Omar Shakir, J.D., M.A. works as the Israel and Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch. He investigates a variety of human rights abuses within the occupied Palestinian territories or oPt (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.
Here we continue with the fourth part in our series of conversations with coverage of some of the real responses to this and prior work with Shakir, and then some updates on the end of December of 2019 and the first half of January of 2020 for Israel and Palestine. As a note, with the deportation of Shakir based on the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court, Shakir, for this session, works from Amman, Jordan.
*Interview conducted on January 12, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Based on some of the interviews we’ve done (Jacobsen, 2019a; Jacobsen, 2019b; Jacobsen; 2019c; Jacobsen, 2019d; Jacobsen, 2019e; Jacobsen, 2019f), and some of the more extensive work you’ve done through Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Israel and Palestine regarding human rights violations on all sides (Human Rights Watch, 2019c), you can get peripheral critiques, or ad hominem, i.e., “Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than his or her opinions or arguments,” or red herrings, i.e., “Red Herring: This is a diversionary tactic that avoids the key issues, often by avoiding opposing arguments rather than addressing them” (Purdue University, 2020). One can be standard. For instance, if you critique human rights violations by Israel or Israeli policy, you can be labelled anti-Semitic. What is generally the context for that charge? What is an appropriate response?
Omar Shakir: Anti-Semitism is a serious problem around the world, but to conflate criticism of Israeli policy or human rights documentation with anti-Semitism is to undermine what is a really serious societal ill (United Nations, 2019b). The reality is Human Rights Watch covers human rights abuses in over 100 countries around the world [Ed. HRW states, “Our researchers work in the field in 100 some countries, uncovering facts that create an undeniable record of human rights abuses” (Human Rights Watch, 2020b)]. We use the same methodologies in every country in which we work in. Often times, abuse of governments and their supporters instead of dealing with the substance of our work and our documentation will instead attack the messenger and assert claims of bias, as a way to attempt to shift attention from the underlying human rights abuse. But this strategy has failed around the world. Folks understand that concerns about human rights abuse stems from a desire to improve the lives and the respect for the human dignity of all peoples.
Jacobsen: How does this cheapen real charges of anti-Semitism against those who are victimized by that kind of prejudice?
Shakir: It undermines the fight, the necessary fight, against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, to conflate Israeli policy with that societal ill. The reality is that human rights documentation in any context and advocacy for protection of human rights is an attempt to protect the rights of all people, including the right to be free from discrimination of all forms, including anti-Semitism.
Jacobsen: Another one that came my way. The idea that you have Arab ethnic heritage and, therefore, you are biased against Israel or likely to be biased. Is this along the same lines of a red herring-ad hominem?
Shakir: Absolutely, we have researchers of diverse backgrounds at Human Rights Watch. Often, we have a person from the country who is covering that country. Of course, I’m neither Israeli or Palestinian. My predecessor was Jewish Israeli. Our methods are the same regardless of the identity of the particular researcher. To assert that someone because of their background is more or less able to do the research is a real reductionist argument. It is important to also note the research of Human Rights Watch is not the work of one person. We are an organization with a review process that goes through, at least, four other people. So, everything that goes out of the organization has been vetted to ensure that it meets the rigorous research standards, and that it applies through all the work of Human Rights Watch.
Jacobsen: For others, they mentioned not referencing Hamas attacks or other attacks against Israelis. I think that one is straightforward. They can look at other content that we have produced [Ed. Shakir stated, “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” (Jacobsen, 2019f). Also, Shakir, in another session, stated, “It is a similar pattern everywhere. Israel-Palestine, we have seen the same dynamic. The Israeli government says that we are biased against them. When we released reports, as we have done for more than two decades, on arbitrary arrests by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, or the unlawful use of force by them, we are accused… of being part of an agenda of Israel and the United States to undermine them. Even in the last year, we have seen accusations from both Israelis and Palestinians. I think the way to respond to that is to be methodologically consistent, to use the same tools, and to document the abuses of all parties” (Jacobsen, 2019c)]. They’re pointing to the idea that people reading this series will only come out with the idea that Israel is a colonialist, racist nation. I think we have covered this is in other sessions.
