- 22,072 sq km
- Total Population
- 7,170,000 (UN 2008)
- Prison Rate
- 236 (per 100,000 of national population)1
- Capital Punishment
- ratified, individual complaints (Art. 22) not recognised
- not signed
Following a UN vote to end the British mandate over Palestine in 1947, the State of Israel was proclaimed in May 1948, sparking the “war of independence” of 1948. Since then, the country has fought several major wars with its Arab neighbours (1956, 1967, 1973), successively enlarging its terrority. Since 1967, Israel has permanently occupied areas inhabited by Palestinian Arabs. Having retreated from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel expands illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, and also upholds the annexation of the Golan Heights, all of which contributes to the deadlock of the peace negotiations with both the Syrians and the Palestinian Authority. Internally, the cultural, social and political landscape has been shaped by successive waves of Jewish immigration, producing a very diverse population. As a result of the country´s history, about 20 percent of the Israeli citizens are Arabs.
Israel is a democratic republic, operating under a unicameral parlamentiary system with universal suffrage. Due to the two percent electoral threshold, the Israeli parliament is typically composed of a large number of parties, resulting in relatively unstable coalition governments. The parliament (Knesset) elects the prime minister, who is the head of the executive and the cabinet. The country is politically isolated in the region, despite having signed peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). Internationally, Israel has close ties to the US, which has been the countries´ steadiest ally for many years.
Israel does not have a constitution, but a compilation of so-called “Basic Laws”, which together function as an unwritten constitution, in which human rights are legally enshrined. The legal system combines elements of British common law, civil law and Jewish law. In 1985, Israel seized to recognise the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.
The Israeli economy is structurally comparable to that of other small developed economies in the West, with a large contribution of the private sector to the GDP, open trade, a large service sector, and a modern industrial sector specialized in high-tech manufacturing.3 A significant problem is the lack of carbohdyrate energy resources and, in particular, water resources, which feeds into the political conflict with neighboring states and the Palestinians. In 2007, Israel ranked 27th in the United Nations Human Development Index, falling into the category of “high human development.”4
Israel is state party to many of the core human rights treaties. Israeli citizens are generally well protected from human rights violations, yet Arab-Israeli citizens are discriminated in certain ways, as noted by the Committee on the Elimination of all Form of Racial Discriminination in its 2007 Concluding Observations. Since 1967, the country´s overall human rights performance has been heavily impaired by the consequences of the non-recognition of Palestinian self-determination and the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, as noted in 2008 by the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories since 1967. First and foremost, the means used to counter militant activities by Palestinians resistance groups, the methods employed to secure the network of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the blockade of the Gaza Strip entail serious human rights violations. For instance, as noted in the latest Universal Periodic Review report5, “targeted killings” are a major concern to the Human Rights Committee (HRC). In the context of settlement policy, the HRC and the Special Rapporteurs on Terrorism and Human Rights expressed concern about restrictions on the freedom of movement in the Occupied Territories as having highly negative effects on the enjoyment of basic human rights by the Palestinians, such as the right to education, an adequate standard of living or access to the place of employment and essential social services. Repeatedly, the HRC stressed that Israel´s obligations under all ratified treaties also apply to the territories effectively under Israeli control6, a position that various Israeli governments and the Israeli Supreme Court have continuously rejected. In recent years, the construction of a separation barrier built mostly within the Occupied Palestinian Territory has sparked international criticism, because it cuts entire communities off from relatives, workplaces and social services, constituting a breach of Israel´s obligations under ICESCR. In 2004, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion stating that Israel should stop the construction of the wall, which Israel chose to disregard. The Goldstone Mission, set up following the events of the war in Gaza in 2008/2009, documented numerous indiscriminate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the state of Israel and the Israeli Defence Forces, including deliberate attacks on civilian objects, including hospitals and UNRWA buildings sheltering civilians. Palestinian armed groups, too, were charged with attacks on Israeli civilians and behaviour endangering the security of Palestinian civilian population. The war caused the death of 13 Israelis and almost 1400 Palestinians.7
Situation of Torture and Ill-Treatment
Israel has ratified the ICCPR and the CAT, but is not party to the OPCAT and the optional protocols to the ICCPR. The relevant law in respect to torture is the Basic Law concerning Human Dignity and Liberty of 1992, in which section 2 and 4 prohibit torture, and section 8, 9 and 12 define the legal sanctions for torture. However, in 2008, seventeen years after the ratification of the Convention against Torture by Israel, the CAT Committee expressed concern that the treaty has still not been adequatley integrated into national legislation8, with the consequence that, inter alia, the definition of torture in Israeli law is not congruent with the one contained in art. 1 CAT. The Israeli Penal Code of 1977 prohibits the use of force or violence against a person for the purpose of extorting confessions to an offence or information relating to an offence, which is, however qualified in circumstances in which certain interrogations techniques can prevent „imminent murder“ or can be used to obtain information in relation to planned terrorist attacks. Commonly, such measures fall under the defence of “necessity” as specified in section 34 (11) of the Penal Law.9 The CAT Committee noted in 1998 that the application of this section as a justification for torture is contrary to Article 2 (para.2) of the Convention.10
In its Concluding Observations in 2009, the CAT Committee welcomed the decision by the Supreme Court of Israel (Yisacharov v The Head Military Prosecutor et. al., C.A. 5121/98) which calls for the exclusion of a confession or evidence obtained unlawfully or in violation of a defendant’s right to fair procedure.11
Practice of Torture and Ill-Treatment
A broad public debate about the ill-treatment of prisoners in Israel and the Occupied Territories has been taking place since the 1990s, which has led to several partial improvements. For instance, in 1994, two years after the ratification of CAT, the CAT Committee was pleased to note that the Israeli General Security Service and police were no longer responsible with investigating complaints about the ill-treatment and torture of detainees by their own members.12 However, since then, national legislation has not been changed to achieve full compliance with the CAT, and Israeli security services, the IDF and the Israeli Prisons Service face continuous claims of torture.
