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'Israel miscalculated': Human Rights Watch's Omar Shakir remains determined

HRW's deported Israel and Palestine director tells MEE: 'If they actually want to stop reports on human rights abuses, they should stop abusing rights'
Omar Shakir, HRW's director for Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, at Ben Gurion Airport on 25 November (AFP)
By in
London

As Omar Shakir flew out of Israel's Ben Gurion Airport on 25 November, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) director for Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories added one more country to the list of states that have banned him for his work.

But the culmination of an 18-month legal battle against his deportation has left Shakir more determined than ever.

"If Israel thought it could hide its rights abuses by deporting me, it miscalculated," he told Middle East Eye on Monday, during the London leg of a week-long European tour to discuss Israel's human rights violations and its crackdown on civil society organisations seeking to document them.

On 5 November, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the Israeli government's decision to deport Shakir, after authorities accused him of supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement - an allegation both Shakir and HRW have denied.

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Established in 2005, the BDS movement seeks to apply financial pressure on Israel to address its violations of Palestinians' rights, a tactic the Israeli government has actively sought to discredit.

"Boycott, whether you agree with it or not, is a legitimate form of advocacy. It's a tactic that is used by civil society groups around the world to combat systems of discrimination, rights abuses and injustice," Shakir said.

"I think these policies have spectacularly backfired on the Israeli government," he added.

"They sought to muzzle Human Rights Watch, but the world hasn't fallen for their justifications. This has been a story for two and a half years about the muzzling of human rights advocacy, not about BDS - which is what they'd hoped the narrative would be."

Israeli crackdown on civil society

While Shakir's case has gained global attention, he emphasised that his situation was indicative of a much broader Israeli crackdown on civil society both in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Pointing to a travel ban imposed on a Palestinian staff member of Amnesty International, the recent detention of a field worker at Israeli rights group B'Tselem, and a 2016 law seeking to curb the work of Israeli organisations that oppose the occupation, Shakir said Israel's targeting of HRW was "a manifestation of a larger climate going after civil society".

'The Israeli government feels emboldened by an international community that has failed to hold it to account'

- Omar Shakir, HRW

"If these are the obstacles that Human Rights Watch face, you can imagine what Israeli and Palestinian civil society - let alone ordinary citizens - go through," he said. "Our pushback was not only because we wanted to maintain our own access... but to try and safeguard the space for human rights defenders and to highlight what it means for a government to go through all these steps to block our access."

This isn't Shakir's first brush with repressive governments. After Syria in 2008, Egypt in 2014 and Bahrain in 2017, Israel is the fourth country to deny him entry due to his human rights advocacy.

But according to Shakir, a US citizen, the timing of his deportation was far from coincidental.

He said he believes Israel may have banked on the administration of US President Donald Trump - a staunch supporter of the Israeli government - to remain silent on his case.

The Trump administration's silence on Shakir's case stands in contrast with that of former President Barack Obama, whose administration spoke up when Israel first tried to deny Shakir a work permit in 2017.

"It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which a prior US administration would have been silent at a senior level for this to happen to a representative of Human Rights Watch," Shakir told MEE.

"[In 2017] there was a quite strong statement issued by the State Department that not only highlighted the independence of HRW and the importance of our work, but had a pretty strong message to the Israeli government - and the Israeli government reversed that decision."

For Shakir, "the Israeli government feels emboldened by an international community that has failed to hold it to account for its continuous abuses and rights violations".

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Yet he remains optimistic, expressing his faith in Palestinian and Israeli rights organisations on the ground.

"I have never in my time following human rights abuses in Palestine seen civil society as unified, as working together, as clear-eyed regarding the nature of the threat that we face," he said.

"I think this is partially a reaction to the attacks that we've all faced - but also I think it manifests our shared sense of urgency regarding the situation on the ground.

"That gives me hope."

Despite his deportation, Shakir will maintain his position as HRW director for Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, working from neighbouring Jordan.

"I've had the privilege of living there for two and a half years and it's been an incredible experience, and I know I'll be back [...] Now I'm going to double down on the very same work and the very same topics we've been looking into," he said.

"We're not going to change our approach because of my physical delocation from the ground, because to do so would reward a government for expelling human rights monitors," he added.

"So hopefully that will be a message to the Israeli government. If they actually want to stop reports on human rights abuses, they should stop abusing rights."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.