Shakir: Our documentation looks at abuses committed by all actors in Israel and Palestine. Take 2019, we issued a report that called the firing of indiscriminate rocket attacks by Palestinian groups war crimes (Human Rights Watch, 2019c). Also, we released a report documenting systematic, arbitrary arrest, mistreatment, and torture of people in detention by both the Palestinian authority and the Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip. We regularly do this. Not because we are trying to create a “balance,” but because the reality of human rights abuse on the ground is that it is committed by a range of actors – not solely Israelis, not solely Palestinians. Our work covers the range of different actors involved in human rights abuse.
Jacobsen: The last one on the list was labelling some of the work you’ve been reporting on to me as irresponsible propaganda [Ed. “irresponsible propaganda” against Israel]. Maybe, we can focus on the ways in which many international respectable rights organizations are coming to the same conclusions as Human Rights Watch.
Shakir: Human Rights Watch regularly does thorough, meticulous investigations speaking to a range of different witnesses of different backgrounds, consulting and seeking to corroborate all our findings with physical evidence and video evidence, a range of different sources, opinions of all stakeholders. Our research and conclusions, often, are reaching similar results as those reached by Israeli, Palestinian or other international human rights organizations. I think, an easy way to dismiss an argument instead of dealing with the substance is to attach a label on it rather than delving into the substance in depth.
Jacobsen: Thank you, let’s delve more substantively into current events. As we are moving close to the second half of January in 2020, what are some of the important updates on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side?
Shakir: Let’s start with the Gaza Strip. The United Nations put out a report a few years ago saying that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020 (United Nations Relief and Works Agency, 2012; Macintyre, 2019; Belousha & Berger, 2019; Baroud, 2020). As we turn the page into a new decade, Gaza continues to be on the brink. Economically, 80% of the population relies on humanitarian aid (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2015), unemployment figures hover around 50% (Estrin, 2018), and are even higher for women and for youth. Gaza continues to be in a process of de-development with a GDP per capita lower than it was 25 years ago [Ed. “Since 1994, Gaza’s per capita GDP has shrunk by 23 per cent” (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2017). That reality continues. In the West Bank, of course, we are in the 53rd year of the occupation [Ed. “It is the longest occupation in recent history” (Ibid.)]. We see, now, a new Defense Minister [Ed. The Minister of Defense for Israel is Naftali Bennett (Knesset, 2020).] who has reiterated the desire to not only continue the systematic abuses, but, in fact, accelerate the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank, as well as to facilitate and increase demolition of Palestinian homes and other structures (Kubovich, 2020; Lazaroff, & Toameh, 2020; Japan Times, 201). In 2019, we saw alarming figures regarding demolitions of homes in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank (Jacobsen, 2019e). I think these are among the significant developments. Of course, while much of the focus is on Israeli elections (Jerusalem Post, 2020), we continue to see the government double down on abusive policies (Human Rights Watch, 2019a). None of the major political parties are articulating an alternative vision.
Jacobsen: On the issues of unlivability in 2020, what are the most significant issues regarding that? What are the most pressing ones, e.g. around clean water?
Shakir: I think the most significant are limited access to clean water, limited or restricted access to electricity, and the larger humanitarian considerations that come with caging 2 million people in a 25 x 7 mile or 40 x 11 kilometre strip of land for more than a decade (Human Rights Watch, 2019c; Human Rights Watch, 2020a). That creates environmental and other issues. It is not a sustainable model. Much less, one that safeguards the rights entitled to the Palestinian population living in Gaza.
Jacobsen: Are there any comments or updates on the blockade?
