On day of deportation, banned human rights activist vows to soldier on

Before heading to airport, Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir says he’ll continue advocating against settlements from Jordan; Jerusalem says organization welcome to send replacement

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Human Rights Watch researcher Omar Shakir, during an interview in Jerusalem, November 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Human Rights Watch researcher Omar Shakir, during an interview in Jerusalem, November 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

A few hours before he boarded a plane to Sweden, deported human rights activist Omar Shakir vowed to continue and even intensify his work documenting what he claims are widespread human rights violations in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Shakir, who directs the Israel/Palestine department at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said he will spend the next few days briefing various European governments about his case, and will ultimately return to the region to continue his work. Despite his Israeli visa having been revoked, he will remain in his current position, though he will be working from Amman, Jordan, he said.

“Today marks the culmination of a multi-year effort to muzzle Human Rights Watch and to muzzle the human rights movement more broadly,” Shakir said at a press conference in East Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel.

“Despite my deportation today, the Israeli government has failed to muzzle Human Rights Watch and the human rights movement,” he added. “The world sees through the various labels the Israeli government has attached to this case.”

Israel is deporting Shakir over his alleged support of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Shakir insists that neither he personally nor the organization he represents have ever called for a boycott of Israel.

At the same time, Shakir stressed that he has called on businesses operating in the West Bank “to avoid complicity with Israel’s settlement enterprise.”

The expulsion, upheld by the Supreme Court, made Shakir the first person expelled from the country under a controversial 2017 law allowing the deportation of foreigners who support a boycott of Israel or the settlements, according to authorities.

Citing calls from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the European Union and activists across the globe, who had urged the Israeli government not to proceed with its plan to deport Shakir, he said the fact that he is nonetheless being forced to leave the country made plain what the contracted legal saga about his visa “has always been about.”

“It’s been about an escalating assault on the human rights movement,” he charged.

“This in many ways is my dream job, and I will be honored to continue to do this job from the outside,” Shakir said. “Please know that our resolve, our determination will not wane one iota. We will cover the same issues… with the same intensity, the same methodology as we do everywhere else in the world.”

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth, known as a bitter critic of Israeli government policies, also addressed the East Jerusalem press conference.

“Today is a sad day for Israel’s increasingly circumscribed democracy,” he said.

“As a matter of principle, we will double our work on Israel and Palestine. We will use the same researchers, the same principles… the same reporting on all sides of the conflict, the same determination not to submit to Israeli censors,” Roth went on.

Kenneth Roth (L) the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and US citizen Omar Shakir, the New York-based rights group HRW director for Israel and the Palestinian territories, speak at an east Jerusalem hotel on November 24, ahead of Shakir’s expulsion from Israel. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

While the Israeli government does not want the world to focus on the “oppression” carried out by its “settlement regime,” the desire for censorship will only “intensify the spotlight” on the settlements, he posited.

“As a move to silence the messenger, the deportation of Omar Shakir has powerfully backfired. Whether Omar is inside or outside Israel… HRW is here to stay,” Roth said.

The Israeli government offered the organization an opportunity to send someone to replace Shakir, but since Shakir had adhered to HRW policy and never called for a boycott, it made no sense to fill his position with someone else, Roth said.

“So it’s not about Omar; it’s about Human Rights Watch. There’s no point replacing Omar, because our next researcher would do the exact same thing.”

The Strategic Affairs Ministry, which spearheaded the effort to oust Shakir, in a statement released Monday said that Israel has the right to decide who can and who cannot enter its borders and obtain work visas.

“Omar Shakir, as the District and Supreme Courts have already determined, is an active BDS propogator [sic] who zealously promotes boycotts against Israel. Just days before the final ruling in his case, he again expressed open support for the boycott and isolation of the entire State of Israel,” the statement read.

Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

“The State of Israel sees great importance in the activities of human rights organizations, and grants hundreds of visas each year to said organizations. HRW is welcome to appoint another coordinator in place of Mr. Shakir who will actually deal with the protection of human rights rather than focus on promoting policies that harm Israeli citizens,” it said.

Asked by a reporter if Israel was the first democracy to expel a human rights worker, Roth replied: “Israel is the first government that considers itself a democracy that is deporting human rights workers.”

Shakir, an American citizen with Iraqi roots, said that the international community should draw conclusions from his deportation. He’d like to see the International Criminal Court open a formal investigation into crimes committed by all parties in Israel and Palestine and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights to release its database of business operating in the settlements, he said.

“If the Israeli government can deport somebody documenting rights abuse without facing consequences, how can we ever stop rights abuse? The message that needs to be taken away from this room is that there must be a reboot in the way the international community engages around this issue,” he said.

Having lived in Israel for the past two and a half years, Shakir said that he has developed “deep friendships” and partnerships with civil society.

Asked by The Times of Israel if, despite his grievances, he had anything positive to say about Israel, Shakir responded: “I had the chance to travel all around, experienced different cities, towns, villages, hike, meet all sorts of different people. It’s a really incredible place. And it would be much more incredible if everybody’s human rights were respected, and everybody treated equally.”

After the press conference, Shakir headed to Ben-Gurion Airport, where he boarded a plane to Stockholm to meet with Swedish officials. In the coming days, he will speak with representatives of Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands and the European Parliament.

During an interview with AFP earlier this week, Roth said that countries such as North Korea, Venezuela and Iran have expelled HRW researchers, but no functioning democracy has taken such action.

“I think it demonstrates the increasingly constrained nature of Israeli democracy,” he added.

He said Israel, despite having elections and a free press, tries “as much as it can” to silence efforts “spotlighting the human rights violations at the heart of the oppressive, discriminatory occupation [of Palestinian land].”

The organization has warned of “dramatic consequences” for Israeli diplomatic efforts, human rights groups operating in the country, and political freedom.

Shakir has been fighting a lengthy legal campaign against his expulsion, but earlier this month the Supreme Court upheld the government’s decision to deport him.

Israel sees the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as a strategic threat and accuses it of anti-Semitism — a claim activists deny. Supporters compare it to the economic isolation that helped bring down apartheid South Africa.

Interior Minister and Shas party leader MK Aryeh Deri gives a statement to the press during a Shas faction meeting in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 30, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“All those who work against Israel must know that we will not let them live or work here,” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said earlier this month.

The case against Shakir was initially based on statements he made in support of a boycott before taking up his post with HRW.

The government case also highlighted work he has done since joining HRW, including criticizing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“Neither Human Rights Watch, nor I as its representative, have ever called for a boycott of Israel,” Shakir told AFP.

But he said that the organization did not restrict free speech, including the right to call for a boycott.

“It is undeniable that boycotts around the world have led to changing unjust systems, but Human Rights Watch doesn’t take a position on them,” he added.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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