to state on March 18 that it was “clear that Hamas security forces are trying to stop human rights defenders from carrying out the vital work of document and reporting” on Hamas abuses.
Humanitarian organizations continued to raise concerns about the shrinking operational space for international NGOs in Gaza, including a significant increase in Israeli travel bans affecting their Gaza-based staff. Israeli authorities increased scrutiny of both nongovernmental and diplomatic visitors to Gaza following the February 2018 arrest of a French consulate employee who admitted to smuggling weapons from Gaza to the West Bank in official diplomatic vehicles. In April the Be’er Sheva District Court sentenced him to seven years in prison.
Palestinian, Israeli, and international NGOs monitored the Israeli government’s practices in the West Bank and Gaza and published their findings.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: PA and Israeli officials generally cooperated with and permitted visits by representatives of the United Nations and other international organizations. There were numerous reports Hamas harassed members of international organizations.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The ICHR continued serving as the PA’s ombudsperson and human rights commission. The ICHR issued monthly and annual reports on human rights violations within PA-controlled areas; the ICHR also issued formal recommendations to the PA. The ICHR was generally independent but faced resource shortages that limited its ability to work effectively. Local and international human rights NGOs cooperated with the ICHR.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons