Citing overhaul, new Human Rights Watch chief pans Israeli ‘rampage’ on human rights

Tirana Hassan hopes US will do more to hold government accountable for alleged abuses; Foreign Ministry accuses her of bias, says anti-overhaul protests ‘example’ of democracy

Tirana Hassan, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during a news conference at the UN headquarters in New York City, March 9, 2023. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
Tirana Hassan, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, speaks during a news conference at the UN headquarters in New York City, March 9, 2023. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

The new chief of Human Rights Watch on Thursday accused the government of being “on a rampage” against human rights in Israel, taking particular issue with the coalition’s planned judicial overhaul.

“With the current state of the Israeli government and the attacks on the judiciary in particular, we see that this is not a human rights-compliant government,” HRW Executive Director Tirana Hassan, an asylum claims lawyer, told Reuters.

“This is a government that’s actually on a rampage against human rights domestically against its own people in Israel,” Hassan added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday paused the progress of the judicial overhaul legislation for talks with the opposition, following months of mass nationwide protests.

As it stands, the legislative package will — among other things — allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight, and put the selection of judges in the hands of coalition politicians.

While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril and leaving the rights of many undefended.

A protest outside the Knesset against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Hassan said she hoped the US would “leverage” its relationship to make Israel answerable to its alleged violations and push it to change direction, fearing that the judicial proposals would be a ‘disaster’ for human rights.

Marking a low point in bilateral relations since Netanyahu returned to office, US President Joe Biden publicly vocalized his displeasure with the prime minister’s judicial overhaul for the first time on Tuesday and gave an emphatic “no” when asked whether he would be inviting Netanyahu to the White House, adding: “Not in the near term.”

“We expect the US … to be holding Israel to account for abuses with the same rigor that they are prepared to hold China to account for their abuses,” Hassan said.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat blasted the new HRW chief, labeling the remarks “an amazing example of how biased she and the organization are.”

“Israel is a strong and vibrant democracy. The demonstrators over the last few months are an impressive example of it. Hundreds of thousands of people are manifesting in the streets. No violence. Protected by the police. This is how a real democracy works,” he said.

“It is yet another example of an organization that targets Israel on anything, without a minimum understanding or fairness. So sad,” Haiat added

HRW is widely praised among human rights activists for their work, but their harsh criticism of Israel — including accusations of war crimes and apartheid against Palestinians — has angered Israeli authorities and pro-Israel groups.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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