The next steps in ending Israeli apartheid: An interview with Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  May 24, 2023

“Though there has been a shift in the narrative that is discernible, we actually have to translate that into action to dismantle apartheid.”

Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir participated earlier this week in a seminar on the campus of the University of Denver, where just a month ago, Professor Dr. Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the university’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and associate professor of Middle East and Islamic Policy, announced his forced departure

Korbel’s Graduate Students Association (KGSA) presented the seminar, Has Israel Been Mislabled an Apartheid State? The association had surveyed its membership earlier this year and discovered that, beyond any other topic, students wanted to learn more about what is happening in Palestine and Israel. Lynn Chlela, Lebanese Fulbright scholar 2023 and Program Manager for the Institute for Comparative & Regional Studies, told Mondoweiss, “This year has posed significant challenges in discussing the Palestine-Israel conflict within American campuses, particularly when it comes to academic freedom.”

“Initially, this event was not going to happen,” Chlela said, as Dr. Hashemi’s impending departure limited his ability to complete the arrangements. “The KGSA felt compelled to step in, to take a stand,” Chlela explained, “to complete and emphasize the value of academic freedom. Many of our students are involved in researching this conflict or come from the MENA region. Following the incident involving Professor Nader Hashemi, there was a heightened sense of tension, with students fearing potential repercussions for their research and personal stances regarding Palestine-Israel.

Consequently, we decided to host this event, aiming to break the taboo and foster open discussions within the Korbel community, free from fear. We hoped that by hosting this event featuring Mr. Shakir, we could redefine the limits of academic events at Korbel, especially through a human rights lens.”

Co-hosting the event were other departments in the Korbel School: the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy; the Institute for Comparative and Regional Studies; and the Center for Middle East Studies.

Readers are likely to know that Omar Shakir—38 years old, a former Fulbright Scholar in Syria who holds a law degree from Stanford Law School and an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Affairs—serves as the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). Shakir was the principal author of the years-in-the-making, 213-page 2021 HRW report, A Threshold Crossed, that documented how Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against Palestinians. 

Prior to his current role, Shakir was a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he focused on US counterterrorism policies, including legal representation of Guantanamo detainees. In 2013-14, as a fellow at HRW, he investigated human rights violations in Egypt, including the Rab’a massacre, one of the largest killings of protesters in a single day. 

In 2019, Shakir was deported from Israel because of his advocacy for human rights for Palestinians based on international law and human rights conventions. 

Mondoweiss interviewed Shakir before the May 15 panel discussion that was moderated by Chletla and attended by over 70 students, professors, and members of the wider public. Dr. Tom Farer, a DU professor and former dean of the Korbel School, participated on the panel with Shakir. The following has been edited for clarity. 

Jeff Wright: I’m curious about your roots, what drew you to this work?

Omar Shakir: I’m an Iraqi American, born in California. My parents came from Iraq originally. I went to college during the Iraq War, the Second Intifada, so as a college student, as an activist, I became very passionate about these issues. I wanted to understand the complexities better, so I spent time living in the region. I got a master’s degree. I wanted to think through how I could become a part of promoting human rights.

What impact do you see that the 2021 Human Rights Watch’s apartheid report, A Threshold Crossed, has had?

It’s hard to isolate our report from reports from the others, the body of work that has been presented. We have Yesh Din, B’Tselem, we have Amnesty, among others. Most people forget, but it’s Palestinians who have been writing about this and documenting it for decades. Not enough people listened in the international community…. Ultimately, the apartheid narrative undeniably has helped to penetrate the fig leaf that this is a peace process, that we have two equal sides that are in a protracted conflict. 

I think there is more recognition. You can look at the numbers out today as compared to several years ago, of individual states, organizations, individuals who recognize the reality for what it is. You can see it translating in different forums. There’s open debate about apartheid in parliaments around the world. The UN now has a commission of inquiry that looks at both sides of the Green Line and has a standing mandate. There are many different data points that suggest that there has been some shift. 

And it translates in the public opinion. There is good survey data. There are some mechanisms in the international architecture that are shifting. There’s more action. But it hasn’t changed the reality on the ground. Ultimately, that’s the standard by which we all need to be judged on. And, to date, it hasn’t shifted. I hope it will change. It’s a long journey.

Some are questioning, maybe even criticizing the report, saying that it didn’t go far enough in identifying settler colonialism as the root of the problem. What is your response?

Let me start by saying apartheid has a clear definition in international law. For us, our mandate is international law, especially international human rights and humanitarian law. We document facts, we apply the law, and we make determinations based on the law. 

Settler colonialism is a critically important term, but one that’s academic, not legal, in nature. Our mandate dictates a focus on the law, including crimes like apartheid. But crimes, of course, take place against the backdrop of a larger context. Important work has been done by Palestinians in particular and academics to situate apartheid in its larger context. I encourage people to read the Human Rights Watch report alongside those vital analyses. 

I’d also note that the prohibition against apartheid itself, if you understand the history, came about as a result of the advocacy of activists from Southern Africa to address the abuses associated with colonial/post-colonial contexts: expropriation of land, mass populations transfer. The Human Rights Watch report and many other reports have been quite clear in not just talking about what the situation is today, but talking about the historical origins and calling for remedies that address structural and historic repression. 

