Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director for Human Rights Watch since October 2016, must leave the country Monday after the Supreme Court upheld a deportation order earlier this month following a long legal battle.
“We’re talking about a half-century-long occupation defined by systematic repression and institutional discrimination,” Shakir told The Associated Press. “That requires important, urgent work, and it’s unfortunate that I won’t be able to do it on the ground, but we won’t stop doing it.”
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Israel was joining a “fairly ugly group of governments,” including Iran, Egypt and Venezuela, that have barred its researchers. “They all thought that if you can somehow silence the messenger, you can then silence Human Rights Watch. It didn’t work out. We find ways to cover these countries even if our researcher is not able to be on the ground, and we’ll do the same thing with Israel,” he said.
“Omar is going to continue to direct the work,” he added. “We are not going to let the Israeli government be our personnel manager.” Israel revoked the work visa of Shakir, a U.S. citizen, under a 2017 law that bars entry to foreigners who have called for economic boycotts of Israel or its settlements in occupied territory. Authorities cited statements and social media posts by Shakir from before he joined Human Rights Watch, some going back to his student days nearly a decade ago, that they said amounted to boycott activism.
Israel said Shakir had continued to facilitate boycotts through his work at Human Rights Watch. The group does not call for boycotting Israel but urges companies to avoid doing business in West Bank settlements, saying it makes them complicit in human rights abuses.
“The Israeli government was never been able to come up with a single case where Omar deviated from the Human Rights Watch position with respect to BDS,” Roth said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “What they instead tried to do is to mischaracterize our work.”
Israel seized east Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories the Palestinians want for their future state, in the 1967 Mideast war. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live and work in settlements considered illegal by almost the entire international community.
The 2017 law is part of Israel’s increasingly aggressive efforts to combat the Palestinian-led BDS movement. BDS supporters say the boycott call is a peaceful way of advocating for Palestinian rights modeled on the campaign against apartheid South Africa. Israel says the nonviolent message is meant to mask a deeper aim of delegitimizing Israel and eventually erasing it from the map.
“Shakir’s career, including at HRW, has been devoted to uniquely and intensely targeting Israel,” said Daniel Laufer, a spokesman for NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel group that filed an amicus brief in the government’s case against Shakir.
“His personal involvement in campaigns concerning Israeli banks, Airbnb, and FIFA membership was meant to trigger far-reaching boycotts, divestment, and sanctions,” he said. Shakir said he was “an activist on many issues” prior to joining Human Rights Watch. Roth said Shakir has fully adhered to Human Rights Watch’s positions since joining the group, and that his prior political activities are irrelevant.
“We have never issued an appeal to consumers, we’ve not urged a boycott at all,” Roth said. “We’ve asked businesses to live up to their corporate responsibility.” Human Rights Watch has also noted that Israel has welcomed the group’s critical reports on abuses by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Shakir’s critics say he was singled out for particularly egregious support of boycotts, noting that many rights organizations that oppose settlements continue to operate in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But Shakir and other rights activists says his deportation is part of a wider crackdown that should set off alarms. “Omar Shakir’s deportation is part of a broader, ongoing campaign waged by the Israeli government to silence any effective opposition to the prolonged occupation,” said Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.
“It is Palestinians who suffer the brunt of these Israeli policies, facing the worst consequences and the least protections,” he said. Human Rights Watch said it will continue to do its work through local staff and visiting researchers, with Shakir directing its efforts from neighboring Jordan and other regional offices.
“I’ll continue to do the exact same work, on the exact same issues, using the exact same methodologies,” Shakir said. “We won’t, by one iota, lessen our commitment to the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine.”
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