For two and a half years, Omar Shakir has served as Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director. This week he became the first human rights researcher working in the country to be expelled on the grounds of having violated a contentious 2017 law that allows the government to deport individuals supportive of boycotts on the state of Israel or illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Sebastian Rees speaks to him about his legal battle, Israel’s increasingly authoritarian approach to dissent, and what this means for the future of documenting human rights abuses in Palestine.
Sebastian: ‘Thanks very much for agreeing to talk with Al Bawaba. I was wondering if you could briefly describe the events leading up to your expulsion from Israel.’
Omar Shakir: ‘This week marked the culmination of a multi-year effort by the Israeli government to try and muzzle Human Rights Watch’s advocacy. They ordered my deportation in May of 2018 and gave me 14 days to leave. We challenged that in the courts but both the District Court and Supreme Court upheld the deportation order and did not consider our legal challenge to the law that was the basis for it. Earlier this month the Supreme Court gave me 20 days to leave pursuant to the government’s deportation order. The Israeli government carried out this order on Monday.’
This week marked the culmination of a multi-year effort by the Israeli government to try and muzzle Human Rights Watch’s advocacy. They ordered my deportation in May of 2018 and gave me 14 days to leave.
Sebastian: ‘Have you exhausted your rights to appeal in the Israeli supreme court?’
Omar Shakir: ‘The Israeli Supreme Court upheld the deportation order. We filed a motion last week for a rehearing of the full Supreme Court given the wide implications of this decision on other advocacy organisations and on freedom of expression in Israel more broadly. The Chief Justice is considering that request. She did, however, deny a motion that we filed to allow me to stay until she has ruled on the motion for a rehearing. If a rehearing is granted there is certainly the chance that the court would overturn the decision. The Israeli government also has the option to make a different determination. Human Rights Watch has been banned from other countries and when the governments of those countries change we have been invited back in. There is certainly the chance that things could change down the road, but for now I’m outside of the country.’
Human Rights Watch has been banned from other countries and when the governments of those countries change we have been invited back in. There is certainly the chance that things could change down the road, but for now I’m outside of the country
Sebastian: ‘After the deportation was carried out where did you travel on to?’
Omar Shakir: ‘I am in Europe on an advocacy trip, meeting with many of the European governments that have voiced concern about the deportation. Today I am in the Netherlands, I was in Sweden yesterday, I’ll be in Geneva tomorrow and Paris on Friday. I’ll be in 7 or 8 countries addressing issues in Israel and Palestine in the next 10 days.’
Sebastian: ‘On your departure from Tel Aviv you described your deportation as an ‘attack on the human rights movement’. Is your case an isolated one or are many other human rights monitoring groups affected by similar Israeli legislation and actions?’
Omar Shakir: ‘My case is not unique. It comes in the context of a sustained assault by the Israeli government on human rights defenders. This takes many different forms. Other international rights defenders have been denied entry - that includes the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli and Palestinian rights organisations are regularly maligned by the Israeli government which has also restricted the ability of these groups to have foreign funding.
This case is part of larger efforts to stymie human rights advocacy in Israel and it threatens to further embolden them with the Supreme Court putting a veneer of legality on their assault
They have carried out arrests, travel bans against human rights defenders. This case is part of larger efforts to stymie human rights advocacy in Israel and it threatens to further embolden them with the Supreme Court putting a veneer of legality on their assault on human rights organisations. Having thrown out Human Rights Watch despite significant international condemnation threatens to encourage the government to escalate their attacks on human rights organisations and double down on their repressive policies.’
Sebastian: ‘Israel has long claimed that unlike other states in the region, its Supreme Court retains significant independence from its political apparatus. Is this a true statement?’
Omar Shakir: ‘The Israeli Supreme Court has long rubber-stamped Israeli rights abuses. From finding ways to ignore the Fourth Geneva Convention in regard to the illegality of settlements, to green lighting the use of force in Gaza outside of situations where there is an imminent threat to human life which is the standard international human rights law, to authorising punitive home demolitions to many other issues.
One area that has been relatively more open has traditionally been freedom of expression. Yet in this case, the court has shown that freedom of expression does not include relatively mainstream reporting on rights abuses against Palestinians. What’s unique about this case is that the Court has put its stamp on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s clamp down on human rights advocacy. But it must be stressed that the court has long been a rubber stamp on the occupation and Israeli rights abuses.’
