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Israel is Trying to Deport Me for My Human Rights Work. Here’s Why You Should Care.

Published in: Forward

I cover Israel and Palestine for Human Rights Watch. A year ago, the Israeli government revoked my work permit and ordered me, a U.S. citizen, to leave the country within two weeks, claiming that I promoted boycotts of Israel. We challenged the revocation and the law it was based on, which forbids entry to boycott advocates. An Israeli lower court froze the deportation order for the duration of proceedings. 

A dossier compiled by Israel’s Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry on the activities of Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine Director, which served as the basis for the government’s May 7, 2018 decision to revoke his work visa.

Last month, though, the court upheld the deportation and gave me two weeks to leave. We appealed that decision to Israel’s Supreme Court and await a decision on whether I’ll be allowed to remain living and working here while the appeal is considered.

Some contend that measures like this are needed to protect Israel against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But regardless of where you stand on BDS, this decision should trouble you for three reasons. In fact, it is people who support Israel who should be most concerned by this attempt to deport me.

For starters, the decision is not about BDS, it’s about muzzling human rights advocacy. Human Rights Watch monitors rights abuses in nearly 100 countries across the world, including every country in the Middle East and North Africa, and takes no position on BDS, other than to defend the right of people to boycott as a form of peaceful expression. The Israeli government itself said a year ago that “no information has surfaced” indicating that Human Rights Watch or I as its representative promote boycotts of Israel.

What we have done is call for businesses to stop fueling rights abuses by adhering to their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Years of research led us to determine that doing business in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international humanitarian law, invariably means complicity in rights abuse. These companies operate on land unlawfully confiscated from Palestinians, receive permits, infrastructure, and resources systematically denied to local Palestinians, and pay taxes and provide services that sustain settlements.

While some of these businesses hire Palestinian workers, this does little to remedy the enormous economic harm that settlement-related Israeli policies cause to the Palestinian economy, in effect forcing Palestinians to work for businesses that contribute to abuses against them. Moreover, these businesses operate under a two-tiered legal system, in which the Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law, in addition to the law in place before the occupation began in June 1967. Israelis working alongside them benefit from the greater protections provided by Israeli civil law.

Telling businesses to stop engaging in activities that abuse rights in the occupied territories is neither a call for a consumer boycott nor a boycott of Israel itself. The court nevertheless found this basic form of human rights advocacy to “clearly constitute boycott-promoting activities.” If the Supreme Court upholds this decision, it will mean that calling on companies to avoid business in settlements could get you barred from entering Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Such a decision would put the Court’s seal on the Netanyahu government’s clampdown on rights defenders and advocacy. Israel has denied entry to other rights advocatesmade it more difficult for Israeli advocacy groups to operate and branded them as traitors, and banned from travel and arrested Palestinian rights defenders.

Anyone invested in Israel’s commitment to democratic values should be appalled by these attempts to muzzle free speech and criticism.

People who devote their lives to defending Palestinian rights are often accused of being unfairly focused on Israel. And yet, this is far from true in my case. Human Rights Watch and my work defending Palestinian rights is not only rooted in a universal commitment to human rights — including to the rights of Israelis — but also extends to Palestinian abuses of other Palestinians.

Human Rights Watch reporting on settlements is neither the first nor the only time we have called on businesses to stop contributing to human rights abuses. In fact, we have an entire division dedicated to research and advocacy on business and human rights. In the time my status has been under scrutiny in Israel, Human Rights Watch called for tech firms to avoid complicity in Chinese state censorship and textile companies to ensure they are not contributing to forced and child labor in Uzbekistan, among many other topics.

Beyond businesses, Human Rights Watch reports on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all actors in the region, including by Palestinian authorities. The most substantial piece of research I’ve produced during my tenure as Israel and Palestine director, in fact, is a 149-page report on systematic arbitrary arrests and torture by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, “Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent.”

Before my work on Israel and Palestine, I covered Egypt for Human Rights Watch. As with Israel/Palestine, my passion for human rights in Egypt dates back to my days as an undergraduate at Stanford University, where I wrote a thesis about the Egyptian opposition movement. I spent much of my year in Cairo for Human Rights Watch documenting the Rab’a Massacre, one of the largest single-day killings of protesters in modern history—some 817 people killed in the course of twelve hours. My lowest lows as a rights defender came during those days. I examined the bodies of dead protesters at morgues and watched as Egyptian friends and colleagues were arrested around me, and as much of the Egyptian public cheered on the repression and denied victims their basic humanity. On the eve of the release of our report on the killings, fears for my personal safety forced me to leave Egypt after my colleagues who had come for the press conference were denied entry to the country.

In a prior job, I represented two men detained in Guantanamo Bay. Until today, when I think of injustice, I think back to the first time I visited my incarcerated clients, held for well over a decade without charge, at Guantanamo. I think, in particular, of a moment I wrote about when the face of one of my clients lit up with hope, and I found myself unconsciously peeking under the table at the shackles around his feet.

Furthermore, the case against me sets a dangerous precedent that threatens all those who criticize Israeli policy. After allowing me in, the Israeli government decided it didn’t like what I had to say, compiled an intelligence dossier of tweets, petitions I signed, and screenshots of student group websites dating back to when I was a student over a decade ago, and ordered me to leave the country within two weeks. What’s to stop the same thing from happening to other foreigners in Israel, including spouses of Israeli citizens, students studying at Israeli universities, or those here for tourism?

The decision effectively makes a particular form of advocacy for Palestinian rights illegitimate. Think about it: if you were to boycott a company because it mistreats workers or discriminates, as thousands of Israelis did with Barkan Winery last year for allegedly discriminating against Ethiopian workers, that’s legitimate. But, if you issue an identical boycott call against a company due to violations of the rights of Palestinians, you risk being denied entry or deported by Israel.

Today, the political litmus test for denying entry into Israel is support for boycott calls. But could it tomorrow be for calling for withdrawal from settlements or for a two-state solution as an alternative to permanent repression of Palestinians?

In justifying its decision to uphold the government’s revocation of my work visa, the court cited my refusal in court to pledge publicly not to support “boycotts.” (I refused, given that Israeli law defines the term to include calls on companies to stop doing business in settlements). Tomorrow, will those hoping to enter Israel have to pledge, say, not refer to the West Bank as “occupied”?

Today, Israeli authorities are denying entry and deporting foreign nationals on the basis of their advocacy. Tomorrow, could the same logic be used to further restrict or even shut down the work of Israeli and Palestinian rights defenders on the same basis?

Those who follow the situation here most closely understand the stakes. 27 European states (all EU states minus Viktor Orban’s Hungary), 17 US Congresspeople, the UN Secretary Generalthree UN special rapporteurs, the Israeli rights groups Association for Civil Rights in Israel and B’Tselem, the Palestinian organizations Al-HaqAl-Mezan, and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, the American Friends Service CommitteeAmnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Middle East Studies Association, the New Israel Fund, a group of Rhodes Scholars, 19 professors from my alma meter Stanford Law School, and Truah Rabbis, have all criticized my deportation order.

My case has become a barometer of the country’s openness to those who challenge its policies toward Palestinians. Much rides on how the Supreme Court rules on our appeal and, if upheld, the decision the government will then face with whether to enforce its deportation order. If you care about Israel’s commitment to transparency and human rights, the time to speak out is now.

Omar Shakir is the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

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