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“An Attack on the Human Rights Movement”: Israel Deports Human Rights Watch Monitor

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The Israeli government deported the director of Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine office, Omar Shakir, on Monday. The organization said the move places Israel in an “ugly club” of authoritarian regimes. Israel has accused Shakir of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a nonviolent global campaign aiming to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. A 2017 Israeli law bans foreigners from Israel if they publicly support the BDS movement. Omar Shakir joins us from Stockholm to discuss his recent deportation and his plans to address the European Parliament regarding Israel’s systematic repression of Palestinians. “The Israeli government, for two and a half years now, has been trying to bar Human Rights Watch’s access to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world. The Israeli government deported the head of Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine office, Omar Shakir, on Monday. The organization said the move places Israel in an ugly club of authoritarian regimes. Israel has accused Shakir of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a nonviolent global campaign aiming to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. A 2017 Israeli law bans foreigners from Israel if they publicly support the BDS movement. This is Omar Shakir speaking on Monday.

OMAR SHAKIR: If the Israeli government can deport somebody documenting rights abuse without facing consequence, how can we ever stop rights abuse? … We believe in the right to free expression including the right of all people to call for boycotts or to oppose boycotts as a part of legitimate free expression.

AMY GOODMAN: The executive director of the human rights group B’Tselem, Hagai El-Ad, tweeted in response to Shakir’s deportation “International (and Israeli) human rights NGOs have much broader leeway, as we enjoy so many more privileges and protections compared to Palestinian colleagues. But in targeting @HRW, Israel aims to deliver a chilling effect across this entire spectrum,” he wrote.

Well, for more, we go now to Stockholm, Sweden, to speak with Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch. He was just deported and is now traveling around Europe to raise awareness about the Israeli human rights abuses. Omar Shakir, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what happened and how long you have been in Israel and Palestine and what Israel did.

OMAR SHAKIR: Thank you, Amy, for having me. The Israeli government for two and a half years now has been trying to bar Human Rights Watch’s access to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. It began actually with the denial for the organization to hire a foreign employee. When we went public with that effort, they quickly reversed and gave me a work permit but almost immediately began investigating my status, and a year and a half ago, the revoked that work permit. We challenged that decision in court. It was upheld up to the Israeli Supreme Court, and yesterday I was deported over my human rights advocacy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about that Supreme Court decision? What was the basis for it?

OMAR SHAKIR: The Israeli Supreme Court essentially interpreted the 2017 law that you mentioned earlier that instructs the Interior Ministry to deny entry to boycott supporters to apply to rudimentary, basic human rights advocacy. The Supreme Court in essence said that if you challenge the legality of Israel’s settlements, which is a war crime under international law which has been established over many decades, you in essence are attacking the legitimacy of the state of Israel, and as a result, you are harming Israel, posing a threat to the country and that the state is legitimate to deny you entry and therefore deport you.

So not only is Israel, which calls itself a democracy, deporting a human rights defender based on their peaceful advocacy, but actually they are even going a step further and acknowledging that they’re doing it with the court’s stamp of approval over human rights work based on international norms.

Human Rights Watch has never taken a position on BDS. What we rather do is call on businesses, as we do across the world, to respect human rights. And decades of research has led us to conclude that businesses which operate in the illegal settlements invariably contribute to that illegality and to rights abuse, and we have asked for them to stop doing that, which is of course different than a more general boycott call or even a boycott call specific to those companies or to Israel proper, which we have never done.

AMY GOODMAN: So give the example—for example, Airbnb—what did you call for for them?

OMAR SHAKIR: Sure. So a year ago, we released a report that documented the way in which Airbnb’s listings in illegal settlements invariably contributed to rights abuse. They were renting properties on land stolen from Palestinians who themselves were not allowed to stay there. This is land in which Israeli settlers received permits to build, where Palestinians are denied those permits. They also are operating on land in some cases where we were able to establish is privately owned by Palestinians who themselves can’t rent there or benefit from that rental.

