Omar Shakir is the Israel and Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch (Middle East and North Africa Division). Here we talk about demolitions.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have a specialty. That specialty is the Israel-Palestine issue. For June 2019, what were some of the major updates in terms of human rights violations and international law breaches on all sides?
Omar Shakir: The UN reported that April, actually, saw the most demolitions in East Jerusalem in a single month in over a decade and that the first four months of 2019 saw more people displaced than all of 2018. Home demolitions that take place outside of military necessity are a serious violation of international humanitarian law.
We have continued to see the Israeli army take punitive measures towards the people of Gaza in response to alleged acts of violence by some people in Gaza, including restricting the fishing zone off of the Gaza coast that thousands of families depend on for a living, as well as restricting the entry of fuel for a number of days, which reduced electrical supply to people in Gaza at a time in which there is significant demand for electricity.
Of course, collective punishment is a serious violation of international law. These developments come in the context of a more-than-decade-long Israeli closure of Gaza, in which it has greatly restricted the entry and exit of people and goods, sweeping restrictions that are also unlawful.
Jacobsen: How have the media reported this in the Middle East, in the West, and so on?
Shakir: These developments have been overshadowed by events on the political front. Particularly, there has been a focus on an economic workshop that the United States hosted in Bahrain in late June. That they claimed was aimed at generating interest and economic development planned for Palestine.
Of course, this $50 billion tenure plan aims to, by its own terms and power, unlock the vast potential of the Palestinian people. Yet, it says nothing about how Palestinians are disempowered today or why they’re unable to unlock their potential.
The fact that that event receives significant media attention and not the developments on the ground that are the most significant barriers to economic development indicate that this economic workshop amounts to nothing more than a sideshow divorced from reality.
Jacobsen: If we’re looking at the most severe crimes, what would you point to?
Shakir: The most significant barriers to economic development, for example, would be the closure of Gaza, the fact that Israel imposes a generalized travel ban on the 2 million Palestinians who are caged into a 25-by-7-mile territory. The economic development plan speaks of developing a transportation corridor to connect the West Bank to Gaza. But what good is a corridor when Israel and Egypt have effectively turned Gaza into an open-air prison?
The problem is not the lack of roads. In addition, the plan speaks of the importance of private property rights, without mentioning that the Israeli authorities have methodically stolen thousands of acres of privately-owned Palestinian land to build settlements, which are illegal under international humanitarian law, or the illegal exploitation of natural resources by the Israeli government for the benefit of their own population, while imposing severe restrictions on how Palestinians can use these resources.
The World Bank has estimated that Israeli restrictions in particular on Area C of the West Bank cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year. So instead of vast economic plans, throwing money at the problem, in essence, the lifting of those restrictions would do far more good for the Palestinian economy, ultimately.
Until, you take steps like ending arbitrary restrictions on movement, opening up Gaza, ending settlements, discrimination, which relate to core rights and legal principles, economic initiatives will fail ultimately. While there are many possible paths to a better future, there are none that are not centred on the dignity and respect for the rights of Palestinians.
Jacobsen: What about the targeted killings or, say, shooting at the kneecaps of journalists, medical personnel, civilians, children during, more or less, nonviolent protests?
Shakir: Every Friday Palestinian protestors in Gaza amass at the fences between Israel and Gaza. We’ve continued to see Israeli authorities fire live ammunition at protesters causing almost every week a significant number of serious injuries and some deaths. The number of injuries has declined in recent weeks in part, because the protests have been smaller in scale, but the policy of the Israeli government to fire on demonstrators irrespective of whether they pose an imminent threat to life, which is the standard under international human rights law, continues. It continues to guide Israel’s policing of demonstrations in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Jacobsen: Of those who are maimed but not killed and then returned to Palestinian society, do they essentially become seen as parasites because they are unable, based on the disability, to contribute productively to society?
Sharik: I think, certainly, throughout the world, not unique to Palestine, there is a stigma associated with people with disabilities. In the context of Gaza, though, there is a strong collection of civil society groups though that support people with disabilities.
Israel’s use of force against demonstrators has caused many people to lose a limb or otherwise experience a disability. One alarming trend we have seen is, according to the World Health Organization, in May of this past year, the Israeli army only approved 18% of their requests put forward by people injured during these demonstrations for urgent medical care outside of Gaza.
That’s compared to a 61% acceptance rate for requests or permits made by other people needing medical assistance, suggesting that the Israeli authorities are punitively denying medical care to these individuals as a result of their involvement in the protests.
Jacobsen: How does racism play into this dynamic of the conflict or the issue?
Shakir: Israel today maintains discriminatory systems that treat Palestinians unequally, whether they be Palestinians who are occupied in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or those that Israel annexed in East Jerusalem or those who are citizens of Israel, or refugees denied their internationally recognized right to return. The reality is, Israel’s nation-state law passed in 2018 reflects what has guided Israeli policy for years and dedicates the state as a constitutional mandate to the supremacy of Jewish Israeli over other people living here.
That policy manifests itself in the discriminatory policies towards Palestinians on issues like access to land, freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the security of legal status, and marriage laws. It permeates almost every aspect of Israeli policy and everyday life.
Jacobsen: If we’re looking into July, what trends will very likely continue?
Shakir: On a month-to-month basis, for the duration of Israel’s more than 52-year-long occupation, the trends, unfortunately, look similar on a month-to-month basis: on the Israeli side, continuing expansion of settlements which are illegal under international law, demolitions of Palestinian homes for lacking a permit which are nearly impossible to obtain in East Jerusalem and in the majority of the West Bank under Israeli control, and, in Gaza, the maintaining of the closure policy and the generalized ban on travel. There are many others on the Palestinian side. We continue to document arbitrary arrests by the Palestinian Authority and by Hamas authorities, and mistreatment and even torture of detainees in detention. It’s quite likely those trends will continue.
Jacobsen: If academics want to research this in a very frank and honest light, what has happened in the past to their careers?
Shakir: I mean, look, it’s difficult to paint with a broad brush. Certainly, contexts differ from country to country. There are many academics that have published research and analyses that are critical of Israeli government policies. Certainly, there have been some academics who have been penalized, punished, apparently, in reaction to their scholarly work or political work critical of the Israeli occupation. So, it really depends on the country and the context.
Jacobsen: What are some glimmers of hope?
Shakir: I think the reality here is human rights groups on the ground, Israeli, Palestinian, international alike, continue to document rights abuses and principally insist on respect for international law, despite the shrinking of civil society space. I think there are indications that public opinion on some of these issues are shifting in key places.
There also are a number of important initiatives under consideration by the international community from the preliminary examination from the International Criminal Court to the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights mandated to publish a database of businesses that operate in settlements to efforts by some European countries to push back against settlement policies, including criticizing and even in some cases insisting for compensation for structures they funded being demolished in East Jerusalem and Area C. I think the fact that human rights advocacy continues despite the sustained assault by the Israeli government and its supporters on it is a hopeful sign.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today for this session?
Shakir: Thank you for having me. I think you covered quite a bit.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Omar.
Shakir: All right, Scott. Take care.
Jacobsen: Take care.
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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