Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 6 – Tripartite Partition: The Israeli Elections, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

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/Occupied Palestinian Territories or oPt/OPT (Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) and Israel. Language recognized in the work of the OHCHRAmnesty InternationalOxfam InternationalUnited NationsWorld Health OrganizationInternational Labor OrganizationUNRWAUNCTAD, and so on. Some see the Israeli-Palestinian issue as purely about religion. Thus, this matters to freethought. These ongoing interviews explore this issue in more depth. 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 6th part in our series of conversations with coverage in the middle of February to the middle of March for the Israeli-Palestinian issue. With the deportation of Shakir, this follows in line with state actions against others, including Amnesty International staff member Laith Abu Zeyad when attempting to see his mother dying from cancer (Amnesty International, 2019; Zeyad, 2019; Amnesty International, 2020), United States Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and United States Congresswoman Ilhan Omar who were subject to being barred from entry (Romo, 2019), Professor Noam Chomsky who was denied entry (Hass, 2010), and Dr. Norman Finkelstein who was deported in the past (Silverstein, 2008). Shakir commented in an opinion piece:

Over the past decade, authorities have barred from entry MIT professor Noam Chomsky, U.N. special rapporteurs Richard Falk and Michael Lynk, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire, U.S. human rights lawyers Vincent Warren and Katherine Franke, a delegation of European Parliament members, and leaders of 20 advocacy groups, among others, all over their advocacy around Israeli rights abuses. Israeli and Palestinian rights defenders have not been spared. Israeli officials have smearedobstructed and sometimes even brought criminal charges against them. (Shakir, 2019)

Now, based on the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court and the actions of the Member State of the United Nations, Israel, he, for this session, works from Amman, Jordan.

*Interview conducted on March 16, 2020. The previous interview conducted on February 17, 2020[1].*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Since February, middle of February (Jacobsen, 2020), what have been some of the updates in terms of rights abuses within the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

Omar Shakir: Of course, we had Israeli elections on March 2nd (Federman, 2020a; Federman, 2020b; Zion, 2020; Goldenberg, 2020a).[2] A lot of the attention has been taken up by the elections and what that might mean for the human rights situation on the ground. As of now, there are still ongoing negotiations (Federman, 2020c). Benny Gantz[3], the leader of the Blue and White Party (2020), has been tasked with the first opportunity to form a government.[4] He will have some time now to do that.[5] The impact on rights remains to be seen. Another significant development as part of a global environment has been the spread of the coronavirus in Israel and Palestine (Federman, 2020d). Israel has recorded hundreds of cases (Ibid.). We have a few dozen cases in the West Bank as well (Daraghmeh, 2020). Of course, those numbers will continue to likely increase.[6] The spread of this virus has brought about a series of measures taken by both Israeli and Palestinian governments that intersect with a range of human rights issues (Daraghmeh, 2020; Federman, 2020d).

Jacobsen: When we’re looking at some other nations, some will go into complete national or provincial/state lockdown (Barry & Calanni, 2020; Barry & Geller, 2020; The Associated Press, 2020a). Others will deal with things bit-by-bit by closing down schools (Neumeister & Villeneuve, 2020), closing down sporting events (Reynolds, 2020a; Reynolds, 2020b), telling the public not to go into public spaces (Khalil, 2020), because there is no major immunity in the population at large[7]. What are some of the measures being taken in Israeli society and Palestinian society?

Shakir: The Israeli and Palestinian authorities have taken different steps (Federman, 2020d; Daraghmeh, 2020). On the Israeli side, of course, we have seen a series of restrictions on travel (Gambrell, 2020). Most significantly, the Israeli government requires all Israeli citizens and residents returning from travel to go into home quarantine for a period of 2 weeks (The Associated Press, 2020b). So, obviously, this effects thousands of people. The Israeli government is not actively enforcing this, though there have been press reports of folks being questioned, even arrested, for violating that order. The Israeli government has also announced surveillance measures that they are taking against those suspected of having the virus (Mitnick, 2020). That has been a policy that has raised significant rights concerns on the intrusion on the right to privacy (OHCHR, 2020). It also opens the door to discrimination and other rights abuse (Ibid.). In addition, on the Israeli side, there has been a policy that all non-citizens and residents, all foreigners, will be denied entry if they cannot prove that they have the ability upon arrival to self-quarantine (The Associated Press, 2020b).[8] We have also seen, of course, measures taken with regards to Palestinians on the Israeli side.

