Omar Shakir, J.D. works as the Israel and Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch. He investigates a variety of human rights abuses within Occupied Palestinian Territory (Gaza and the West Bank) and Israel. He earned a B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University, an M.A. in Arab Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Affairs, and a J.D. from Stanford Law school. He is bilingual in Arabic and English. Previously, he was a Bertha Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights with a focus on U.S. counterterrorism policies, which included legal representation of Guantanamo detainees. He was the Arthur R. and Barbara D. Finberg Fellow (2013-2014) for Human Rights Watch with investigations, during this time, into the human rights violations in Egypt, e.g., the Rab’a massacre, which is one of the largest killings of protestors in a single day ever. Also, he was a Fulbright Scholar in Syria.
Duly note, the Question of Palestine continues since April of 1947. On November 22 of 1974, in resolution 3236 (XXIX) of the United Nations General Assembly, the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people were “reaffirmed” with specifications on the “right to self-determination without external interference; the right to national independence and sovereignty; and the right of Palestinians to return to their homes and property, from which they had been displaced and uprooted” (United Nations, 2019; United Nations General Assembly, 1974). With November 10 of 1975 resolution 3376 (XXX), in the United Nations General Assembly, there was the establishment of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people with a request for a systematic set of recommendations on the implementation of the enabling of the rights of the Palestinian people (United Nations General Assembly, 1975).
Here we continue with the third part in our series of conversations with updates on November and December of 2019 between Israel and Palestine, and the recent decision of the Israeli Supreme Court to deport Shakir, which resulted in having to work, eventually, in Amman, Jordan at the time of the third session.
*Interview conducted on December 15, 2019.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We have been doing, more or less, something like an intermittent educational series with updates on some of the activities of the Israel-Palestine issue.
How have things been characterized in November-December so far? It is midway through December on the 15th.
Omar Shakir: The most significant human rights event of November-December would have to be the escalation between Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and the Israeli army in mid-November of 2019, which involved both Israeli airstrikes that killed more than two dozen Palestinians in Gaza, including a number of members of armed Palestinian groups, but also a number of civilians.
Armed Palestinian groups also fired hundreds of rockets towards Israeli population centres that injured more than 75 Israelis. These are indiscriminate attacks that are war crimes. Those hostilities, of course, raised a number of other human rights issues.
Of course, elsewhere, we have continued to see home demolitions take place, the number of which has risen in 2019 (See: Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 2 – Demolitions). So, those have been among the many human rights issues that we have continued to see take place in Israel and Palestine over the last six weeks.
Jacobsen: As a result of some of the reportage through Human Rights Watch, you have been critiqued lightly in some ways and heavily in others (Al-Jazeera, 2019; Kuttab, 2019; Safi, 2019). This can come with state-based consequences when you were living in Jerusalem. What happened there?
Shakir: The Israeli government for more than two and a half years now has sought to restrict Human Rights Watch’s access to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Of course, for more than a decade, it effectively blocked our access into Gaza, except for allowing us to enter on an exceptional basis in 2016.
However, in February 2017, the Israeli government denied Human Rights Watch a permit to hire a foreign employee to work from Israel and the occupied West Bank. Amid public pressure, they eventually reversed the decision and gave the organization a work permit.
I received a work visa under that. But in May of 2018, Israel revoked my work visa. We challenged that decision in court. In early November of this year, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the government’s deportation order.
I was deported on November 25th, 2019 as a result of my human rights advocacy. This event comes amid many other efforts, systematic efforts, to muzzle human rights defenders. They come at a time in which many other international rights advocates have been denied entry.
A time in which Israeli and Palestinian human rights defenders are maligned, face restrictions on their ability to receive funding, and have faced arrest, or received travel bans, amid many other punitive measures.
But the case also marked a dangerous escalation– because not only did the Supreme Court put its stamp on the government’s effort to clamp down on human rights advocacy, but the Israeli government went further in using allegations in support of boycotts to effectively say that mainstream human rights advocacy – in our case, calling on businesses to refrain from contributing to rights abuse, which is the kind of work that we do in 100 countries around the world – is grounds for denying entry to and deporting a representative of one of the largest human rights organizations. This sort of action could not only precipitate further denials of entry and deportations, but could be used to also restrict or close Israel’s doors to other critics and to further restrict Israeli and Palestinian human rights defenders who, themselves, engage in very similar work.
