Read Time: 11 Minutes
Interview with Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir

‘Israel has joined the unsavoury club of rights violators’

Interview with Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir
Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir speaks to zenith about what his recent deportation from Israel means for human rights defenders on the ground in the region, and why Israel’s human rights record is worse than ever.

zenith: Why were you, after two and a half years in Israel, recently deported?

Omar Shakir: The deportation effort started before I even began in this role, when Israel originally denied Human Rights Watch a permit to hire a foreign employee in February 2017. When that effort failed it quickly began to re-focus. In April 2017, a day after I received my work permit, there was a private lawsuit filed against the government by Shurat Hadin …


… an Israeli NGO which reportedly pursues a strategy of lawfare against critics of the settlement policy…

… that requested the revocation of my work visa. That culminated in the decision in May 2018 to revoke the work visa and I was ordered to leave within 14 days. The only reason it took an additional 18 months was because we challenged that decision in court. Although the actual decision itself was made in May, its underlying logic predates my arrival in Israel.


What was the legal justification for your deportation?

In 2011 the Israeli government passed a law that allowed lawsuits to be filed against those who call for boycotts of Israel or its illegal settlements. It erased any distinction between the two. That law was the basis of a 2017 amendment Israel's law on entry, which instructs the Interior Ministry to refuse entry to those who called for BDS or any other boycotts of Israel. The Israeli government in our case applied that law to a situation in which a person represents an organisation, that actually takes no position on the boycott movement. Originally the government claimed that the decision was largely about my activities before I joined Human Rights Watch. But their position shifted in court to looking both at my activism before I joined Human Rights Watch as well as my statements and advocacy as Human Right Watch's Israel/Palestine director.


Was the decision of the Israeli courts to uphold your deportation unprecedented?

The court ruling manifested the logical next step of the Israeli government’s systematically attacks on human rights organisations. So it’s not unique in that sense. The new dangerous precedent is that the court has for the first time ordered the deportation of somebody legally residing in the country. They've denied people entry but this is the first time the courts have used the law to deport someone legally valid the country. And it's significant because the courts have put their stamp on the government's logic that human rights advocacy constitutes a boycott call.


What do you think will be the result of the ruling for Palestinian and Israeli citizens? Will it affect those outside the human rights community, as well?

If Human Rights Watch's mainstream positions on the legality of the settlements pose a threat to the Israeli state, the very same logic could be used for people who have other positions, students at Israeli universities, foreign spouses, Israeli citizens. The government let me into the country, and then produced a dossier to order me out based on Human Rights Watch’s advocacy. That same approach could certainly be used more widely. If you consider some of what Human Rights Watch says as posing a threat, what's the logic to differentiate the same speech being uttered by Israelis or Palestinians. It certainly justifies further restrictions on the work of those human rights groups or other organisations.


Has Human Rights Watch been singled out?

On 26 October this year a Palestinian staff member of Amnesty International, Laith Abu Zeyad, was banned from leaving the occupied West Bank for undisclosed security reasons. You look at the UN special rapporteur Michael Lynk who was denied entry into Palestine in both June 2018 and July 2019. If you look at the local human rights groups, you see that the Israeli NGO, B'Tselem, had their field worker in the West Bank Aref Daraghmeh detained on 31 October. Addameer, an organisation that supports Palestinian prisoners and advocates on their behalf, had their offices in Ramallah raided for the third time on 19 September. One of their legal specialists, Ayman Nasser, has also been in Israeli detention without charge since 17 September 2018. Al-Haq, a Ramallah-based NGO specialising in human rights law, has been attacked mercilessly by the authorities, including death threats issued by the state-sponsored media platform 4il on 15 July against the organisation’s director, Shawan Jabarin. So this is part of a much larger coordinated campaign against all human rights bodies.


Why will Palestinian human rights defenders been most affected by Israel’s decision to deport you?

Because Palestinian human rights defenders must face the heaviest sanctions. So while I face deportation, Palestinian rights defenders face travel bans, criminal charges, and severe restrictions on movement. Those sorts of things which are a different level than what Israeli Palestinian human right defends are facing.


What is the difference between Human Rights Watch calling for companies like AirBnB to withdraw from the settlements and BDS demanding “divestment from companies that support the Israeli apartheid”?