Among them has been the virtual closure of Bethlehem, once Bethlehem reported a number of coronavirus-related cases (Daraghmeh, 2020). We have also seen a restriction on Israel’s land borders, in terms of entry to Gaza being restricted to humanitarian cases. So, certainly, a lot of these preventative measures have been quite wide. We have seen schools and other institutions closed (Federman, 2020e). Israel hasn’t gone to the point of complete lockdown, as have some countries (Gambrell, 2020; Barry & Geller, 2020). Of course, these policies affect many, but most drastically affect, vulnerable communities. On the Palestinian side, we have seen in the West Bank, authorities have instituted restrictions (Vahdat & Kullab, 2020; Akour & Karimi, 2020). They first imposed some restrictions around access to Bethlehem. Of course, they have limited authority, but their security forces have set-up more checkpoints to monitor movement by Palestinians. Just today, we have seen the Hamas authorities, apparently, closed their side of the border with there’s crossing with Israel. They have announced measures on the Rafah Crossing, where they were putting folks arriving into a quarantine, an institutional quarantine, at a school (Vahdat & Karam, 2020). There have been reports of there being abuses there, having taken place.

Jacobsen: What about issues around conflict increases or decreases along borders? Have there been escalations in conflict before some of these quarantine measures were being more taken into account since we last talked along the border between Israel and Palestine, or (occupied) Palestinian territory?

Shakir: With respect to the Gaza Strip, there was a period earlier in the year with low-grade hostilities between both sides (Federman, 2020f; The Associated Press, 2020c; The Associated Press, 2020d). There were some explosive devices being sent off from Gaza (U.N. News, 2020) and measures by the Israeli’s being taken on restrictions on a fishing zone and a number of permits being given (Federman & Akram, 2020). We have seen those sorts of actions being taken. But there have been on-and-off situations, interim agreements reached, reportedly reached between the sides. Those took place earlier in the year. Things have, obviously, shifted, now, with some of the restrictions taken around the coronavirus.

Jacobsen: What will be the likely policy and political outcomes over the term of, another term of, Benjamin Netanyahu?

Shakir: It is quite clear. Over the course of over a decade of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rule, his government has pursued a policy seeking to only further entrench and make permanent Israel’s rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and control over the populations in Gaza (Goldenberg, 2020b; Goldenberg, 2020c). In the elections, he made crystal clear his intention to annex settlements to Israel, all settlements, and to continue and maintain restrictions in place against Palestinians (Goldenberg, 2020b). Over the course of the decade, we’ve seen increasing attacks on human rights groups and on critics of Israeli government policy (Human Rights Watch, 2018; Human Rights Watch, 2019a; Human Rights Watch, 2019b; Human Rights Watch, 2020). It is quite likely that those will continue and potentially intensify.[9] There have been several election cycles now, where the Netanyahu government, their coalition partners, and even other parties, have engaged in regular race-baiting and expressed a total disregard for international law and norms (Weiss, 2020; Hodgkins, 2019; Dugard, 2019). All indications are that these abusive policies could very well continue under a Netanyahu government.

Jacobsen: There’s been much commentary around the “Deal of the Century” of the Trump Administration (White House Staff, 2020; Heller & Lee, 2020; Daraghmeh & Akram, 2020). There has also been counter-commentary comparing setup, the eventual setup that would be the setup on this, to the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa (Jabari & Smith, 2020). What are some of your thoughts on this “Deal of the Century” (Jacobsen, 2020)?

Shakir: Look, the Trump plan seeks to make permanent Israel’s discriminatory rule over Palestinians (Ibid.). It is presenting the repressive status quo as a final solution. It is quite clear the Israeli policy towards Palestinians has been about boxing them into dense population centers and maximizing the land on the West Bank for illegal Israeli settlements (Ibid.). This policy would, essentially, put the United States’ stamp, which has already been firmly placed through decades of support and decades of unwillingness to use leverage to stop policies on the one-state reality on the ground today where Israel effectively rules the entire area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and discriminates institutionally against the Palestinians, treats them unequally in all these areas, and ensures the control and domination by Jewish-Israelis, this would lock in that reality (Ibid.).

Jacobsen: In the case of an outbreak of COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, what will be the political fallout of that over time, potentially?

Shakir: I think it is difficult to predict. This is, in many ways, a fast moving and unprecedented sort of development. There have been efforts by some Israeli political forces to use the outbreak of COVID-19 as a way to establish a unity government between the Blue and White Party and the Likud Party (Heller, 2020c). Those efforts, at the time of recording, have not yet materialized. It is certainly possible that the imperative of dealing with this situation could, particularly if things continue to escalate, create a situation in which it facilitates a unity-type government. Certainly, with regards to human rights situation the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the poor state of healthcare, in particular in the Gaza Strip as a result of decades of restrictions on movement of people and goods and the occupation more generally, makes Gaza more susceptible to a large-scale type crisis should the virus make its way into the Gaza Strip, particularly in its refugee camps (The Associated Press, 2019; The Associated Press, 2018). There are, obviously, some in the West Bank as well. In many cases, the virus around the world has affected vulnerable populations, be they minorities, elderly or refugees. Certainly, it raises the real risk that these communities would face heightened challenges should this virus continue to spread.

