Bassam Haddad: Sabah al khair, Omar.
Omar Shakir: Sabah al khair, Bassam. Ahla w-sahla.
BH: Ahlan feek. Omar, we are very happy to have the opportunity to speak with you. For listeners who are not very familiar with the case, first, let me say a couple of words: you are the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, and you have been the subject of the first intelligence dossier on a Human Rights Defender here, and we are speaking with you for the second time on this matter, now that it has developed a year after it has actually called to attention a number of other quite problematic things within this same context. Omar, I’ve known you for a long time now. Being a veteran of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, and you having been a master student, and then I know you moved on to do your law degree at Stanford and then you took this job, and you’ve had other, from what I understand, run-ins with freedom and democracy-loving governments, and we are very happy to have you here at Status/الوضع. Before we delve into a number of these matters and updates, we would love to hear a bit from you about your own background and maybe a snippet about how you got here and the kind of trouble that you have either encountered or caused on the way.
OS: So, first of all ,Ahla wa sahla to Ramallah and Palestine, Bassam. One of the things that’s so difficult about the situation Palestinians have faced is that so many Arab intellectuals aren’t able to come and engage with Palestine, so it’s wonderful to see you here and to continue these conversations that we’ve been having directly for many years now. So, yeah, I’ve been working on human rights and the Middle East and in the US now going back many years. After graduating law school in 2013, I joined HRW to cover Egypt and the aftermath of the coup. I focused mostly on the mass killings of protestors culminating in the, of course, massacre in Rabaa Square in August of 2013, which HRW put out a pretty significant 150+ page report documenting those killings, which led us to get kicked out of Egypt and, you know, as you’ve referenced and also had been denied entry and/or denied visas to Syria and Bahrain, among other places. But after leaving Egypt in 2014 and releasing the report on the Rabaa Massacre, I worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights for two years where I primarily focused on representing the Yemeni men who were detained by the United States in Guantanamo Bay. I also was part of the legal team representing Steven Salaita, the professor who was fired from a tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign over criticism of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2014 and I worked on a case involving suspicionless surveillance of Muslim communities in the New York area.
I’ve been in this role as HRW’s Israel and Palestine director since October of 2016; due to some of the challenges, which we’ll be discussing, I know, and also which I went into some depth over a year ago on Status. It took me a while to actually take my post up on the ground. Here, I operate between Jerusalem and Ramallah, covering human rights abuses by all authorities including, of course, Israel, but the Palestinian authority in Hamas as well. And I didn’t move here until July 2017, so I’ve been on the ground now for about 13 months.
BH: Excellent–or not [laughs]. Thank you, Omar. We would like to address a number of issues with you but given that this is a case that has developed into, perhaps, many other mini and major cases, and as I shared, a number of more deep and entrenched problems, let me just start off by saying and reiterating that this is the first intelligence case that has been deployed vis a vis a human rights defender here and it has caused and stirred a lot of controversy, including within the Israeli branches of government–from what I understand–within the Ministry of the Interior on the one hand, and the Foreign Ministry on the other. And I’m sure there are many other details that we’d love for you to actually share and feel free to expand into other dimensions that some of our listeners may not be aware of. And frankly, I would love to be more clear on some of the details, because there is so much that has been written about this and it is very difficult to discern what makes sense and what is indeed factual.
OS: Thanks Bassam, so let me actually start backwards and work our way forwards because I think many have followed maybe the news in the last few months, but in some ways there is a context that goes backwards so maybe I’ll start with a short, chronological account of where we get to where we were. So, when I joined HRW in 2016 we had applied in July, actually several months before I joined, for a permit for HRW to hire a foreign employee and for me to take up my post on the ground as Israel and Palestine Director–the rest of our staff is Palestinian and Israeli nationals. So we applied in July–that process was supposed to take sixty days, but we did not hear from them until February of 2017, so we’re talking about eight months later. And in February of 2017, the Israeli government denied a work permit for HRW. At the time, they denied HRW the ability to hire any foreign employee and their argument at the time was that HRW was a propaganda arm for the Palestinians, and that it was not a real human rights organization. Now, this story immediately picked up significant media interest, and within hours, in fact, the Israeli government began backtracking and a week later they allowed me to enter on a tourist visa, which I did do in March of 2017.