Human Rights Watch has never called for boycotts in Israel or companies which operate in settlements. We tell companies around the world not to commit human rights abuses as part of their global duty under the UN guiding principle. We've determined over years of research that operating in settlements makes one complicit in rights abuse. On that basis we call for companies to stop doing business in settlements to stop operating in settlements. But that's different than calling for a boycott of those companies, much less a boycott of Israel proper or an academic boycott. We never called for a boycott of AirBnB. We told AirBnB to stop doing business in settlements because you're directly contributing to and benefiting from rights abuse. What we're telling companies is stop abusing rights. We're not saying companies should pull out and pressure Israel change policies while that form of speech is legitimate free expression.


What are your prospects for returning to Jerusalem?

We've exhausted the appeals available to us in the Israeli court system. We do have a request for reconsideration of the full Supreme Court. We had originally had a three-judge panel. We think the case of this magnitude deserves a larger panel of judges. The anti-boycott law was heard in 2015 by I believe a nine-judge panel. That's invariably a long shot procedure. We hope that the court realises that this precedent is much larger than even Human Rights Watch and human rights advocacy. And goes to the heart of free expression in Israel. But ultimately I am optimistic that I will return when things are improved for human rights defenders.


Will your deportation hinder the organisation's work in Israel/Palestine?

It certainly makes it more difficult, but we're going to continue the exact same work. We're familiar with working in countries where our access is restricted. We have a local team on the ground. We use a variety of technologies as we have in Gaza for the last decade plus where access has been restricted. It will affect access for particular human rights groups and for authorities to us. We won't let a government have a veto over what issues we work on or what or what places we work in.


You have been barred from pursuing your work before.

Egypt, in 2014, and now Israel are countries that both expelled me as a result of the work that I do. It's not about the systems of government. It's about both expelling an international human rights monitor and to that extent Israel has followed the same playbook of Egypt. Israel claims to be the region's only democracy. But we have offices that operate in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, where we can work on those countries. By deporting me, Israel has joined the unsavoury club of rights violators that have blocked access to our researchers.


Has your story diverted attention from the wider implications of human rights violations in Israel/Palestine?

I don't think so. I think the Israeli government hoped this story would be about BDS. The world has seen the Israelis’ pretence for what this really is, and for what it’s always been about; muzzling advocacy around its illegal settlements and systematic oppression of Palestinians. I think the world understands that.


As a US citizen, have you been satisfied with the response of the US government to your case?

The United States' position on my case highlights the extent to which the US has diverged internationally from the consensus and the degree to which its position has reinforced that consensus in the other direction. They did not issue a public statement on those issued by some European governments. This is not just about my citizenship. It's about, the extent to which Israel's friends in the world are holding a mirror to it, and raising concerns around the attacks on human rights defenders, and the entrenchment of the current one state reality of the permanent occupation and unequal rights for Palestinians.


Does this instrumentalisation of BDS extend beyond Israel's borders?

Absolutely. We've seen the US follow the example of legislating against BDS. More than 27 US states have passed anti-BDS laws. And just like in my case, many of those laws conflate settlements with Israel proper and have taken action against companies that are concerned by rights issues, settlements and individuals who engage in advocacy around those issues. My case represents the heart of what anti-boycott activities have always been about. It's never been about boycott. It's almost always about blurring the lines between the settlements and Israel and attacking legitimate activity, whether it be political activism or human rights advocacy in general.


In light of the German parliament passing a resolution to equate BDS with anti-Semitism, is the German government is doing enough to end the occupation?

It's a resolution. It's not been reflective of internal German government policy. And I think that's a wise choice of the German government, not to follow that lead. Anti-Semitism a is serious problem. It’s a scourge. The answer is not legislation against boycotts. It's to take action to address hatred against Jewish people and a variety of mechanisms. And no, I don't think that the international community, which the German government is a part, is doing enough to meet its use to improve the human rights situation on the ground. What's needed now is concerted international action to hold Israel and its leaders to account for all rights abuses. So long as it does not face consequences for its activities, it will continue to double down on abusive policies and further entrench its system and continue to occupy the West Bank.

Omar Shakir is Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch. He is currently based in Amman, Jordan, having been expelled from Israel on 25 November for allegedly supporting the BDS movement. Shakir was forced to leave Egypt in August 2014 because of his work for Human Rights Watch on the Rabaa massacre.

Calum Humphreys