Jacobsen: What other types of states are known for this kind of activity?
Shakir: Human Rights Watch works in over 100 countries across the world. This is the first time a country that calls itself a democracy has deported or blocked access to one of our staff members.
In so doing, Israel joins a club of countries like Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Egypt, and others, who have blocked access to Human Rights Watch staff. Israel can aspire to join countries like Uzbekistan, the DRC, and Ethiopia who expelled our researcher and, eventually, allowed us back into the country.
Israel claims to be the region’s only democracy, but, at the same time that I have been expelled from Israel, we have offices in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia where foreign colleagues work from. I am speaking to you, now, from Amman. I am continuing to cover Israel and Palestine alongside my team on the ground.
I think this highlights not only the government’s attack on human rights advocacy, but also its larger disdain for basic international norms.
Jacobsen: Whether you are allowed back into the country to continue your human rights work through Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch, 2019a; Human Rights Watch, 2019b), or not, what does this do in terms of the image of Israel as a state over the long haul?
Shakir: The world saw through the Israeli government’s explanations here. The world saw this as an attack on the human rights movement. The reality is that the Israeli Foreign Ministry long opposed my deportation, because it knew that it would hurt Israel’s image.
But Israel’s image is primarily hurt by the fact that it continues to systematically abuse the rights of Palestinians. The best answer to that is to stop abusing the human rights of Palestinians. The attacks on human rights defenders must be seen in the larger context of a more than half a century occupation [Ed. 52 years now] that is defined by institutional discrimination and systematic abuses of the rights of Palestinians.
Jacobsen: Have other researchers or human rights defenders been deported from Israel (rather than an organizational representative)?
Shakir: This is the first time that the Israeli government used a 2017 amendment to the law of entry [Ed. Amendment No. 28 to the Entry Into Israel Law from March 6 of 2017] that permits it to deny entry to people that they allege support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (UNODC, 2017).
We will continue to do in Israel and Palestine the same work that we have done with our team of local researchers on the ground in close coordination with our Israeli and Palestinian partners.
Of course, the larger impact of this decision is that this limits our ability to engage authorities – Israeli and Palestinian, which is much more easily done face-to-face on the ground.
We will continue to engage them by phone, but that certainly makes things more complicated. Also, it limits the access of Israeli and Palestinian rights groups and human rights victims themselves to Human Rights Watch.
But we are determined to compensate for that in different ways. We also have a team of researchers without portfolio, which can be deployed under my supervision when needed to supplement our documentation on the ground.
So, the work won’t stop; the advocacy won’t stop. We will be as committed as always to human rights in Israel and Palestine, as we are around the world.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for the opportunity and your time, Omar.
Shakir: Thanks so much, take care.
Al-Jazeera. (2019, November 25). HRW’s Omar Shakir pledges to continue work after Israel expulsion. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/hrw-omar-shakir-pledges-continue-work-israel-expulsion-191125093439511.html.
Human Rights Watch. (2019a, November 5). Israel: Supreme Court Greenlights Deporting Human Rights Watch Official. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/05/israel-supreme-court-greenlights-deporting-human-rights-watch-official.
Human Rights Watch. (2019b, November 5). Israel Expels Human Rights Watch Director Today. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/25/israel-expels-human-rights-watch-director-today.
Kuttab, D. (2019, December 18). HRW calls for equal Palestinian rights. Retrieved from https://www.arabnews.com/node/1600596/middle-east.
Safi, M. (2019, December 17). Israeli military law stifles Palestinian rights, watchdog says. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/17/israeli-military-law-stifles-palestinian-rights-watchdog-says.
United Nations. (2019). The Question of Palestine: Mandate and Objectives. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/unispal/committee/mandate-and-objectives/.
United Nations General Assembly. (1974, November 22). 3236 9XXIX). Question of Palestine. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/unispal/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ARES3236XXIX.pdf.
United Nations General Assembly. (1975, November 10). 3376 (XXX). Question of Palestine. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/unispal/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/RES3376.pdf.
UNODC. (2017,March 6). Amendment No. 28 to the Entry Into Israel Law. Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/res/cld/document/law-no–5712-1952–entry-into-israel-law_html/Entry_Into_Israel_1952.pdf.
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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Image Credit: Omar Shakir/Human Rights Watch.