The Israeli Supreme Court has long rubber-stamped Israeli rights abuses. From finding ways to ignore the Fourth Geneva Convention in regard to the illegality of settlements, to green lighting the use of force in Gaza outside of situations where there is an imminent threat to human life
Sebastian: ‘What has the reception been internationally to your case both from state actors and other non-government organisations?’
Omar Shakir: ‘There has been an outcry from the international community about my deportation. The world has not fallen for the Israeli narrative and seen the deportation for what it is- an attack on the human rights movement. We’ve seen support from the European Union, a range of European governments including the French, German and Belgian governments.
We’ve seen support come from the UN Secretary General and several special rapporteurs, from Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups, from American Jewish groups, academic associations and rabbis
We’ve seen support come from the UN Secretary General and several special rapporteurs, from Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups, from American Jewish groups, academic associations and rabbis. I think that speaks to the extent to which all of these actors who have very different mandates and perspectives are alarmed about Israel’s censoring of human rights advocacy and more generally the further entrenchment of Israel’s illegal settlement regime and its system of institutional discrimination.’
Sebastian: ‘You’ve worked previously in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries and considered the state of democracy and political freedoms in the region. Do you think that Israel’s increasing hostility to criticism and accountability fits in with a wider regional trend of authoritarianism?’
Omar Shakir: ‘Absolutely- I think there has been a global rise in populist leaders who have attacked universal values and international human rights, depicting them as in conflict with populations in their own countries. In many ways Netanyahu was one of the first of this wave of leaders encompassing Bolsonaro, Orban, Trump and their ilk. It’s part of a global trend but at the same time in Israel we have seen these trends for many, many years. The fact is that Human Rights Watch has brought more attention to the abuses taking place quietly in Israel and Palestine for many years.’
Sebastian: ‘Can we hope for changes in a more open, tolerant direction from Israel’s political class or will the situation regarding human rights abuses and a lack of accountability continue to get worse?’
Omar Shakir: ‘Israeli citizens have twice gone to the polls in the last year and delivered a clear message regarding their concerns for the state of their democracy. Unfortunately, that conversation has not included the assault on human rights advocacy and the very undemocratic half century long occupation of millions of Palestinians.
Unfortunately, that conversation has not included the assault on human rights advocacy and the very undemocratic half century long occupation of millions of Palestinians.
At the same time, while we haven’t seen traction on these issues from the Israeli government or the main opposition party, Blue and White, we have seen civil society groups stand strongly with Human Rights Watch and others amid the crackdown taking place. Although there is no sign of change at the political level, the chance always remains for change to occur.’
Sebastian: ‘What kind of information will Human Rights Watch lose out on without your on the ground presence in Israel and Palestine?’
Omar Shakir: ‘Our work will certainly continue. We are used to working in countries that deny us access. Just as we’ve done in places like Venezuela, Egypt and Cuba, we’ll continue to do so in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We have a local team working on the ground under my supervision, we also have a team of researchers under our portfolio who we are able to deploy. With technology and video and other tools we’ll continue with the same level of rigour to carry out our research.
What we lose is the ability to engage authorities - I’m the primary person that engages the Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials. Also, we will lose out on helping out victims of abuse - to know that they have access to the human rights groups and their directors themselves. It will harm other civil society groups that benefit from ongoing engagement with us. Things will become more challenging but we will find ways to carry out our work.’
What we lose is the ability to engage authorities- I’m the primary person that engages the Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials. Also, we will lose out on helping out victims of abuse - to know that they have access to the human rights groups and their directors themselves.
Sebastian: ‘What will be next for you personally?’
Omar Shakir: ‘I’m going to stay in this role. We won’t let Israel or anyone else have veto power over who does this job. I’ll be working out of another of our offices in Amman, one where our activity is not censored. I’m very committed to this work and doubling down on our efforts. Nothing will change in terms of the substance of my work, it’ll just be happening from across the river.’
Sebastian: ‘You’ve been working in this area for a long time, particularly on Israel and Palestine and produced very important work on the state of human rights in Israel. What work have you been most proud to be involved in?’
Omar Shakir: ‘We have many things still to come. Much of the research that we are working on is still to be published and many reports take one or two years to produce. The seeds of this will be born in the coming year.
It’s been the honour of a life time to have worked on the ground every day with our Israeli and Palestinian partners and to have advanced the ledger on critical issues including arbitrary arrest and torture by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, on businesses and settlements and the way in which they impact the lives of Palestinians; on issues regarding LGBT and Women’s Rights; and the reality of effectively permanent occupation and the systematic discrimination that accompanies it. The easiest answer is that I’m proud of our relationships with civil society groups and the way that that’s help advance the conversation on critical issues.’
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