Shakir: The blockade continues into its 12th year (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019b). The Israeli government continued in 2019 a policy, where punitively in response to actions by armed groups or hostilities will, at times, further tighten the noose, e.g., restricting the access of fishermen off the coast of Gaza, access to the sea, or closing its crossing for the movement of people and/or goods, occasionally restricting export and import of goods. Otherwise, the ongoing policy, which is, in essence, a generalized travel ban of the people in Gaza outside of a narrow set of exemptions, continues to be in place (Human Rights Watch, 2019c; Human Rights Watch, 2020a). As well, there are restrictions on what goods can be exported out of Gaza, including to the occupied West Bank, which is part of the singular territorial entity, or to the outside world.
Jacobsen: What has been reported as the single most significant thing that could be done to improve the livelihood and the livability of Gaza?
Shakir: I think there’s no question. The single thing that must be done is to end the sweeping, unlawful restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The reality here is that movement of people and goods is key to developing the economy of Gaza and increasing the capacity of Gaza’s population, which is urban, highly educated. There are, of course, many other steps that can be taken by the Egyptian government, which controls one of the crossings out of Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which have a degree of control. The single most important thing would be to end the closure. That does not mean to open the borders to all goods and traffic into Israel. Of course, Israel can enact some restrictions in the name of security, but a broad, sweeping, generalized ban that only lets people on an exceptional basis is unlawful. Rather, the baseline should be free movement with restrictions on individual movement on specific cases, where Israel has demonstrated a legitimate security concern.
Jacobsen: What about North American and Western European backing of Israel that permits the continuance of things like the blockade or the rights violations?
Shakir: I think the international community has failed to use its power and leverage to restrain Israeli rights abuses. Of course, we have the U.S. Administration under President Trump that has gone even further from the historic U.S. position of failing to use its leverage to stop rights abuse, to greenlighting and, in some cases, even being directly complicit in rights abuse. With Europe, there have been, at times, strong statements of concern, but a failure to take or support actions that would, in fact, deter rights abuse. Not only by the Israeli government, mind you, but also with regards to its support to Palestinian security agencies. There is a need for concrete action, including supporting efforts around accountability through the International Criminal Court, actions such as at the U.N. with a database of businesses being compiled the U.N. High Commissioner of the businesses operating in settlements (Zeyad, 2019). These are the sort of actions that are needed for there to be real change in the systematic rights abuse that we see year and after.
Jacobsen: As I am speaking from Canadian response, what has been the Canadian response?
Shakir: I think the Canadian government’s response has shifted and changed through different governments (Government of Canada, 2019). Canada has of late often voted alongside the United States, making it among the handful of nations that will fail to support resolutions that reiterate basic principles of international law or call for common sense statements or actions regarding unlawful policies. Canada is among that governments that sometimes fail to even endorse consensus international positions on a range of issues; much less, taking action on Israeli abuses.
Jacobsen: Where do you think things are going for the rest of January?
Shakir: With the focus on Israeli elections on the Israeli side, we will likely continue to see sharpened rhetoric, particularly around annexation, settlement expansion, home demolitions, as we have seen in the previous election cycles. The one-upmanship among different political forces at the expense of Palestinian lives. On the Palestinian side, there is clearly pressure around holding elections, but there appears to be lack of will by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to move to elections. Stagnation, as has been the case for some time now, will likely continue.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Omar.
Shakir: Thanks, Scott.
Previous Sessions (easier access than References, in chronological order)
Baroud, R. (2020, January 7). Gaza is now officially uninhabitable. Retrieved from https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/gaza-is-now-officially-uninhabitable-1.68839655.
Belousha, H. & Berger, M. (2020, January 2). The U.N. once predicted Gaza would be ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. Two million people still live there.. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/01/01/un-predicted-gaza-would-be-uninhabitable-by-heres-what-that-actually-means/.
Estrin, D (2018, December 29). Desperation In Gaza, Where Over Half Of Work Force Is Unemployed. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/12/29/680882575/desperation-in-gaza-where-over-half-of-work-force-is-unemployed.
Government of Canada. (2019, March 19). Canadian policy on key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Retrieved from https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/international_relations-relations_internationales/mena-moan/israeli-palistinian_policy-politique_israelo-palestinien.aspx?lang=eng.
