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HRW's Omar Shakir on Israel's deportation: 'We’re going to continue doing our work regardless' Open in fullscreen

Florence Dixon

HRW's Omar Shakir on Israel's deportation: 'We’re going to continue doing our work regardless'

Shakir has been based in HRW's Jerusalem office since 2016 [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 May, 2019

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Having spent the past 13 months battling deportation, HRW's Israel-Palestine director is intent not only on staying in Jerusalem, but on overturning the creeping restrictions on the country's rights defenders.
After over a year of to-ing and fro-ing with the Israeli courts, the fate of Human Rights Watch's Omar Shakir still hangs in the balance. Whether he gets to remain in the country or not, he tells The New Arab about his plans not only to continue fighting rights abuse in the contested territory, but also to shine a light on the alarming policy changes that are endangering the work of human rights advocates both inside and outside Israel and Palestine.

Shakir, who has worked as HRW's Israel and Palestine director since 2016, is among those caught up in deportation sagas following the establishment of the so-called "BDS law" of 2017, which effectively denies entry into Israel to anyone who has supported a boycott of the country.

However Shakir's case marks the first instance that the government has used the law to deport someone legally present in the country, marking what he calls a "new and dangerous development" in the government's campaign to target human rights workers inside the country.

After filing an unsuccessful appeal at the District Court of Jerusalem last year, Shakir and HRW have gone launched proceedings with the Supreme Court, after being given 14 days to leave on April 16. A day ahead of this deadline, the Supreme Court issued an injunction allowing Shakir to remain in the country for seven days, after which the court "could theoretically issue a new decision" on the case, Shakir's lawyer Michael Sfard said last week.

Despite the back and forth with Israel's judicial system, the events still reflect new and dangerous changes to the nature of human rights work in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in the future.

"This decision comes in the context of significant restrictions and limitations on the work of human rights defenders," Shakir told The New Arab after last week's decision to allow him to remain for the time being.

This decision was a new and dangerous development in the sense it was the first time the courts put their seal on the government's targeted campaign against rights defenders

The process is two-fold, he explained, as it both denies entry into Israel for international human rights advocates, and implements new policies and laws that restrict the work of Israeli and Palestinian rights advocates on the ground.

"But at the same time, this decision was a new and dangerous development in the sense it was the first time the courts put their seal on the government's targeted campaign against rights defenders," he said.

These court rulings aim to delegitimise certain types of advocacy, Shakir explained, in a way that sets an alarming precedent that can be used to silence many other forms of resistance.

"It's saying that if you call for boycotts of a company because, say, they mistreat workers, or there's discrimination in pay against women, that's ok. But if you do it because the company violates the rights of Palestinians, that's illegitimate," Shakir said.

Tomorrow, the restriction will be on someone that calls Israel an apartheid state. The next day, someone who says that the West Bank is occupied

"You can imagine the precedent that sets. Tomorrow, the restriction will be on someone that calls Israel an apartheid state. The next day, someone who says that the West Bank is occupied. The next day, someone who calls for the national criminal court to take jurisdiction over crimes committed in Palestine," Shakir added.

Because of these far-reaching implications, HRW has appealed to the supreme court not only to allow Shakir to stay, but to ultimately overturn the decision.

Although still wary of his chances with the supreme court, Shakir cited the case of Palestinian-American student Lara al-Qasem, who was denied entry to Israel in October 2018 and held at the airport for two weeks until the supreme court ruled she should be allowed to enter.

However HRW are mounting an even bigger challenge to how the BDS law is invoked. Shakir's case presents a constitutional challenge to the law itself, as it argues that denying entry to those who call for boycotts is unconstitutional and infringes on basic liberties, not to mention it was "entirely misapplied in this case" he added.

We will continue doing the work using the same tools, covering the same topics, with the same vigour, regardless or whether our staff are in the country or not.

"HRW does not call for boycotts, we conduct advocacy calling on companies to stop contributing to rights abuses," he pointed out.

During a hearing in March, the judge asked Shakir to pledge not to promote boycotts while in Israel.

"In light of the human rights impacts of those activities, I refused to do so," he said.

Despite the complications that have arisen in the past year, Shakir is unwavering in his confidence that HRW's work in the region will continue, citing the list of countries that have banned the organisation's researchers in the past: Venezuela, North Korea, Burundi, and Cameroon just last week.

Read more: Gideon Levy on Hamas, BDS and the Israeli occupation

"We're going to continue doing our work regardless. We've worked in Israel-Palestine for nearly three decades with pretty regular access to the West Bank and Israel, Gaza much less so. But this is not unique for us," he said.

"We will continue doing the work using the same tools, covering the same topics, with the same vigour, regardless or whether our staff are in the country or not. So I will continue doing this work, Human Rights Watch will continue doing this work. That won't change."

Follow Florence Dixon on Twitter: @flo_dix

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