I was actually on the airplane when the Israeli Knesset passed a law authorizing the Interior of Ministry, in fact mandating that they deny entry to those who express support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, but nonetheless I was allowed in, actually with the Foreign Ministry waiting for me with a sign at the airport to make sure there were no difficulties. And in the subsequent weeks, they gave me a work permit. So, in April 26th, 2017 I received a one-year work permit to operate in-country.
The very next day an Israeli organization called Shurat HaDin filed a lawsuit in district court in Jerusalem alleging that the Israeli government violated that law by allowing me, who they determined to be a quintessential BDS activist, into the country, and allowing HRW, who they consider to be a BDS organization—Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions—into the country too. Now without getting into every back and forth, we did not participate in this lawsuit—we were never formally notified of it—but in November of 2017, the Interior Ministry sent us a one page letter notifying us that it was officially reopening my status in the country and it had determined that I have been calling for boycotts of Israel, as they said, since I was a college student until this day. And they gave us 30 days to respond to this allegation before they made a decision on my status. We immediately asked for the information on which this determination was based, because how can we respond to a cursory allegation without any evidence? In response, in December, the government furnished us with the first intelligence dossier, as far as we’re aware, that has ever been provided to a human rights defender, which is a seven-page document that goes through my activism dating back to when I was a student in Stanford. You know, things like petitions I’ve signed, speeches I’ve given, screenshots of student group websites, tweets, etc. We responded to these allegations in January and then we bring us up to today, which is that on May 7th, 2017, the Israeli government notified us that it was revoking HRW’s work permit and ordering me deported within 14 days. The Interior Minister and the Strategic Affairs Minister put out a press release about an hour before Trump’s Iran Nuclear Deal speech, hoping to bury the news saying that, in essence, they were going to do everything in their power to make sure I did not remain in the country.
Their allegation now—so, initially they accused HRW of propaganda, now their allegation was that—and in their November letter there was an allegation that both HRW and myself were engaged in promoting boycotts—but their May 2018 decision focused squarely on me and my history, saying that I have been calling for boycotts for many years and that it was the basis for my deportation order. We filed a lawsuit the next week challenging not only this decision, but actually the entire draconian law that this decision was based on, because the law marked the first time, actually, that the Israeli government has used this law to deport somebody with valid status in the country. So, not only somebody who—they’ve been denying scores of people apparently based on this law—but to deport somebody with valid status in the country who the government itself said, in that May letter, was not currently calling for boycotts. Their new position was that it was based on my activities before joining HRW. The afternoon before I was supposed to be deported, the court gave us an adjunction, freezing the enforcement of the deportation until it could hear the case. And, so, I am now here in the country solely based on an order from court since my visa has been withdrawn.
And we’re currently in the midst of legal proceedings. In June, there was a hearing focused on the underlying substantive questions in the case. The interesting thing about this hearing is that it focused mostly on my social media posts promoting HRW’s work around human rights abuses that corporations are involved in settlements. So, again, the argument shifted because it became, really, a referendum on the legitimacy of criticizing settlements and specifically the business operations of settlements. We then received, about two weeks ago—so we’re talking very end of July—a decision from the court which was ordering the government to formally respond to our lawsuit, which in the Israeli legal system is an indication that our case is being taken seriously. And that’s where we’re at this point: the legal proceedings are ongoing, the case has generated significant press attention, significant concern from embassies, Palestinian, and Israeli human rights groups. But this fight is likely to drag on, not only in the courts, but really, frankly, in the court of public opinion. It’s increasingly becoming not only a case that speaks to the space for human rights defenders, HRW to operate, but really the entire referendum on the space for criticism and dissent in Israel.
BH: Thank you, Omar. Again, we’re with Omar Shakir, Iran—Iran. Did I say Iran?
OS: You did say Iran. I do not cover Iran, unfortunately.
BH: Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for HRW. We would like to actually like to ask, or I would like to ask a couple questions. But before I get to some of the implications: is there any connections between the way this case is developing and the new nation state law? I mean, is it part of the same set of procedures, sentiments, developments that we’re likely to see more of in Israel and Palestine?
