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 OHCHR, Amnesty International, Oxfam International, United Nations, World Health Organization, International Labor Organization, UNRWA, UNCTAD, 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 7th part in our series of conversations with coverage in the middle of March to the middle of April 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 smeared, obstructed 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 April 19, 2020. The previous interview conducted on March 16, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With regards to Israel and Israeli society, what have been some human rights violations against Israelis since we last talked (Jacobsen, 2020a)?
Omar Shakir: I think the major issue that’s dominated the world for the past six weeks or so has been the coronavirus and the way in which different governments have responded to it (Schalit & Zion, 2020; The Associated Press, 2020; Akram, 2020a; Daraghmeh & Krauss, 2020; Akram, 2020b; Akram, 2020c; Federman, 2020; Reuters, 2020a; Ganeyeh & Shakhshir, 2020; Reuters, 2020b; Reuters, 2020c; Najib & Halbfinger, 2020). On the Israeli side, of course, that’s necessitated significant restrictions, including limitations on movement between towns and cities inside Israel, as well as closures of entire neighbourhoods (TOI Staff, 2020; Jerusalem Post Staff, 2020) where there has been significant exposure to the virus (al-Mughrabi, 2020). We have seen limitations on travel into and out of the country necessitated by the virus (Nimeh & Sawafta, 2020). So, a lot of the focus has been on both efforts to contain the virus as well, as on some of the restrictions brought about as a result of it (Toameh, & Ahronheim, 2020). Of course, the fact of restriction does not automatically connote rights abuse. It has to be taken holistically into account given the situation in the country. Certainly, there have been numerous ways in which the Israeli government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has manifested the institutional discrimination at the core of the system (Federman, 2020; Magdy & Krauss, 2020). For example, we have seen the Israeli government shut down testing centers in East Jerusalem for claiming that it was being supported by the Palestinian Authority (Hasson, 2020).
We have also seen areas in which the Israeli government has not provided sufficient testing of populations such as areas in the Jerusalem municipality, but outside the separation barrier, including Shuafat and Kafr ‘Aqab, where you have well more than 100,000 residents (Abraham, 2020; Al-Waara, 2020a). In these areas, there was no testing for several weeks until after the human rights group Adalah filed a lawsuit (Ibid.). We’ve also seen concerns raised about surveillance (Melman, R., Fatafta, M., & Berda, Y., 2020). The Israeli government, as part of its Covid-19 response, passed regulations that widened the scope of surveillance that Shin Bet and the government was allowed to carry out in response to the health crisis (Bajak & Winefield, 2020; Heller, 2020). Of course, there have been lawsuits filed by Israeli human rights organizations who fear this could widen the scope of surveillance conducted by the government and remain in place after the crisis wanes down.
Jacobsen: If we are looking down at one of the areas where people are most fearful of calamity, how are cases looking there?
Shakir: Gaza Strip, the number of cases remain low, but there is significant concern about what would happen should the virus enter (Akram, 2020d; Akram, Aji, & Krauss, 2020). The Israeli closure has weakened considerably the healthcare system in the Gaza Strip (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2020). The local health ministry has reported on a shortage of ventilators and ICU beds (Relief Web/Physicians for Human Rights Israel, 2020). Of course, should the crises continue and there are more cases there, there is a question to what extent Gaza can handle such a situation amid closure (al-Qedra, 2020). At the same time, there is concern about the number of testing kits and a question as to the efficacy of the strategy of the Hamas authorities to largely focus on restricting those who re-enter Gaza and putting them in quarantine centers (Toameh, & Ahronheim, 2020). There isn’t widespread testing being done on the rest of the population (Reuters/Jerusalem Post, 2020). There is concern about number of testing kits received based on the restrictions by Israel, potentially the PA, and other actors (Ibid.; United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2020; United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, 2018). So, the Hamas authorities like others have shut down much of life in the Gaza Strip. There is a lot of concern given Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Social distancing, which has been a central response around the world, is much more difficult in Gaza (BBC News, n.d.).
There is a concern about the possibility of an outbreak. It still yet has to take place; if this is to happen in the coming weeks and months, then the prospect for a humanitarian disaster, unfortunately, would be quite high.
Jacobsen: What about the West Bank?
