The Occupied West Bank — In November 2019, following a long legal battle, Israel revoked the work visa and deported Human Rights Watch (HRW) director Omar Shakir. According to HRW, Israel argued that the state, “revoked the work visa of Shakir, a United States citizen, in May 2018 on the assertion that his advocacy violated a 2017 law that bars entry to people who advocate a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank.”
HRW claims that this is not true and that the organization does not call for the boycott of Israel. On their website, they do claim, however, that, “Human Rights Watch urges businesses to stop operating in illegal settlements as part of their global duty to avoid complicity in human rights abuses.”
The case went all the way to Israel’s highest court which found that the position held by HRW regarding Israeli settlements constitutes grounds for deportation. The decision describes Human Rights Watch’s research on the activities of businesses, including the global tourism companies Airbnb and Booking.com, as “boycott-promoting activities.”
The truth is that HRW does recommend that businesses cease operations in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to Judge Tamar Bazak-Rapoport, Israel’s anti-boycott law does not distinguish between boycotts directed at Israel and those directed only at West Bank settlements.
At a recent event in Ramallah to commemorate International Palestine Solidarity Day, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hirsh of Neturei Karta, weighed in on the ruling, saying to a group of Palestinians and liberal Israelis that:
The talk regarding the illegality of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank is irrelevant. This is because not only those settlements are a violation of international law, but the entire Zionist state is a violation of international law. Therefore the only thing that can stop the occupation is a global economic boycott of the Zionist state.”
A Weak Argument
The argument made by Judge Rapoport echoes what has been defacto reality in Israel since 1967: there is no West Bank, instead, the region is called Judea and Samaria, which are legitimate parts of the State of Israel.
Israel does not recognize that there are settlements that are “illegal” and ones that are legal because the official Israeli line is that Jews have a right to reside anywhere within the Land of Israel, and that includes Judea and Samaria.
The region that was once universally recognized as the West Bank is now officially the Judea and Samaria district, according to Israel. As an example, the Israeli police established the Shai District (Shai is the acronym in Hebrew for Shomron & Yehuda, or Samaria and Judea), in 1994. On their website, which is in Hebrew only, it says that the district is the second in size within the Israeli police force, but it is the first in “sensitivity.” Sensitivity meaning security issues and clearly the reader will understand that they are speaking of the Arabs who reside within the district.
According to the site, the Shai district includes one hundred and twenty colonies, which are in fact cities and towns for Jews only. It contains three municipalities, twelve local councils, and six regional councils. It should come as no surprise that none of the countless cities and towns and villages that exist within that region and in which close to three million Palestinians reside are included on that list. In order to ensure the safety and security of the residents (Jewish residents), the website reads, the police district has to work alongside the army and the Shabak, or the secret police.
All this to say that the inclusion of Israeli settlements and colonies within Judea and Samaria into Israel, those same settlements that HRW refers to as “illegal,” is complete.
Israel vs. the “occupation”
The view taken by the Israeli courts regarding the deportation of Omar Shakir is, in fact, an honest assessment of the situation. Tel-Aviv is largely an illegal settlement sitting on the destroyed Palestinian city of Yafa. The same goes for many, if not most, of the Israeli neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The cities of Akka, Tabariya, Safad, Lydd, Ramle – to mention a few – all had a sizeable Palestinian population that was forcibly expelled and now Israeli Jews have taken their lands and their homes. Israeli colonies, stretching from Al-Jaleel in the north to the Naqab in the south, sit on lands taken by force from Palestinians. They are the same as the cities and towns built in what used to be the West Bank, a geopolitical entity that no longer exists.
The only remnant from the pre-1967 Israel is the quasi citizenship status held by the Palestinians who reside in the pre-1967 boundaries. While Israeli Jews are full-fledged citizens regardless of where they reside, the status of Palestinians is determined by their place of residence: 1948, Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria or Gaza.
The concern within Israel is that, if HRW calls for a boycott of certain colonies, what will stop them from calling a boycott on the others? The argument made by HRW, and its denial of the claim that it calls for boycott, did not hold up in Israeli court and for good reason. It is an argument has no merit in the reality that exists in Palestine.
Trying to separate “Israel Proper” from the “occupation” is an exercise in futility. So the question is, why does HRW, and many other organizations for that matter, still treat some settlements as illegal and not others? Furthermore, Israel clearly states that a call for the boycott of any Israeli settlement is to call for a boycott of Israel, why call on business to cease working in Judea and Samaria but not in other parts of Palestine?
What is perhaps the most crucial question of them all, if indeed Human Rights Watch is serious about its claims of Israeli human rights violations, why does it not endorse the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions known as BDS?
The approach that maintains that there is a legitimate Israel, and an occupation that is a separate entity, is the line held by liberal Zionist groups that are sometimes called “Zionist Left.” It is, however, a false assertion. There is but one Israel, it is an apartheid regime that governs all of historic Palestine and anyone who opposes it must call for a boycott. Calling to boycott only some of it is tantamount to saying that racism and violence are acceptable within certain boundaries.
At the event in Ramallah where Rabbi Hirsh spoke, other Israelis were present. They disrupted and heckled the Rabbi to a point where the Palestinian host had to stop and reprimand the Israelis and ask them to demonstrate respect, as it was they who decided on the speakers. What troubled the members of the Zionist “Left” who were present was that Rabbi Hirsh stated that not only are Judea and Samaria settlements are a violation of international law, but that the entire Zionist project is.
The truth hurts.
Feature photo | Omar Shakir, center, a U.S. citizen and employee of Human Rights Watch, stands next to Kenneth Roth before being deported from Israel at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, November 25, 2019. Ammar Awad | Reuters
Miko Peled is an author and human rights activist born in Jerusalem. He is the author of “The General’s Son. Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” and “Injustice, the Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five.”