Human Rights Watch. (2020b). About Us: What We Do. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/about-us.
Human Rights Watch. (2019b). Born Without Civil Rights: Israel’s Use of Draconian Military Orders to Repress Palestinians in the West Bank. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/palestine1219_web_0.pdf.
Human Rights Watch. (2019a). Israel and Palestine: Events of 2018. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/israel/palestine.
Human Rights Watch. (2020a). Israel and Palestine: Events of 2019. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/israel/palestine.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019d, May 23). Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 1 – Recent Events. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/05/ask-hrw-israel-and-palestine-1-recent-events/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019e, October 29). Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 2 – Demolitions. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/10/ask-hrw-israel-and-palestine-2-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019f, December 25). Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 3 – November-December: Deportation from Tel Aviv, Israel for Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine Director. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/12/ask-hrw-3-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019b, May 23). HRW Israel and Palestine (MENA) Director on Systematic Methodology and Universal Vision. Retrieved from https://medium.com/humanist-voices/hrw-israel-and-palestine-mena-director-on-systematic-methodology-and-universal-vision-a223d598f703.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019c, May 25). Human Rights Watch (Israel and Palestine) on Common Rights and Law Violations. Retrieved from https://www.newsintervention.com/human-rights-watch-israel-and-palestine-on-common-rights-and-law-violations/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2019a, May 6). Interview with Omar Shakir – Israel and Palestine Director, Human Rights Watch (Middle East and North Africa Division). Retrieved from http://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/05/shakir-jacobsen/.
Japan Times. (2019, December 2). After U.S. drops opposition, Israel plans new Jewish-only settlement in Hebron flash-point. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/12/02/world/social-issues-world/u-s-drops-opposition-israel-plans-new-jewish-settlement-hebron-flash-point/#.Xh-qCchKhPY.
Jerusalem Post. (2020). Israel Elections. Retrieved from https://www.jpost.com/Israel-Elections.
Knesset. (2020). Naftali Bennett: The New Right. Retrieved from https://www.knesset.gov.il/mk/eng/mk_eng.asp?mk_individual_id_t=864.
Kubovich, Y. (2020, January 9). Defense Chief Bennett Announces Task Force to Strengthen Israeli Settlement Activity. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-defense-minister-announces-plan-to-strengthen-settlement-presence-in-west-bank-1.8375453.
Lazaroff, T.& Toameh, K.A. (2020, January 9). Bennett doubles down on Palestinian demolitions. Retrieved from https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Bennett-doubles-down-on-Palestinian-demolitions-613714.
Macintyre, D. (2019, December 28). By 2020, the UN said Gaza would be unliveable. Did it turn out that way? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/28/gaza-strip-202-unliveable-un-report-did-it-turn-out-that-way.
Purdue University. (2020). Logical Fallacies. Retrieved from https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/logic_in_argumentative_writing/fallacies.html.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, March 27). Gaza Strip: Blockade. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Gaza-Strip/Blockade.
United Nations. (2019, October 17). United Nations Organizations’ Joint Event Calling on Member States to Address Global Rise in Antisemitism, at Headquarters, 18 October. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/note6530.doc.htm.
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (2017, September 12). Fifty years of occupation have driven the Palestinian economy into de-development and poverty. Retrieved from https://unctad.org/en/Pages/PressRelease.aspx?OriginalVersionID=423.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2015, July 2). The Gaza Strip: The Humanitarian Impact of the Blockade | July 2015. Retrieved from https://www.ochaopt.org/content/gaza-strip-humanitarian-impact-blockade-july-2015.
United Nation Relief and Works Agency. (2012, August). Gaza in 2020: A liveable place?. Retrieved from https://www.unrwa.org/userfiles/file/publications/gaza/Gaza%20in%202020.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.
Zeyad, L.A. (2019, September 20). UN database of companies operating in Israeli settlements could help prevent human rights abuses. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/09/un-database-of-companies-operating-in-israeli-settlements-could-help-prevent-human-rights-abuses/.
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.