SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Human Rights Watch reports regularly on the violations of human rights and international law in Israel and Palestine, a fact which the Israeli government uses as a part of its argument that Israel is a democracy which protects freedom of speech. Now, this argument was undermined when the Israeli authorities announced last month that the director of Human Rights Watch for Israel and Palestine, Omar Shakir, will be deported from the country. The reason given for the deportation is his alleged support for the BDS movement, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. In other words, he was accused of holding forbidden political views using a new amendment to a law applied against BDS supporters. An Israeli court then suspended the deportation last-minute, and we will hear more about that coming up soon. But such a decision gives us a glimpse of how this new amendment to a law could be used. Last week Human Rights Watch published a new report, which has the title “Bankrolling Abuse: Israeli Banks in the West Bank Settlements.” It is on the role of Israeli banks in expanding legal colonization in the occupied Palestinian territories.
So joining us to talk about all of this with me today is Omar Shakir. He is in Israel-Palestine for the time being. He is the director of Israel-Palestine at Human Rights Watch. Thanks for joining us, Omar.
OMAR SHAKIR: Thank you for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Omar, let’s start off with how the authorities use this new law just legislated last year in order to deport you. Explain the law, how it was used, and how you are fighting it at the moment.
OMAR SHAKIR: Sure, absolutely. So in March of 2017 the Israeli government passed an amendment to its law of entry. Now, that amendment authorizes the Interior Ministry to deny entry to individuals who publicly support boycotts of Israel. Now, the law references a prior 2011 law on boycotts, and it’s quite, actually, vague in how it defines boycott. You know, bring together both those that, you know, are full supporters of the BDS movement, to those that call for companies to stop doing business, for example, in the settlements because of concerns about human rights.
So the Israeli government now, it’s part of a months-long campaign to silence Human Rights Watch. A year and a half ago they denied a work permit for the organization to have any foreign employee in Israel. Then the allegation was that the organization is propaganda on behalf of Palestinians. We went public at the time, and ultimately the government reversed and ultimately granted us a work permit, and I received a work visa subject to that work permit in April of 2017.
Now, we received notice last month, as you mentioned, that the government has revoked Human Rights Watch’s work permit in order for me to leave the country in 14 days, which they alleged was based on my support for boycotts. Now, interestingly, the Interior Ministry here is saying that I actually don’t currently call for boycotts, and neither does Human Rights Watch as an organization. In fact, they justified their decision on an intelligence dossier the government produced regarding my activities, many of which go back years to when I was a college student.
So basically what the government has done here is gone even beyond the draconian law, and actually deporting somebody that has legal status in the country, who they say isn’t calling for boycotts currently, based on views that they allege the person articulated years and years ago. Which is a dangerous precedent not only for the thousands of human rights, the many human rights defenders here, but the thousands of foreigners who happen to reside in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Omar, your specific case and the way in which you are feeling the crunch at Human Rights Watch and its staff is one thing, but you say that it is, there are thousands of people that might be affected by such a law. Do we know at the moment how broadly it is being used, and the pressure people are feeling from it as a result?
OMAR SHAKIR: Well, we know that there have been, you know, dozens of people that have been denied entry. I mean, going back many years, but even since the enactment of this amendment, just as recently as the end of April, there was a delegation from the Center for Constitutional Rights, including a professor at Columbia University who chairs their board and a prominent civil rights lawyer who was the executive director, who were denied entry. So we know there have been many cases of internationals denied entry, in many cases after questioning that relate to their political views and their views on the boycott.
Now, according to the government itself, this is the first time they deport somebody with legal status in the country based on their alleged views on boycott. In many cases, the government sees this as a test case. And of course, it’s not an aberration. As you mentioned the introduction, I mean, this is part of a context in which there increasingly is a shrinking space for human rights defenders. That includes internationals. That includes Israelis who have been accused of slander against the state, or calling against the army, or against officials. And you have Palestinian rights defenders who have faced travel restrictions, criminal charges, and even arrests. And then, of course, we’re in year 51. Yesterday we marked year 51 of the occupation, which is characterized by systematic rights abuse and violations of international law.
So while this case is the first use of this law to deport somebody in the country, it comes amid increasing efforts to deny entry to international rights defenders, restrictions on Palestinian-Israeli rights groups, and an occupation that is marked by serious abuse.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let me ask you a question about how human rights position itself, particularly in the light of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, and Gaza in particular. But many international organizations, such as the U.N., for example, make a separation between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. But Human Rights Watch has one website, and and approaches Israel-Palestine as more or less one nation. What is the reasoning for that positioning, and how does that affect the work you’re doing?
OMAR SHAKIR: Look, we take no position on solutions, or one state or two states. In fact, in my mandate I cover all human rights abuses within Israel proper, within the West Bank, within Gaza. So my mandate includes documenting abuses by Israel towards its own citizens inside its recognized borders but also includes rights abuses by the Israeli occupied authority in Gaza and in the West Bank, as well as abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the areas in which they have sovereignty. It’s rarely parts of, part of our mandate that, you know, particular positions cover more than one geographic entity.
And that’s simply a case here of the fact that I’m on the ground. It’s easier for me to cover all areas. But it’s not a characterization about how Human Rights Watch necessarily views the underlying situation, though we have made the point, I think, quite strongly, that in effect between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, the authority that exercises the most control over the lives of all people is the Israeli government. And that includes, obviously, most clearly inside its borders. Then, of course, in Area C, where it has in the West Bank, the 60 percent of the West Bank in which it has both security and civil control. But frankly, it also applies to Area A and B. Because although the Palestinian Authority nominally has civil control, the reality is the Israeli government still, you know, is in charge of most aspects of everyday life. And also in the Gaza Strip, where, although the Israeli government withdrew in 2005, it still maintains control of the airspace, the waterspace, it still maintains control over the entry and exit of people and goods. It controls the population registry. It bars Palestinians from building an airport or a seaport. It controls even the customs, VAT rates. It controls a no-go zone. So in reality, we, the U.N., many others consider Israel to still be an occupying power in Gaza.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Omar. We’re going to take a pause here, and we are going to get to the report you’ve just issued on bankrolling abuse. But let’s end this segment and start up a second one. I thank you so much for joining us for now.