Shakir: In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has very quickly, when this crisis began, taken measures in the areas where it exercises a degree of control (Haaretz, 2020). The outbreak began in Bethlehem there with a number of cases and spread to other parts of the West Bank (Zeidan, 2020). The PA has also declared lockdowns throughout (Ragson, 2020). As part of those efforts, it has been particularly concerned regarding Palestinian workers who have permits to work in Israel or settlements and have increasingly returned (Xinhua, 2020). Many of them came back with symptoms of the coronavirus (Al-Waara, 2020b). The government is taking a very proactive position because it faces limitations like in Gaza when it comes to healthcare capacity and ability to response, as well as the nature of Israeli hegemony and domination throughout the West Bank (Jacobsen, 2020a; Jacobsen, 2020b). These dynamics limit the degree to which the PA is able to take a robust response. Of course, there is concern again there about what could happen should things escalate. We have seen the PA and Israel take sharper measures to restrict movement within the West Bank and, of course, and between the West bank and inside Israel – and between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
Jacobsen: With regards to East Jerusalem, is the situation more or less the same with hegemonic restrictions with the capacity to deal with the crisis?
Shakir: Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 in a move no other country except maybe the Trump Administration in the U.S. acknowledges, but the municipality has in its planning document a commitment to maintaining the Jewish majority (Jacobsen, 2020c; Jacobsen, 2020b). It maintains deeply discriminatory systems. It has manifested itself in regards to the coronavirus, both in terms of availability of testing and the ways in which authorities have dealt with the different populations and communities. There have been more cases as of late. There have been efforts by the PA to help build the capacities of different neighbourhoods. Those efforts have resulted in the shuttering of testing centres, arrest of authorities linked to the PA trying to mount a response, at the same time the Israeli government has failed to meet its duties in regards to the communities there. In many ways, the Covid pandemic has exposed the deep discrimination at the core of Israel’s regime of control of Palestinians throughout the territories (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
Jacobsen: What about the relieving of the elderly and the sick, or otherwise, in Israel?
Shakir: I assume we’re talking about places of detention.
Shakir: There has been concern over the plight of prisoners about the spread of the virus in places of detention (The International Committee of the Red Cross, 2020; Nassar, 2020). We have seen places around the world shutter prisons and release prisoners (Radio Farda, 2020). On the Israeli side, we have seen the release of some detainees, particularly Jewish prisoners. We haven’t seen much movement to date in terms of Palestinian political prisoners, or what Israeli authorities consider “security detainees.” We do know that there were at least four Palestinians exposed to an interrogator who was infected by the coronavirus (Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, 2020). Of course, there has been concern about a potential outbreak in places of detention. Human Rights Watch has universally called on governments, including the Israeli government, to release detainees, particularly those who are vulnerable to the virus in addition to aggressively guarding against spread and ensuring quality healthcare for all in detention.
Jacobsen: Some have been making some commentary with Covid-19, the reactions to Covid-19, in terms of the governmental or state measures to restrict its measures throughout territories or societies. The comparison has been made on the restrictions on the lives of Palestinians imposed in part now in those in more free or the freer societies. Is this a window into seeing the situation through the eyes of Palestinians in terms of the restrictions on their lives when those restrictions, some of them, are imposed, for health reasons, on freer societies’ citizens’ lives?
Shakir: I would say Covid-19 restrictions offer a glimpse into the Palestinian experience. At the end of the day, it is only a glimpse because Palestinians have faced for decades far worse restrictions (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Covid-19 restrictions pale in comparison to what Palestinians have faced for decades. Take, for example, movement restrictions, the Israeli government inside its own government has imposed restrictions on inner city travel for short periods and has imposed closures on entire neighbourhoods, but Israel for the past 13 years has closed the Gaza Strip – effectively caged, alongside Egypt, 2 million people as per a generalized travel ban vastly disproportionate to any security threat, where people cannot travel or leave Gaza, including to the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory, with only narrow exceptions. Israel also for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank imposes severe travel restrictions, including blocking their access to the rest of the occupied West Bank, and having them face hundreds of checkpoints inside the West Bank where a routine drive to school, work, to family can turn into an hours-long humiliating ordeal (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2020). Covid-19 has also resulted in family separation worldwide, but this has been Israeli policy with regards to Palestinians for many years. Israel passed a law in 2003 that prohibits Israeli citizens or spouses from bringing their spouse to live with them in Israel or in occupied East Jerusalem or to grant them long-term legal status if they are Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza (Human Rights Watch, 2005). Israel since 2000 has largely frozen the process that would allow Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to confer status to a spouse that is not living in the same area. But unlike the coronavirus restrictions, which are temporary and meant to protect one’s citizens, the restrictions on Palestinians have been in place for over half of a century with no signs of ending any time soon and they’re not meant to protect Palestinians.
Jacobsen: What happened with the Gaza activists who were jailed by Hamas based on a video chat with Israelis?