I have a piece posted today, on the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, about refugees and the importance of the right of return under international law. The report talks about dismantling all forms of privilege and discrimination. We talk about settlements being dismantled. I think there’s a misconception that apartheid just means let everything stay as it is, including settlers, and give everyone equal rights, without addressing the structural and historic oppression. But the apartheid analysis is much more robust and the recommendations that many of us have issued reach much further.

Has HRW paid a price for its report? 

Not really, honestly. The analogy I have used is the emperor wears no clothes. People know its apartheid. Many just didn’t feel it was okay to say it. Our report was in some ways a permission slip of a sort for people who were worried about the reaction. They could say Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, have said this. It makes it easier to say so…. Yes, we face some pushback. But we’ve been under attack from way before this report was issued. Yes, we have lost supporters over the years because of our work on Israel and Palestine. Is it significant? Absolutely. But is it anything compared to what Palestinian NGOs who are outlawed face? Absolutely it is not.

You authored a 2018 report subtitled “Arbitrary Arrest and Torture Under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas”, the result of a two-year investigation into machineries of repression created by West Bank and Gaza authorities resulting “in scores of arbitrary arrests for peaceful criticism of the authorities, particularly on social media, among independent journalists, on university campuses, and at demonstrations.” What response has Human Rights Watch seen?

The report was well-covered. There was a press conference in Ramallah with all the major press in attendance, including the NYT and other US media outlets. The report led many states, in private meetings, to raise the issue and press the PA [Palestinian Authority]. It’s a bit more complicated with Hamas, because many countries don’t have direct contact with them. 


Unfortunately, abuses continue, that’s the bottom line. But I think there has been more attention on these issues. In 2019, the PA issued a statement saying, “There’ll be no more political arrests.”  Of course, the arrests have continued. But at the very least, the focus on these issues has forced them to answer for their abuses. There are some people in the PA who are trying to combat these issues. 

The problem is, the security services are the ones calling the shots. With Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, President of the PA] increasingly handing over power to people like Hussein Al-Sheikh [Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation] and Majid Farraj [PA General Intelligence Services Chief]… these guys are getting more and more control. With the heads of these abusive security services increasingly calling the shots in the PA, it should come as no surprise that the Palestinian Authority continues to systematically abuse human rights and that more and more Palestinians are fed up with their leadership and speaking out. 

Despite the fact that there are parts of the Palestinian Authority that are trying to improve these practices, you have an underlying authority that is deeply repressive…. Palestinians face multiple authorities that are squeezing them. The PA has absolutely become complicit in the repression of Palestinians. They’re part of the story.

How do you do your work from here, having been deported by the State of Israel?

Human Rights Watch works on many parts of the world where countries block our access.  Take your pick: China, North Korea, Egypt, Venezuela. I stayed in my role, because Human Rights Watch did not want to give Israel—or any country—a veto over who serves in this role. The minute Israel is successful, every other country will follow the same playbook. We’ve developed a familiarity with doing the work remotely, where necessary. In many ways, we’re in a better place in Israel and Palestine. We still have local researchers on the ground.

I work very closely with our local team. We work in partnership with Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations. We just had a senior researcher on the ground doing fact-finding, so when we need additional experience on the ground, we bring it in. We use these resources together. Ultimately, we work on the same issues as we did before, with the same methodology, the same rigor. And I do it from the outside. Sometimes with technological means, often times taking the field reports from my team, reviewing, going through them and doing the legal analysis in conjunction with them. We find ways to keep doing the work at Human Rights Watch. I’m just a part of it.

Reports from Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, Amnesty and others are a huge help to those who are chipping away, working away as members of the grassroots, civil society movement to insist on human rights and justice for Palestinians. How did this play a part in HRW producing “A Threshold Crossed”? 

We were cognizant of [our role]. Obviously, we had to reach our conclusions on our own terms, based on our own methodology. But we were cognizant that many people were [raising apartheid] and were paying a price for doing so, and that it wasn’t part of the mainstream conversation. We made the apartheid determination because it is the accurate conclusion, it is what our research showed. But we also felt that it could help to normalize and advance the conversation.

What’s the unfinished business for HRW?

Unfortunately, everything is unfinished. Right now on the ground we’re facing a situation of unprecedented repression. Though there has been a shift in the narrative that is discernible, we actually have to translate that into action, to dismantle apartheid, to end the closure of Gaza, to ensure accountability for serious abuses, to prevent what we just saw in Gaza from repeating over and over again, to stop settlements, to dismantle settlements, and end arbitrary torture by Palestinian authorities, by Israeli authorities. For us, unfortunately the work is all pretty much unfinished business.

Speak of your personal loss in not being there, on the ground.

I hesitate to answer that question because I’m not Palestinian. I think of today, the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the millions of refugees who, like their grandparents and parents, never had the chance to return to the country they are from. I can’t speak of loss, because I had the privilege of living 2 ½ years there and that’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life…. But what I will say, it’s still hard because I developed deep relationships and connections. I love the place, I love the people, and there was no more joy and honor I had than working every day with Palestinians, Israelis and other human rights defenders. It’s very hard to not be on the ground with them. It’s hard to do it from the outside. Ultimately those are the cards I was dealt. We’re going to do the best we can. We’re in a fight for ensuring that there’s a better future for all.

Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)