OS: I mean, absolutely. For many people, this case came as sort of a shock. HRW, one of the world’s largest human rights organizations, being deported from a country who claims to be the only democracy in the region. But in many ways, it was an aberration. It’s entirely in keeping with not only the increasing restrictions on those that work on human rights, but is really a reflection of the state of human rights in the country. So, at the same time that HRW has been ordered deported, many other prominent international activists have been denied entry into the country, including representatives of the United Nations, and including a staff member of Amnesty International. It comes at the same time that Israeli human rights groups—advocacy groups—are being accused of slander and defaming the army and the state, and are being put under loads of pressure. Of course, Palestinians rights defenders face the brunt of the assault. They, in many cases, can face arrest, criminal charges, death threats, really at the apex of where the pressure’s happening.
But it comes at a time, Bassam, where Israel has now for fifty years… fifty years… half a century been occupying the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza. And that’s an occupation virtually defined by systematic rights abuse, by institutionally entrenched discrimination, a two-tiered system that fundamentally treats Israelis and Palestinians separately and unequally in every possible aspect of everyday life. And it happens at the same time that Palestinians that live within Israel continue to face deeply entrenched discrimination, which the nation state law that you had mentioned very much encapsulates. This is a law that is making, as a constitutionally enshrined value, the supremacy of one group over the other. Palestinians make up 20% of the population of Israel. And this law more or less states as a matter of constitutional principle, which could have implications on a range of issues, that Jewish supremacy is a core—the core, in many ways—value of the state. So, Bassam, this is what you have today on the ground: you have 13 million people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, about six and a half million Palestinian and about six and a half million Jewish-Israeli, and you have, fundamentally, an entrenched system of discrimination that privileges those Jewish-Israelis and that makes Palestinians live with an inferior basket of rights. And those rights vary to different degrees of inferiority based on whether you’re a Palestinian citizen of Israel; whether you’re a Palestinian resident in east Jerusalem; whether you’re in area A, B, or C in the West Bank; whether you’re in Gaza; or whether you’re a Palestinian refugee who, for generations, have been living in refugee camps across the region, while Israeli law permits a Jewish-American or a Jewish-European to move to Israel any day of the week. So, essentially, you have increasing clarity of what has been the guiding principle of the Israeli state for many years, which is demographic control and ensuring control of Jews or Palestinians. So, to really wrap it up, it’s not only that this Israeli government is increasingly trying to silence those that are critical of its rights records that are speaking out. In recent days we’ve seen Jewish-Americans or Jewish-Europeans and others facing lengthy interrogations at the border, but it’s reflective of a state that feels emboldened and has utterly disregarded the most basic principles of the international system.
BH: So, can we say that we’re also—especially with the nation state law—can we say that we are seeing the promulgation into law of what have been some sort of a de facto existence, for instance, the question of detention between having both a Jewish and a democratic state, and things of the sort? Is this something that we’re likely to see more of—the codification into law of things that have been de facto the case, whether it has to do with identity, location, residence, settlements, other sorts of situations, and the struggles of the refugees; or is this simply a response to certain economic or political—of course mainly political—developments in Israel, or even outside Israel? Could it be a function of the emboldening that we may be seeing in reference to the Trump administration’s positions? Or is this just the norm?
OS: So, I think increasingly the debate on the Israeli side for a number of years now has been—and I think the best example is the de facto annexation of the West Bank—it’s a matter of how quickly it can move move to what clearly is the ultimate objective of this Israeli government, which is to have full control of increasing parts of its territory and the supremacy of Jewish-Israelis over Palestinians. And it’s always been a tension between, really, the only two sides of the debate outside of sort of fringe, really brave activism—the Israeli side has been, “Do we do it really quickly and move in that direction or do we do it sort of slowly?” You know, the one-and-a-half state solution has turned Netanyahu's policies. So there are tons of laws in the last three years that have been passed in the Israeli Knesset that have very slowly spread sort of formal Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the West Bank. For example, the regularization law in February 2017, a month into the Trump presidency, which allowed for the retroactive legalization of settlements confiscated from private Palestinian land. So, kind of the few obstacles that imposed some slowing down on Israel’s expansionist policy, removing them. And I think certainly there is a sense among some in this Israeli government that this is the moment to sort of crystalize what they’ve been doing for decades now.