Jacobsen: What should we be paying more attention to between March and April looking forward?

Shakir: I think right now the world’s attention is around containing this virus. I think the key things to look for in this period, obviously, will be Israeli government formation and what that might mean for the human rights situation for Palestinians, annexation, and the situation in Gaza. Will we see COVID-19 make its way into Gaza? Will the crisis continue to develop across the world and in Israel and Palestine? Also, of course, we have the International Criminal Court studying the question of jurisdiction over Palestine in light of the prosecutor’s request. A decision on jurisdiction could come in the spring, although that could very well drag out further.   

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

Shakir: Alright! Thank you.

Previous Sessions (Chronological Order)

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

HRW Israel and Palestine (MENA) Director on Systematic Methodology and Universal Vision

Human Rights Watch (Israel and Palestine) on Common Rights and Law Violations

Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 1 – Recent Events

Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 2 – Demolitions

Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 3 – November-December: Deportation from Tel Aviv, Israel for Human Rights Watch Israel and Palestine Director

Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 4 – Uninhabitable: The Viability of Gaza Strip’s 2020 Unlivability

Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 5 – The Trump Peace Plan: Is This the “The Deal of the Century,” or Not?

Addenda

Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) Addendum: Some History and Contextualization of Rights

Other Resources Internal to Canadian Atheist

Interview with Dr. Norman Finkelstein on Gaza Now

Extensive Interview with Gideon Levy

Interview with Musa Abu Hashash – Field Researcher (Hebron District), B’Tselem

Interview with Gideon Levy – Columnist, Haaretz

Interview with Dr. Usama Antar – Independent Political Analyst (Gaza Strip, Palestine)

References

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Amnesty International. (2019, October 31). Israel/ OPT: Amnesty staff member faces punitive travel ban for human rights work. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/israel-opt-amnesty-staff-member-faces-punitive-travel-ban-for-human-rights-work/.

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Federman, J. (2020e, March 12). Israel’s Netanyahu calls for emergency government with rival. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/0ba6a56ddc9fc6645027d2f18cc999de.

Federman, J. (2020f, February 23). Israel Strikes Gaza, Syria After Palestinian Rockets Attacks. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2020-02-23/palestinian-rockets-strike-israel-after-gaza-border-clash.

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Federman, J. (2020c, March 15). Netanyahu rival Gantz chosen to form new Israeli government. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/63f367ec108720d910b436d2ff1e45c7.

Federman, J. & Akram, F. (2020, February 24). Shaky truce appears to take hold in Israel-Gaza fighting. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/945ef225d5958ef5dedaa10673b3fca5.

Gambrell, J. (2020, March 9). Saudi Arabia, Israel tighten restrictions to counter virus. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/2c9415e2787d325c14a097a836d533f9.

Goldenberg, T. (2020b, February 20). Israel leader vows thousands of new homes in east Jerusalem. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/b39239157fd5818fee6fe213ad103f48.

Goldenberg, T. (2020c, February 24). Netanyahu banks on Trump plan to drive up pro-settler votes. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/5e699d2478ef6f1b560dcc7214f423eb.

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Heller, A. (2020a, March 8). Israel election challenger gets extra security after threats. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/ac1891327f4bc1157d6f10bbb2c1c319.

Heller, A. (2020c, March 16). Israel swears in new parliament under coronavirus shadow. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/8ed9580624d342a650d52a38cdc2b449.

Heller, A. & Lee, M. (2020, January 28). Retrieved from https://apnews.com/f7d36b9023309ce4b1e423b02abf52c6.

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Jabari, L. & Smith, S. (2020, February 22). Facing a Palestinian state, Arab Israelis find Trump’s Mideast plan unworkable. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/facing-palestinian-state-arab-israelis-find-trump-s-mideast-plan-n1140331.

Jacobsen, S.D. (2020, March 26). Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 5 – The Trump Peace Plan: Is This the “The Deal of the Century,” or Not?. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2020/03/ask-hrw-israel-and-palestine-5-jacobsen/.

Khalil, A. (2020, March 9). Hundreds in DC asked to quarantine after exposure in church. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/575774c710e6413383dd1c7fd9419002.

Mitnick, J. (2020, March 16). Better Health Through Mass Surveillance?. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/16/israel-coronavirus-mass-surveillance-pandemic/.

MEMO: Middle East Monitor. (2020, March 9). Israel bars entry to foreigners over coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200309-israel-bars-entry-to-foreigners-over-coronavirus/.

