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Interview with Omar Shakir, human rights activist threatened with deportation from Israel

Abbas Momani, AFP | Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir, a US citizen, sits at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 9, 2018.

Omar Shakir, director for Human Rights Watch for Israel and Palestine, has been ordered to leave Israel after being accused by the government of supporting boycotts against the country. He explains his situation to FRANCE 24.

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On May 7, Israeli authorities revoked the work permit for Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director for the international NGO Human Rights Watch. The government accused him of supporting boycotts of Israel, and ordered him to leave the country within 14 days. In 2017, the Knesset passed a law that allows authorities to refuse entry into the country for people who have spoken in favour of boycotts against Israel. FRANCE 24 spoke with Omar about his reaction to the allegations and the next steps for the human rights organisation.

FRANCE 24: Have you ever supported boycotts of Israel, or spoken in favour of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement?

Omar Shakir: Neither Human Rights Watch nor I promote boycotts. All Human Rights Watch staff have political views and have engaged in political activities, which I did when I was a student. But when you join Human Rights Watch you agree to adhere to its mission, and its mission is to promote international human rights and humanitarian law. We don’t take positions on wars and occupations – only the abuses within them. In our research we have found that companies operating in settlements do benefit from violations of international humanitarian law, so we recommend that companies do not operate in settlements – much in the same way that we would tell a clothing retailer not to use child labour.

The interior ministry acknowledged this in its May 7 letter. [Editor’s note: In the letter that Israel’s Interior Ministry sent to Human Rights Watch, it admitted that “no information has surfaced regarding such (boycott) activities” since Shakir joined the NGO.]

FRANCE 24: What is your reaction to the allegations?

OS: It was shocking to see the Israeli government compile a dossier largely consisting of activities I took part in years ago as a student. On the one hand, it was shocking to see them do this – but on the other hand, it is entirely consistent with the shrinking space for the defence of human rights in the country.

The dossier includes proof of a range of activities that I took part in, including websites, student groups that I participated in, speeches I gave, tweets, and social media posts going back over the course of a decade. I have been in this role at Human Rights Watch now for almost two years, and instead of looking at our research or at the relationships that I have cultivated with Israeli civil society groups or government officials, they instead are harking back to things that I did or said – recognising my right to free expression – years ago. It’s not at all helpful as a way of understanding the work I’m currently doing as director.

The above tweet was included in the dossier as an example of Shakir's alleged pro-BDS stance.

It’s quite clear that the real objective of this deportation order is to muzzle Human Rights Watch and shut down criticism of the Israeli government. This is a decision taken with the aim of silencing criticism of Israel’s human rights record.

It is deeply frustrating. It is challenging on a personal level. I’m the only Human Rights Watch staffer here who is international. I’m the only individual who has a work permit. That’s the clearest reason for why I have been targeted.

FRANCE 24: What are the next steps for you and Human Rights Watch?

OS: We intend to challenge this decision. We’ll be filing a lawsuit in the coming days that requests a reversal of this decision, and we shall also ask for a stay while the legal proceedings go on. We expect that to be granted.

Our hope is to be able to continue doing work in the region. This decision will not bar our documenting of human rights abuses and we will continue to report. Our research aims to help the Israeli government respect international human rights law. It’s counterproductive for victims of human rights abuse – and the signed statement of 16 different human rights groups speaks to that [Editor’s note: 16 human rights organisations based in Israel signed a statement condemning Israel’s decision, which was published on the front page of Israeli newpaper Haaretz on May 10]. This is not about me. It’s about trying to muzzle Human Rights Watch.

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