So, what does that mean? It means getting embassies to move to Jerusalem, it means liquidating the issue of basically saying Jerusalem is a done deal. It is saying, in effect—with the cuts to UNRWA and other reports of what’s happening to refugees—to sort of take that issue off the table. It means to effectively take what have become facts on the ground and try to establish that as de facto reality of discussions now in the US, formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. I think there is—and the nation state law is one example of that—of them saying, "You know what? This is basically how we’ve been operating things. Let’s now enshrine this, whether in law, whether in constitutional principle, whether in facts on the ground," and in their minds insulate themselves for whatever. And part of it, of course, is what’s happening in the Middle East; where you have leadership throughout the region that is much more concerned with other issues and is very willing to work with this Trump administration on issues like Iran, on issues like “extremism”—and the Palestinian issue never really, you know, provided much of actual pressure coming from the Arab regimes, except from whatever little superficiality that may have come from Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Much of that pretext is gone. The reality is that Israel enjoys, with most of the strong powers in the region—and in some cases even becoming formal, but if not formal, then de facto—deep connections and relationships with regimes throughout the region. I mean, you have suddenly a dynamic where the only state that’s putting up some concern is Jordan over the issue of Jerusalem, given their ties there, but really throughout the region. So, when you have the Trump administration, you have the shifting politics of the Arab region, and, frankly, a global, populist movement across the world that has positioned itself as an opposition to universal values, arrives. And look at Europe and the increasing ties between governments in Eastern Europe that are relatively right-wing and pro-Israel. Even ties between Russia and Israel, it’s quite clear that the confluence of geopolitical factors in the region is leading this Israeli government to feel quite emboldened.
And you can link the nation state law—even, in some instances, the thought that they could deport HRW which, you know, is more than being about HRW; it was really a warning signal not only to domestic human rights organizations, but, frankly, to many others that want to be critical. I mean, if they can deport HRW, one of the world’s largest human rights organizations, from [Palestine] then what does it mean for everybody else? What does it mean for foreigners who are married to Israelis who are studying here, who could say the wrong thing and suddenly be served with a dossier and be asked to be deported within 14 days?
BH: Thank you, Omar. Again we’re with Omar, Israel and Palestine director for HRW, discussing the particular case of HRW being persecuted, sort of, by the Israeli government, which represents the first intelligence dossier vis a vis such a human rights organization. Omar, is there a window here beyond some of the regional and international dimensions that you’ve discussed? Is there a window that might close, and therefore it’s instigating this rapid movement—whether that movement is related to the Netanyahu government being in power or the coming to power, I guess we should say, of Trump or any such development? I mean, is there an immediate moment that we could point to as a window that might be closed soon, and this is pushing for these developments or is this just part of an ongoing process?
OS: I think it’s hard. The window will close. I mean, the confluence of this particular coalition of Israel, which is by far, I think, the most extreme in the history of the country, and this US administration, which, I think, has always been not an honest broker, I mean, provided a green light for many Israeli abuses. I think this Israeli government, this US administration, this confluence of Arab politics throughout the Arab region, that window will shift and close at some point. And there are signs of developments that are countercurrents to what’s happening at the sort of top levels that the Israeli authorities are aware of. But for now, I think, for a long time under the Obama administration, one of the arguments Netanyahu would make to push back against the more right-wing parts of his coalition were, "Hey, I can’t—the US will criticize us if I do that." And if he can’t say that he might say, “Look, the Arab region might do X or Y or Z.” But, increasingly, I think those arguments are going down so I think there’s a sense of urgency among some on the Israeli right to consolidate their wins while they can, knowing that that will change.
But when will that window close? It’s very difficult to know. I mean, there are currents that suggest that maybe things could shift starting with US politics. The Israeli political scene is hard to imagine, whenever the next election is coming up—even if Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister comes to an end—[it will be] a government that has fundamentally different positions on these issues. And it’s, of course, difficult—and as you know, Bassam—to imagine the short or medium term changes and the political orientations, geopolitically, of the key powers in the Arab region. But I think that there is a possibility, especially if you look at trends in the UK, for example, within the Labor Party—or if you look at what’s happening now with Bernie Sanders and young and progressive American Jews and Democrats—there are some signs that there could be a shift coming from the international community, but it’s hard to know when that might happen and even to what extent the Israeli government is really considering the ramifications of these decisions because, ultimately, they are taking a toll. One of the reasons the Foreign Ministry has opposed my deportation, I think, is that there are still voices within the Israeli government that realize that many of these measures are ultimately counterproductive. But there is quite a sense of an emboldened nature—that nothing is impossible, of hubris in some ways—among this Israeli government. And this is what’s driving a lot of these decisions.
