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Israeli Law Silences and Punishes Critics and Human Rights Workers

The self-proclaimed only “real” democracy in the Middle East is busy deporting its critics.

Human Rights Watch's Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir sits at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 9, 2018. Israel is planning to deport Shakir for his critical views of the Israeli government.

On one hand, Israel’s planned deportation of Human Rights Watch Director Omar Shakir simply continues its years-long attitude toward international human rights workers. For almost a decade, Israel has tried to apply pressure on international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), requiring microscopic inspection of their funding and recently proposing that members of INGOs attending meetings of the Knesset be forced to wear badges identifying themselves as such.

Such individuals are regarded as “foreign agents.” Still, domestic Israeli human rights organizations such as Breaking the Silence face even more severe censorship and surveillance. Amnesty International has called on Israel to stop these acts of repression, but Israel has responded by increasing them, and in very dangerous ways.

On the other hand, the European Union (EU) is now warning of the particular danger Shakir’s deportation presents. On April 30, in a statement before the United Nations Security Council, the EU called on Israel not to deport Shakir. “We are concerned that, within the current political landscape, those on all sides who seek to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians are undermined,” said Finnish representative Kai Sauer on behalf of the EU.

Three U.N. special rapporteurs called on Israel to reverse its deportation decision. The Israeli rights groups Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the New Israel Fund and B’Tselem; the Palestinian organizations Al-Haq, Al-Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights; U.S.-based groups, including the American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Middle East Studies Association; and a group of Rhodes Scholars and T’ruah Rabbis have also criticized the deportation order.

Shakir and Human Rights Watch appealed the deportation, and on May 2, Israel’s High Court of Justice delayed his deportation for seven days to allow the Interior Ministry time to respond to the appeal. It will then order another judgment. In an April 16 statement, Human Rights Watch said the decision to deport “could hamper the work of other advocacy organizations and jeopardize the status of other rights workers in Israel.”

Shakir’s case exhibits two deeply troubling developments. First, the Israeli government is now using Israel’s anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) laws to prosecute even those who do not actually advocate boycotting Israel; officials are essentially targeting Shakir and Human Rights Watch simply for “advocating” for international law.

Shakir and other international human rights defenders are urging corporations such as Airbnb to recognize the illegal status of the Israeli occupation and to comply with international law and conventions, which warn against doing business there for legal, financial and “reputational” reasons.

Shakir’s case reveals that anyone who calls attention to Israel’s violations of human rights and asks businesses to acknowledge the ramifications of their actions in the occupied territories can face prosecution and deportation for “boycott advocacy” — unethically stretching the definition of “advocacy” into “boycotting.”

The second extremely dangerous aspect of this repression of human rights advocacy is the fact that those wishing to see for themselves the precise conditions in Israel-Palestine are being barred from entry if they are identified as advocating for Palestinian rights. While defenders of the law say it is meant for only hardcore and “influential” BDS activists, others say the law is purposefully vague, and that it thus lends itself to multiple interpretations regarding who, exactly, is a “danger” to Israel.

For example, last year, representatives of the American Friends Service Committee were banned, as was Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke. In response, more than 100 lawyers and human rights activists wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in protest. Those calling for Palestinian human rights who are challenged with the question, “Well, have you seen this for yourself?” now have no recourse.

Besides attacking the foundation of human rights work, Israel’s actions are meant to both silence critics and punish them. They are also meant to warn people of even thinking about doing or saying anything that might be construed as a “security risk” to Israel.

The plethora of anti-boycott bills in the U.S. shows just how comprehensive this attack on speaking truth to power is. Despite legal challenges by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. politicians currying favor with the government of Israel continue to themselves act as “foreign agents” by telling those in the United States that they must give up their free speech rights and their right to earn a living, and declare loyalty to a foreign state.

Last year, a speech pathologist; a freelance writer, a reporter and university students in Texas; a weekly paper in Arkansas; a lawyer in Arizona; and a math teacher in Kansas all had to choose between signing a loyalty oath to Israel and forgoing payment for their services from state agencies.

We are faced with an increasingly violent and oppressive situation in Israel-Palestine. Israel likes to say it is the only real democracy in the Middle East, and that, as such, it deserves the unquestioning support of the world. The U.S. alone has responded by awarding to Israel the largest foreign aid package of any country in the world.

But would a “real” democracy bar critics from entering and deport others for their criticism? For that matter, would a “real” democracy demand that its people give up their rights so that another country is free to act with impunity?