So we called on Airbnb to delist in settlements. We did not call for a boycott of Airbnb. We did not call for Airbnb to stop doing business inside Israel proper. We were holding Airbnb to the standards under the U.N. guiding principle, the same things we do whether it be dealing with cotton-picking in Uzbekistan or tech companies in China. We call on all companies to respect international law, which is different than calling for them to boycott Israel, much less calling on consumers to boycott that company.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Has what happened to you, this deportation, happened previously to any Human Rights Watch researchers? And if so, were these countries democracies as Israel claims to be?

OMAR SHAKIR: So this is the first time that a country that self-proclaims itself to be a democracy deports a Human Rights Watch staff member. In barring access to our staff, Israel is joining the ranks of countries like Venezuela, like Egypt, like Iran that have barred access to Human Rights Watch staff members.

Human Rights Watch has been documenting human rights abuses in Israel and in Palestine for nearly three decades now, and while Israel has restricted our access to the occupied Gaza Strip, we have had unfettered access for this time to Israel and the West Bank. This is the first time they have deported us. It is the first time anyone that had legal status in the country has been deported under this 2017 law. And of course they are doing so in a way that is aimed to send a chilling message to other rights organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth criticized Israel’s decision to expel you, Omar Shakir.

KENNETH ROTH: It’s about Human Rights Watch. There is no point replacing Omar because our next researcher would have the exact same problem that Omar did.

If Israel can pick our researcher, if Israel can preclude certain topics, imagine what other governments will do? China will say, “You cannot monitor Xinjiang.” Saudi Arabia will say, “You’ve got to leave Yemen alone.”

AMY GOODMAN: If you could take that from there, Omar Shakir, and what you’re planning to do right now?

OMAR SHAKIR: Absolutely. I mean, Human Rights Watch, for us this is a principled issue. We’re not going to let any government have a veto power on what issues that we work on or what we cover. So our message is quite simple. We will continue the work with me at the helm directing the research from one of our regional offices starting just across the river in Jordan. One of our regional offices, I should mention, that does not censor our work the way that Israel does, despite our criticism. So we’re going to continue to work on the same issues, with the same intensity and the same vigor.

And in fact, I think this sort of decision really pushed us to redouble our efforts, because a government that has no qualms about deporting a representative of one of the world’s largest human rights organizations certainly has no problem doubling down on the rights abuse that we were documenting in the first place. A half century-long occupation defined by institutional discrimination and systematic rights abuse, and including what is happening in the Gaza Strip. A decade-long plus closure that includes a generalized ban on travel—nobody in, nobody out outside of exceptional circumstances.

So while this decision certainly has been difficult on a personal level—Israel-Palestine has been my home for the last two and a half years—I think about those that are not able to travel at all. Not just the people of Gaza, but my colleague at Amnesty International who just a few weeks ago was issued a ban to leave the occupied West Bank to Jordan, and previously to Jerusalem, on undisclosed security grounds, what appears to be another attempt to stifle the work of human rights organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to that issue of the Amnesty researcher. In October, Israel issued a travel ban against Laith Abu Zeyad, a Palestinian campaigner for Amnesty. Israel prevented him from departing from the West Bank for Jordan where he was planning to attend a relative’s funeral. Israel also denied entry to Congressmembers Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, later granting permission for Congressmember Tlaib to visit her family in the occupied West Bank on humanitarian grounds, but she rejected the offer, which included the condition she not promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Israel has also issued a series of travel bans against Omar Barghouti, the founder of BDS movement, and Shawan Jabarin, the director of the Palestinian rights organization Al-Haq. Can you comment on these?

OMAR SHAKIR: Absolutely. This decision is coming amid a context in which there is a systematic assault on human rights organizations. And there is a reason why the Israeli government is doing this. They are trying to silence the messenger instead of dealing with the core human rights issues that are taking place on the ground. But the reality is that these efforts are failing. These efforts have only shined a light on the very issues that Israel is trying to cover up.

But of course what is happening to me must be noted is small compared to what Palestinians face. In addition to Laith’s travel ban that you mentioned, in recent months, we have seen Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner rights organization, have their office raided by the army. We have seen a field researcher with B’Tselem who was detained while doing field work.