BH: Omar, thank you very much. I will close with this last question about this case, about this particular HRW, and with you regarding the potential scenarios that may develop based on the conclusion of this case. What sort of precedent might this set if things go one or another way?
OS: I mean this case, for so many reasons, Bassam, is a bellwether. It’s one of the reasons why our court hearing was packed and why I think many people are closely watching this case. And there are so many dynamics within the Israeli government that are really being tested. And in many cases, I think the Israeli government had hoped that in the two weeks they’d give me, I’d be out of the country. They picked a time in which the Iran Nuclear Deal was coming up, the US embassy was moving, and they made it about BDS—which in Israel, is really a red line. And they thought that it would inhibit Israeli NGOs from coming out to support or keep journalists from covering the story, but they miscalculated, ultimately. And ultimately, the court issued an injunction—and this is dragging on, continuing to be a source of headache, I think, for those in power. So, Bassam, I think you know right now we’re waiting for a decision at the district court level. It’s hard to predict what that decision might be and there are signs—we had a positive sign in this most recent decision. You know the hearing, I think, certainly created concern that the judge might be inclined to rule against us. But in any scenario, however this goes, the losing party is likely to appeal to the Supreme Court.
So, in the court system, we might face a scenario where you’re having a discussion about whether or not, in Israel today, it’s possible to criticize settlements and business activity in settlements. And the implications are quite significant. If the Israeli government does succeed in deporting me, it would not only be the first time in HRW’s 30 years documenting rights abuses here that we have been barred from operating within Israel and the West Bank. It would also put Israel in the camp of countries like North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, and Venezuela that have barred activists from HRW staff in a time in which we have offices that operate in Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia, among other places in the world. So I think it would be significant for HRW. I think it would be a message sent to Israeli and Palestinian rights groups, many of whom are under enormous loads of pressure, and there is concern about what it could mean. Already there are many groups on both sides that are facing funding crises; there has been a very coordinated Israeli effort to target the funding of rights groups and advocacy groups here. So there’s an indication that, if this happens, it could shrink or even evaporate the space for rights groups to operate and I think, ultimately, it will be an indication. If they can get away with doing this, [it will] not only be about whether you can be critical or dissent in Israel or Palestine today, but [it will reveal] really the extent to which the entire matrix of human rights pressures and concerns has any resonance. You have a scenario in which now, they’re kicking out someone who documents rights abuse. And if they get away with that, if all the international pressure can’t stop an internationally recognized organization from doing their documentation work, what does it mean about the ability of the international community to stop the underlying rights abuse?
What I will say—and this is something that I’ve learned, referencing back to where we started the conversation about experiences—is that getting denied entry into places like Bahrain and Egypt and Syria is sort of what I’ll end with. Which is that, ultimately, I believe that no country will succeed in hiding its rights abuses by expelling those who document them.
BH: Thank you, Omar. Before we close, can you remind our listeners what BDS stands for? I always forget the last one I know it’s bondage, disco, and sahlab, is it? Or is sharmoot because of the SH?
OS: [Laughs] both, actually. You know, for them, it’s one and the same thing.
BH: Okay, I understand that you probably think that this last bit should not be included but I think our listeners have a sense of humor. If indeed this is actually going up.
OS: I mean, if they’re followers of Status and still have interest in the Middle East after all that’s happening across the region, then they deserve a little humor at the end.
BH: We will actually spell out the acronym in the text (Note: BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions). Thank you, Omar for your insightful and frankly holistic view, because you go way beyond the local and regional context to frame this as something that is probably bigger than this case and even bigger than this particular context here, locally and regionally. So that’s really informative and we would like to continue speaking with you as this develops, and we are very grateful with the efficiency with which you’ve delivered all of this—it was remarkable. Thank you so much.
OS: Thank you Bassam, and thank you, everyone, for listening.
BH: Salam w-alaikum.
OS: W-alaikum al-salam.