Shakir: Sure, Hamas authorities in Gaza Strip have detained for over a week now 7 activists for participating in a Zoom call or video chat with Israelis (Akram, 2020e). They have charged them or have accused them with engaging in “normalization” or activities with Israelis not rooted in challenging Israeli repression. These detainees remain in detention. They have been subjected – some of them, at least –to mistreatment in detention. There is no justification for detaining people for their peaceful free expression, whether or not you agree with that political speech. Hamas authorities should immediately release these men. It is part of a systematic, longstanding process of arbitrarily arresting individuals based on their free expression and mistreating and torturing them in detention.
Jacobsen: What about the clinic in Silwan that was raided and then activists were arrested?
Shakir: As I mentioned, I think, it manifests part of the discriminatory system in Jerusalem and throughout Israel and Palestine. It seems that the Israeli government has failed in many areas to meet its obligation of providing testing and health care to Palestinian communities. When other actors try to provide that, instead of actually dealing with the underlying issue, which is the access to healthcare for the community, it has gone ahead and detained those who are trying to provide that service.
Jacobsen: Why does Saudi Arabia have a mass trial and arrests of Jordanians?
Shakir: I would refer you to a publication we just issued on the subject, which you can find online: “Saudi Arabia: Abuses Taint Mass Terrorism Trial.”
Jacobsen: Take care, Omar.
Shakir: Alright, Scott, take care and stay healthy.
Previous Sessions (Chronological Order)
Other Resources Internal to Canadian Atheist
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Akram, F. (2020d, March 30). Fearing Gaza virus spread, Hamas preps for mass quarantines. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/b8be13c3d4c641e6b3757c82524c21b2.
Akram, F. (2020e, April 9). Hamas arrests Gaza activists after Zoom call with Israelis. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/18e66308fc566e5fd3739a3bc10d9944.
Akram F. (2020a, March 21). Palestinians report 1st cases of coronavirus in Gaza Strip. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/6781fae5863192edfa5c9896d242c0d6.
Akram, F. (2020b, March 31). UN begins home food drops for Gaza’s needy to stem virus. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/12b88738ae88958c4804f16a5703d115.
Akram, F. (2020c, April 10). VIRUS DIARY: Isolation and patience on a quiet Gaza farm. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/5dea21ac95468c48b2aa58def5c87ca9.
Akram, F., Aji, A., & Krauss, J. (2020, March 22). Virus now in Gaza, Syria, raising fears in vulnerable areas. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/e5f39091afda3b07a70464e602d844ec.
al-Mughrabi, N. & Sawafta, A. (2020, April 9). Lockdown in West Bank, crowds in Gaza: Palestinians divided over coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-palestinians-restr/lockdown-in-west-bank-crowds-in-gaza-/.
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Federman, J. (2020, March 19). Israelis accuse Netanyahu of exploiting virus to keep power. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/9023e2a54c5d5b6b28969292cd55aeba.
Ganeyeh, M.A. & Shakhshir, B. (2020, April 2). Packed with refugees, Palestinian camps face grave threat if coronavirus spreads. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-palestinians-camps/packed-with-refugees-palestinian-camps-face-grave-threat-if-coronavirus-spreads-idUSKBN21K1BC.
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Hass, A. (2010, May 16). Noam Chomsky Denied Entry Into Israel and West Bank. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/1.5121279.
Hasson, N. (2020, April 15). Israel Shuts Palestinian Coronavirus Testing Clinic in East Jerusalem. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-police-raid-palestinian-coronavirus-testing-clinic-in-east-jerusalem-1.8767788.
Heller, A. (2020, March 17). Spying on the virus: Israel secret service to track patients. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/2ff4b8718fc7df111406c8296b69c049.
Human Rights Watch. (2019). 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.
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Jacobsen, S.D. (2020b, 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/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2020a, April 9). Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) 6 – Tripartite Partition: The Israeli Elections, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2020/04/ask-hrw-israel-and-palestine-6-jacobsen/.
Jacobsen, S.D. (2020c, March 20). Ask HRW (Israel and Palestine) Addendum: Some History and Contextualization of Rights. Retrieved from https://www.canadianatheist.com/2020/03/ask-hrw-israel-and-palestine-addendum-jacobsen/.
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Shakir, O. (2019, April 18). Israel wants to deport me for my human rights work. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/18/israel-wants-deport-me-my-human-rights-work/.
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Zeyad, L.A. (2019, December 16). Facebook Twitter Why is Israel preventing me from accompanying my mother to chemotherapy?. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/12/why-is-israel-preventing-me-from-accompanying-my-mother-to-chemotherapy/.
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.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
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 Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
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Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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For more information about Canadian Atheist’s contributors, or to get in contact with any of them, or if you are interested in becoming a contributor, see our contact page.
Image Credit: Omar Shakir/Human Rights Watch.