Until 1999, on the basis of the recommendations made by the Landau Commission, Israeli law allowed for interrogation methods using „moderate physical pressure“ which were heavily criticised as practices of torture by the CAT Committee in its Concluding Observations of 1994, 1997 and 1998.
The judgement of the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999, which ended the legality of some of the interrogation methods involving the use of „moderate use of physical pressure“ by the Israel Security Agency (ISA) was welcomed by the CAT Committee (2002). However, it expressed concern that the ruling did still not contain a precise definition of torture and that it still considered special circumstances, in particular the so-called „ticking bomb scenario“, under which ISA interrogators might not be criminally liable, relying on „defense of necessity.“ The Committee reiterated its concern that it still had received numerous allegations concerning the application of interrogation methods prohibited by the 1999 Supreme Court ruling, including the torture and ill-treatment of minors. The Committee remarked that, despite considerable improvements, lengthy periods of administrative detention of a large number of suspects and incommunicado detention remained a grave concern. It also criticised, considering the numerous allegations of torture and ill-treatment, the very low numbers of law enforcement officials under legal investigation.13 In 2004, an amendment to the Prison Ordinance allowed for the establishment of one prison to be operated and managed by a private concessionaire and not by the state, which raised concerns about the human rights of prisoners. The High Court of Justice reviewed the law and came to the conclusion that it was unconstitutional.14
In 2008, the Committee noted that many of the issues raised in previous documents were the same, inter alia questioning claims by the State Party to have made major progress in legislation concerning torture and administrative detention. It also expressed concern about the apparent legal possibility of impunity for ISA employees, and the alleged existence of a secret detention and interrogation facility operated by the ISA, accessible to neither the ICRC, nor detainees´ relatives and lawyers. The Supreme Court did not push for conducting investigations of this facility, despite alarming reports about torture and ill-treatment. The Committee again called for the investigation of other alleged cases of torture of Palestinian prisoners by security officials. It also asked for detailed information regarding the detention conditions of female detainees and their children, and those minors held in detention.15
In 2009, the Committee against Torture welcomed the State party’s affirmation that training concerning the Convention and the prohibition of torture is conducted in courses for security, police and military officials.16
Israel is continuously criticised for holding Palestinians without charge or trial. According to Amnesty International, in 2011 at least 307 people were detained without charge or trial.17
As of 2012, the Special Rapporteur on Torture’s requests for a country visit have not been authorised by Israel.
1King's College London, International Centre for Prison Studies
2The Israeli penal code includes the death penalty as the maximum punishment for severe crimes, such as Nazism, terrorism, and treason. In the history of Israel, only one death sentence has been carried out: that of Adolph Eichman, a senior Nazi war criminal. Other death sentences have been issued, but were later on appeal. See: Shai J. Lavi, The Sanctity of Death: The History of Death Penalty in Israel
3See: Economist Intelligence Unit (2008), “Country Profile: Israel”, p.10f.
4See: United Nations Human Development Report 2009. “Country Fact Sheet: Israel”, availabe at: http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/country_fact_sheets/cty_fs_ISR.html. Also see: See: Economist Intelligence Unit (2008), “Country Profile: Israel”, p.18 f.
5See: A/HRC/WG.6/3/ISR/2, p.3 f.
6See: CCPR/CO/78/ISR, para. 11.
7See: „HUMAN RIGHTS IN PALESTINE AND OTHER OCCUPIED ARAB TERRITORIES“, Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (Goldstone Report), A/HRC/12/48 (2009). p. 11f.
8See: A/57/44, para 52 (b), and CAT/C/Q/4, para. 2.
9See: CAT/C/33/Add.2/Rev.1 State report 1997, p.5-7
10See: CAT A/53/44, para. 238 (a).
11See: CAT/C/ISR/CO/4 para. 5.
12See: CAT A/49/44, para. 164.
13See: CAT A/57/44, para. 50 (a), 52 (a-h),
14See: Academic Center of Law & Business, Human Rights Division v. Minister of Finance, “Petition for an Order Nisi in the Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice.” HCJ 2605/05.
15See: CAT/C/ ISR/Q/4, p.2 f.
16See: CAT/C/ISR/CO/4 para. 5.
17See: AI (2012) Annual Report “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”
Sources: BBC Country Profile, Economist Intelligence Unit, APT (www.apt.ch), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch