Interview with Omar Shakir – Israel and Palestine Director, Human Rights Watch (Middle East and North Africa Division)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Omar Shakir is the Israel and Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch (Middle East and North Africa Division). Here we talk about Israel, Palestine, human rights, international law, and more.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from a general overview. What are the basic facts in the modern context with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Omar Shakir: The major human rights issues stem from Israel’s near half-century-long occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That occupation has been characterized by systematic rights abuses and institutional discrimination, particularly targeting Palestinians.

It includes abuses like settlements. Israel has established over 200 Israeli-only settlements in the occupied West Bank. It has over 600,000 Israeli-Jewish settlers living in these settlements who are subject to a separate and unequal system of laws, rules, and regulations.

So, they are treated under a legal system that is different than the legal system of the Palestinians living in the same territory are ruled under. Israeli settlers are citizens of Israel, vote in Israeli elections, move freely; whereas, Palestinians are not citizens, do not vote, and do not have free movement.

Even to get to East Jerusalem or Gaza, which is part of Occupied Palestinian Territories, they are not able to do so presumptively. In addition, Palestinians are treated under military law. Whereas, Israeli settlers are treated under Israeli civil law.

Palestinians receive inferior access to electricity, health, and water. That military court system is replete. It has a 98% conviction rate. It is replete with due process violations. Of course, in addition to that, Palestinians live under a very brutal occupation, which means regular excessive force by Israeli soldiers.

It also means that Palestinians: thousands are held for politically motivated charges. Some are held in administrative detention without trial or charge.

Of course, the situation, in many ways, in the Gaza Strip is harsher in many of these respects because Israel for the last 12 years has imposed a full closure or blockade around Gaza, which means there is a generalized travel ban.

Nobody is allowed to travel into and out of Gaza, except unless if you exist within a list of narrow exemptions.

Even food as well as Palestinian exports, being able to go to the West Bank, which is part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, are limited in their exports, the economic situation in Gaza is quite desperate in addition to the services, electricity, and water being more dismal.

In addition, in many parts of the West Bank, Palestinians are effectively not allowed to build. It is impossible to build in most of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem. It means Palestinian homes that are built are at risk of demolition.

In fact, many Palestinian homes have been demolished. The legal status of Palestinians, especially those in East Jerusalem, have the status of the stateless, which can be revoked on a wide variety of parameters including moving out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It puts them in jeopardy.

Whatever geographical area that you look at, especially around the Occupied Palestinian Territories that we’re talking about here, whether status, land and building policy, access to resources, even social aspects like marriage, you find really serious discrimination with Palestinians facing serious rights abuse.

Of course, it also applies in Israel itself, where Palestinian citizens of Israel who are 25% of the population face very serious and entrenched discrimination.

Jacobsen: There is another urgent fact. UN reports stating that with Gaza. It is going to be unlivable by 2020. That has been stated for at least a couple of years as far as I understand.

What are the current conditions in terms of demographics as well as some of the strong facts spoken before? Gaza in terms of the unliveability.

Shakir: In Gaza, look, you have about 2,000,000 Palestinians who are living in a 25×7 mile narrow strip of land. It is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

A huge percentage of the population is actually youth, are young people, who are educated and struggling to find jobs and basically live.

There are no Israelis in Gaza. Israel withdrew its settler population in 2005. However, there are Israeli towns and villages a kilometre, 2 kilometres, sometimes several kilometres away.

The discrimination is quite clear. They have access to healthcare, freedom of movement, basic civil and political rights, not given to Palestinians.

Jacobsen: What has been the longstanding international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Shakir: Look, internationally, every country, there is a consensus that the West Bank and Gaza are part of an entity of Palestine. The UN has recognized Palestine as a non-member, observer state.

More fundamentally, every state in the world recognizes Israel’s occupation of these lands under international law, the West Bank and Gaza.

There is virtual universal agreement outside the Israeli government basically recognize Israel’s occupation of these lands.

Under international law, the West Bank and Gaza, there is universal consensus outside the Israeli government that the settlements the Israeli government has are war crimes and violations of international law. The international peace process has been on finding a two-state solution.

In terms of legal and human rights issues, the key concern has been about Israel’s violations of international humanitarian law. Both the law of occupation and human rights law.

Jacobsen: With the violation of rights law, of occupation, with regards to domestic things you’re talking about such as marriage, in addition to the lack of resources, the vast differential there. What is the basic misrepresentation of these straightforward facts about this conflict?

Shakir: I think what Israel would say in response, “Well, settlers are part of Israel. They are Israelis. Palestinians are part of something else. They have some limited level of Palestinian self-rule.”

In fact, the 1993 Oslo Accords did establish a Palestinian Authority. The issue here is the Palestinian Authority have limited actual rule.

Most everyday decisions on fundamental things Israel controls; the air space, the water space, the borders, the entry and exit of people and goods. They even register every Palestinian baby born in Gaza. They control tax collection.

In practice, the Israeli government is the one that controls the lives of all 13 million people that live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In other words, the modern West Bank, Israel, and Gaza.

In that land, you have about 6.5 million Jews and 6.5 million Palestinians, because some Palestinians are Israeli citizens. Palestinians receive unequal treatment, as compared to Jews, throughout this area.

Israel would say, “In the West Bank and Gaza, we don’t control them. They are left to rule on their own, which doesn’t match the facts on the ground. Within Israel, they vote in elections. They receive the same treatment at hospitals. While there may be issues, they, certainly, don’t amount to systemic discrimination.”

Even though, that as been documented by the UN and others.

Jacobsen: If you look at the Western media in terms of Western Europe and North America, there are systems of public relations that just misreport the facts, selectively report facts, or, sometimes, outright lie about the conflict.

How can people who are more critically minded about their news sources pierce through that, basically, occlusion of the facts of the matter?

Shakir: Yes, I think in this day and age. There are alternative sources of information. I think social media. I think the diversity of news sites available makes this easier to find alternative perspectives for the situation on the ground.

Unfortunately, in the West and in Europe, there is a pretty strong effort to silence those who are critical of Israel’s policies.

The efforts to label critics of Israel and of the occupation, and Israeli policy, as being anti-Israel or even antisemitic – or attacking methods used by activists of civil disobedience like boycotts, labelling them as anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or antisemitic.

When, in fact, those are the same tactics used throughout the world. I think that those who are concerned seek alternative sources of information.

If you are a citizen who relies on Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International for U.S. human rights abuses, or about the situation in Saudi Arabia or in China, then you should also rely on their reporting on the situation in Israel, Palestine, or Egypt.

I think it is important to be consistent and, likewise, to seek out Israeli NGOs including human rights work like B’Tselem, Gisha, or Breaking the Silence, or Palestinian groups like al-Haq, or Palestinian Center for Human Rights, or international groups, or even UN bodies.

If you look at direct sources of information rather than relying on media sources that have other influences, then I think that you’re more likely to get at the reality on the ground.

Jacobsen: For those who want to find some other direct human rights organizations as resources, what other reliable sources of information would you recommend for them?

Shakir: B’Tselem is a great human rights organization that does work around the occupation. I think al-Haq, which is a Palestinian human rights organization based in Ramallah. It does really fantastic work.

Gisha is an Israeli human rights group based in Tel Aviv. It does really great work around Gaza and the closure of Gaza. I think if people are concerned specifically about Gaza, I think that is a great source of information.

On the Palestinian side, I think the Palestinian Center for Human Rights or the Al Mezan Center For Human Rights. Both provide great information about the situation in Gaza. I think people should avail themselves of multiple sources of information.

I think those are among the many, many groups – Israeli and Palestinian – that provide a fair review of the abuses of all parties.

All these organizations, for the most part, are not shy to talk about the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas authority and the rights abuses that they carry out as well.

Jacobsen: From the perspective of the Palestinians in the next year or two, what are their concerns?

Shakir: The closure of Gaza, I cannot emphasize that enough. It’s 12 years of closure. You have unemployment rates over 50%.

For youth, it is close to 70%. In addition to unemployment, you have 80% of the population reliant on humanitarian aid at a time when humanitarian aid is being cut by humanitarian bodies, including the countries United States.

Electricity continues to be a pressing issue in Gaza. There’s been a recent increase. But for the most part, people have more many, many months having 4-6 hours of electricity per day. It has slightly gone up.

But it is still not enough to meet the needs of the everyday population. In the West Bank, you have Israel continuing to expand and annex settlements in parts of the West Bank including worsening the everyday conditions for Palestinians that live in the communities, which is almost every community in settlements in the West Bank.

You have, in addition, developments with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority being divided. There has been an effective split between the West Bank and Gaza over the last few years.

We have seen both authorities arbitrarily arrest supports of each side and put punitive pressure, especially the Palestinian Authority, on Gaza.

So, I think that combination of Palestinians stuck between multiple authorities that are intolerant of dissent. I think the everyday citizen is facing a precarious situation.

Jacobsen: What would be the perspective of the Israelis on this, as you were noting? Some would be taking any criticism of Israel as either anti-Zionist or antisemitic. Why resort to these assertions? What is their general perspective here?

Shakir: Look, like anyone else, I don’t think the Israelis speak with one voice. I think, in fact, the human rights community; there have been some very courageous Knesset members and journalists, and other activists who have spoken very honestly about the human rights abuses that this government is perpetrating, particularly in the occupied territories.

I think a position that is more defensive of the current Israeli government. Often, you will hear that the attacks are anti-Israel or antisemitic. Unfortunately, I think this is an attempt to change the conversation, to attack the messenger as opposed to the substance of the critique.

It is a way to shutdown the conversation, muzzle criticism of Israel’s human rights records. Many different arguments like this have been used: sometimes, terrorism, or sometimes, antisemitism, or bias altogether.

I think the reality is that these are all ways to divert from dealing with the matter in hand. The occupation and the serious rights abuses that are characteristic of it.

Jacobsen: There can be idealistic solutions in the world, “I want peace. I want to end hunger.” Things like this. In terms of practical, immediate steps, such as removal of the blockade, what are ways forward for Palestinians?

Shakir: Sure, ending the closure of Gaza is step one. Without free movement, all other rights – the right to health, right to water, right to electricity, so many fundamental freedoms – are impeded.

I think dismantling settlements and the two-tiered discriminatory structure that goes along with it is critically important.

Palestinians for over five decades, or 52 years, have been deprived of their most basic civil and political rights. Their socioeconomic rights are restricted too. Ultimately, Israel needs to lift its closure. There needs to be a formal removal of settlements and an end to institutional discrimination.

There are many ways this can be done: one-state, two-state, and so on. There can be many solutions to protecting rights. The bottom line: there is no solution that does not at its core action to end the rights abuses that have continued for too long.

Jacobsen: If we’re looking at the largely young population, especially in Gaza and the highly densely populated area there, I recall some commentary stating that it is more densely populated than Tokyo, Japan.

Let’s say the blockade is lifted, what then can international support do to basically provide the things that kids need, e.g., education?

Shakir: I want to be clear. When we say to remove the closure, we don’t mean open the doors. Israel has the right to allow an individualized security assessment. The problem now is the policy now is that it is not based on that; it is a travel ban.

No one, even my colleague, who covers Gaza for Human Rights Watch, was for the first time in her life in 2018 given a permit to leave Gaza, she left and came back. She doesn’t pose a security threat.

She has been denied a permit more recently since then because it is a generalized travel ban. It is not an individualized security assessment.

If you lift it, and people and students can go abroad for study and professional opportunities, and goods are allowed to be exported, people can move between the West Bank, Gaza, and Ramallah.

International investment can come in. Who is going to invest in a territory where there is no private sector because it has been crushed by the closure?

Taking the West Bank where the situation is relatively more open than Gaza, the World Bank in 2013 estimated that the restriction in Area C of the West Bank, a part of the West Bank alone, cost over $3 billion to the Palestinian economy.

You can imagine, if the blockade is lifted, the opportunity this would allow for everyday people.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Shakir: No, I think you covered it all!

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Omar.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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