And of course if this is the way that human rights organizations are being dealt with, think about the millions of Palestinians in year 53 of an ugly occupation in which they regularly face excessive use of force, home demolitions, movement restrictions that are discriminatory, not to mention not having the most basic civil and political rights. A 50-year-old Palestinian today in the West Bank has never had the right to free expression, the right to free assembly, the right to free association. They have been living under a brutal military rule that the Israeli government wants the world to forget about, but we won’t forget about it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Both the European Union and the United Nations have condemned this action by Israel, but of course Israel routinely ignores such condemnation from those international bodies. What about the United States government? Where is it right now on this and could it have potentially an impact in terms of these kinds of actions of Israel against human rights advocates?

OMAR SHAKIR: The United States has never used its leverage to actually rein in Israeli rights abuse, but what we’ve seen under the Trump administration is a shift to green-lighting Israeli abuses and really being complicit in them. In my case, of course the U.S. Embassy attended each one of my court hearings up to the U.S. Supreme Court on a working level. We had a regular conversation. The State Department did make a statement over the summer indicating their support for free expression and their concern about the case, and such.

But obviously, we didn’t see the same kind of strong principled position in protecting the work of civil society groups that we saw from a range of other governments around the world including the European Union but also Germany, France, many others, as well as civil society groups, not only Palestinian-Israeli, but international, including groups—Jewish-American organizations.

So the reality here is the United States, whether it be on settlements with the declaration about Pompeo recently, whether it be on Palestinian refugees or whether it be on protection of human rights defenders, the increasing relationship between the Netanyahu and Trump administrations only highlights their isolation. Because in every other case, the world has stood around the principled issue. The world sees through my deportation and sees it for what it is—an attack on the human rights movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in a sharp reversal to more than 40 years of U.S. policy, the Trump administration announced earlier this month that it no longer views Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be a violation of international law. In 1978, the State Department issued a legal opinion stating settlements were “inconsistent with international law,” and every U.S. administration, Democratic and Republican, has upheld that. In 2016, a U.N. resolution declared the settlements a flagrant violation of international law. But now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced a reversal in the U.S. position. Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has now been indicted, welcomed Pompeo’s announcement as a historic day for Israel. I wanted to play the clip of Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat condemning the U.S. decision.

SAEB EREKAT: Israeli colonial settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem, are not only illegal under international law, they are war crimes.

Once the Trump administration decide to undermine international law, once they become an administration that is pro-Israel occupation, pro-Israel war crimes, this constitute a major threat to international peace and security.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator. Omar Shakir, your final response?

OMAR SHAKIR: Look, I think the U.S. declaration is a sign of their weakness and their irrelevance. The reality is Trump cannot change decades of established international law that settlements are war crime by decree as much as he may want to. This is not a controversial point. Article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention makes clear that transfer of one’s civilian population to territory acquired by war is impermissible.

And it’s quite clear that Israel wants to have its cake and eat it too. On one hand, it wants to say that settlements in the west are not illegal and in some cases even saying that the West Bank is not occupied. But on the other hand, they don’t want to give Palestinians the human rights that they would deserve, including the right to have full political rights in that kind of arrangement.

What we’re facing is the increasingly clear reality today. Between the river and the sea, so in the land of Israel and Palestine, you have about 13 million people, about half of whom are Israeli-Jewish and half of whom are Palestinian. And Palestinians are treated fundamentally unequally, with different sets of inferior rights, whether they’re in Gaza, the West Bank or in Israel proper. That reality has become increasingly transparent and the world needs to take action to stop that.

If anything is clear, the fact that international outrage did not stop my deportation should make critically clear that the only way we’re going to be able to stop these abuses from continuing is going to be action and heightened action from the international community. I will continue to do this in my role at Human Rights Watch and will continue to do it with our Israeli-Palestinian partners.

I am confident that I will be back to Israel and Palestine one day. And when that day comes, I believe it will be a day in which human rights and equality is the baseline for all people that live in the land, not what it is now, exclusive to only one population.

AMY GOODMAN: Omar Shakir, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch who was just deported from Israel, speaking to us from Stockholm, Sweden, where we will be broadcasting next week.

When we come back, more than 340 people in Iraq have been killed since nationwide antigovernment protests began in October. We will speak with the Iraqi poet, novelist, scholar Sinan Antoon. Stay with us.

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