Neumeister, L. & Villeneuve, M. (2020, March 15). News New York City schools to close Monday to fight coronavirus. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/a514b654b61395e8bc236b6678040bf0.

OHCHR. (2020). The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/DigitalAge/Pages/DigitalAgeIndex.aspx.

Reynolds, T. (2020b, March 12). MLS shutting down for 30 days due to coronavirus. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/36359214c3d5b244ac1d502542ccf4a5.

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The Associated Press. (2020d, March 5). Israel demolishes homes of 2 alleged Palestinian attackers. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/8a5e114eeadfc8939dd69b1ccfd0d717.

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The Associated Press. (2019, January 22). Trump’s Palestinian Aid Cuts Means Thousands Lose Access to Food and Healthcare. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/with-the-loss-of-u-s-aid-palestinian-dreams-of-peace-move-even-farther-away-1.6866397.  

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Vahdat, A. & Karam, Z. (2020, March 14). Iran death toll from virus passes 600, Syria shuts schools. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/0b65f7d3f64d44f2027f8af20bd940b9.

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[1] For more information, the 5th session in this educational series seems the aptest for updates up to and including the middle of February. See Jacobsen (2020).

[2] Election results showed the following outcomes by the party and the parenthetical numbers of seats won, given by the most recent (of several) elections:

  1. Likud (36)
  2. Blue & White (33)
  3. Joint List (15)
  4. Shas (9)
  5. Yisrael Beiteinu (7)
  6. United Torah Judaism (7)
  7. Labour-Gesha-Meretz (7)
  8. Yemina (6)

Central Elections Committee. (2020, March 2). Elections for the 23rd Knesset. Retrieved from https://bechirot23.bechirot.gov.il/election/english/Pages/default.aspx.

[3] There has been substantial and strong rhetoric in the midst of this interim period, circa the time of the interview:

“Netanyahu: The public atmosphere and the threats worry every national leader,” he said, pointing his finger forward. “The incitement is raging everywhere and you are silent.”

“I won’t allow you to sow fear. I won’t allow you to turn man against his brother. I won’t allow you to bring about modern Israel’s first civil war in return for a ticket out of your trial,” he added. “Your regime has trampled all norms.”

Also, Netanyahu remains in difficulties in terms of criminal charges and legal issues:

Netanyahu is scheduled to go on trial next week to face corruption charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. Israel’s longest-serving leader is desperate to remain in office, because installing a new government would give him an important political boost and potentially allow him to legislate his way out of the legal quagmire.

On Monday, Amit Haddad, one of Netanyahu’s lawyers, said he would seek a delay in the start of the trial. He said the request was “technical” and meant to give the defense time to review investigative materials that it still has not received.

The main question, at the time of the Heller reportage, remained who would lead the coalition between the Blue & White Party and the Likud, and the specific length for the initial leadership. See Heller (2020a).

[4] Duly note, there have been significant issues with the security for Benny Gantz of the Blue & White Party because of the continual and growing acrimony between the Blue & White Party and the Likud with each successive election. Gantz faced death threats and received increased security. See Heller (2020b).

[5] With ongoing issues around the charges against Benjamin Netanyahu, the death threats against Benny Gantz, human rights violations with the illegal settlements in the West Bank, the perilous potential for a calamity with SARS-CoV-2 entering Palestinian society, and the ongoing negotiations for the joining of the parties, the situations for human rights and for respect for international law may remain at its current standstill until the context becomes more stable.

[6] All countries once having a few cases continued to increase for some time with many on exponential, or worse, increases or curves in the number of the cases and, thus, the numbers of deaths due to the novel coronavirus.

[7]Harvard University (2020) stated:

COVID-19 will be defeated forever only when enough people develop immunity to it so that it can no longer spread easily from person to person, according to experts. This so-called “herd immunity” can happen in one of two ways. A vaccine—the preferred way—is at least a year away. The other way happens naturally, when a large percentage of the population becomes infected and develops antibodies to the disease that protect from reinfection. The problem with the second way is that many will die in the process. In addition, it’s unknown what percentage of the population needs to become infected to provide herd immunity. Even for those who have developed immunity, “we don’t know how effective it is or how long it will last,” said William Hanage. He said that, until a vaccine is available, repeated rounds of physical distancing may be needed.

See Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health (2020).

[8] Israel stopped entry, at the time of the interview, to all internationals. See MEMO: Middle East Monitor (2020).

[9] That is to say, with the continual assault on international human rights, international humanitarian law, and the like, the trendline appears strongly in favour of the argument of a continuation of the breach of international law and the disregard for international human rights disproportionately by the Israeli government.

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

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican AtheistsAmerican Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Omar Shakir/Human Rights Watch.

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